By Phil Collin, www.armedforcesbowl.com
Pain on the football field can come from a hard hit or a hard fall. Those wounds, for the most part, heal.
Dealing with a 1-11 season is another story, but at California, Coach Sonny Dykes could look around the locker room and take comfort in the knowledge that he had the right players in place to build a program.
Quarterback Jared Goff was a second-generation Golden Bear in the football program. So was linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. Receiver Bryce Treggs is the son of one of the all-time receivers in Cal history.
If anyone was going to learn from a 1-11 season, it was this group.
“When my dad was here, he wasn’t on the best teams,” Nickerson said. “My worst season was 1-11 so he helped me get through that. Last season going 5-7 and being so close to going to a bowl game not being able to do it --- I talk to him every day about football and what’s going on, so he’s helped me a lot throughout my career.”
Hardy Nickerson Sr. was a freshman on Cal’s 1983 team that went 5-5-1, and that was the best record the Bears had in his four seasons. Nickerson went on to play 16 years in the NFL and was selected to five Pro Bowls and was named to the league’s all-decade team of the 1990s.
Goff’s father, Jerry, was an All-America catcher who also punted for the football team. Brian Treggs caught 160 passes in his career.
No one wants to endure an 11-loss season, but that trio has thrived and helped lead a Cal resurgence that brought the team to Tuesday’s Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl against Air Force at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
“I think it’s helped with preparing for important stuff, big games, big athletic events, he’s basically been through all of them,” Goff said of his father, who played Major League baseball for three teams. “He’s been through all the highs, he’s been through all the lows and he’s been able to relate that to me, giving me advice all the time. That’s probably the most helpful part of it.”
A Bay Area native, Goff grew up rooting for the Bears, particularly the teams led by Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch. He graduated high school early to set foot on campus and earn the starting role as a true freshman and has started all 36 games of his career.
He took ownership of helping Cal restore its tradition, but the guidance he received never let that responsibility turn into pressure.
“I felt a little bit responsible for bringing Cal back to prominence, getting back in the national eye and we’ve done that,” Goff said. “I try not to (acknowledge the pressure surrounding him) and that’s something my dad kind of helped me out with as well.
“I just went out there and had fun and didn’t really pay any attention of the pressure or any of that. It was the same game I was playing when I was 7 years old. I simplified it and that’s allowed me to keep my mind on football.”
All Goff has done has set every school passing record. He coaxed the Bears to a 7-5 record in 2015 and their first bowl invitation since 2011.
If anyone knows the importance of following a father who dedicated his life to football, it’s Dykes. His father, Spike, was the longtime coach at Texas Tech.
“Their parents give them perspective, they’ve been through the ups and downs of a college football player,” Dykes said. “They have a big influence on their children, and then also other kids in the program so they’ve been great mentors for a lot of our kids, having gone through it before.”
After their season-ending win over Arizona State, Goff and Nickerson were named team MVPs of offense and defense, respectively. The lessons they took to heart had paid off.
“Going from where we were to where we are now is probably what I’m most proud of,” Goff said. “It has a lot do with the guys around me and the team we have.
“Going 1-11 was not fun and competing to win eight games and being one of the first Cal teams in a long time to win eight games is exciting.”
After that 1-11 season, the Bears came close to ending the bowl drought, but dropped their final three games to finish 5-7, a victory away from postseason eligibility. But to see them smile at the opportunity the 2015 season as presented, you get the feeling they wouldn’t trade the experience.
“It means the world,” Nickerson said. “You talk about all the seniors on this team, the juniors who have been through this and gone through 1-11, the bottom of the bottom, and to finally get to a bowl game and to win some respectable games and go 7-5 in the Pac-12, a deep conference, is huge.
“It’s awesome. My dad never went to a bowl game so I’m excited that I’m the first to got to a bowl game and I’m going to tell him all the great experiences I’ve had. It’s been a great deal for us.”