Piece of Mind

Oregon State both baptized and buried Kevin Riley, but that's not the whole story.

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This story could start with Oregon State and end in Corvallis, but real life, the kind we live every day, isn't so symmetrical.

This story could begin with any number of high points or low points. There were blowouts on the road and victories written in Cardinal red. There were bowl games won and lost, national rankings earned and surrendered.

But this story, like life, is made of the moments in between.

When Kevin Riley remembers his first start against Stanford, he comes up with one memory in particular.

"I threw the ball, terrible throw, and everybody started booing," he says. "And then the next play, I threw a 70-yard touchdown to Shane. Everybody started cheering. That's just the way things work out."

Somewhere in the space between the boos and the cheers, you find Kevin Riley.

***

Riley holds a curious place in Cal football history. Everyone knows what he did during his playing days with the Bears. Yet his name was dragged in the mud so often he has come to feel less like a person and more like a symbol for what could have been. He's been loved and hated in almost equal measures.

In recollection, there is a mingling of sentimentality and candor. At times, Riley overflows with optimism ("I feel like if we play Stanford 10 times, we win 10 times"), and other times he is raw with honesty.

"At home games you hear booing in the crowd sometimes," Riley says. "You're like, 'Goddamn it. This sucks.' They just want to win. They just want to do the best. You have to take that in perspective."

He disappointed because people always expected more from him. He was the redshirt freshman who walked into the Bears' 21-0 second quarter deficit in the Armed Forces Bowl and calmly orchestrated a comeback of thrilling proportions. He was 16-of-19 with three touchdowns. He took home the MVP honors. It looked like the beginning of the Riley Era.

But, from then on, the promise he showed only came in glimpses.

"The next year, after the bowl game, I was pretty confident with the way the year ended up," he says. "I was playing well. I think that's the one spring where I really didn't work as hard as I should have.

"It was almost too easy, that whole season, with the team around me. I almost thought the game was too easy."

Riley's biography on Calbears.com calls the 35-27 loss to Maryland in 2008 his "signature game." In it, he passed for over 400 yards on a school-record 58 attempts. That, statistically, was the high point. He finished the year barely completing half of his passes, splitting time with senior Nate Longshore.

"If I had worked harder, I probably would have had a better year and some of those things wouldn't have happened," Riley says. "I think everyone knows about that year, too, with the in and out. I didn't really have much confidence. I don't think Nate had much confidence either. It's just a tough way to play."

Riley was named the outright starter the next year. 2009 was also the year he stopped reading newspapers.

In Cal's eight wins that season, Riley had 15 touchdowns. In their five losses, he had three touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Oregon and USC, he went a combined 27-of-71. Every week he forced himself to move on.

"He brushed it off," says Mike Mohamed, his close friend and roommate. "He put it behind him and kept his sights set on the goal, staying focused and just worrying about the next play and the next game."

Inside, Riley remained calm, but on the outside, the chatter was relentless. The media and the fans panned him. Even his successes were tempered with his failures.

"I played bad in some games," he says. "Those were games where the whole team played bad. Coach said, 'It wasn't all Kevin.' Well, a large part of it was."

This offseason, Riley worked constantly on his shortcomings and when the season started, it seemed as though his moment had finally come. Through two games, he had seven touchdowns and 455 yards. Then, he threw three picks against Nevada. The next few weeks were up-and-down. The specter of inconsistency haunted him always.

"Obviously I think I have potential to play a lot better than I did," Riley says. "I was always working. I don't think it was a matter of not trying to work hard. Some things just didn't go the way they were supposed to, really."

He didn't waste the last throw of his college career, though. As he fell under the weight of what would be a season-ending knee injury, the ball sailed 32 yards and dropped into Marvin Jones' outstretched arms. In the words of Riley, a "dime throw."

But that is not his lasting image. Cal fans of a certain generation will always be able to replay that moment in the 2007 Oregon State game, that "blunder" as Riley calls it. Each year since, he's had to answer questions about it and the tailspin that followed. He never puts much stock in it. Partly because it's in the past but partly - whether he admits it or not - because he doesn't want that single failure to define him.

Hollywood would have scripted it differently. Instead of getting hurt in Corvallis, he might have led a game-winning drive against the Beavers to redeem himself. The Bears might have upset No. 1 Oregon a few weeks later. Riley would have been carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates as the soaring music faded out. But in reality, there is no such ending.

People can act like a 23-year-old quarterback is a hero but, no matter who he is, he's not.

He's just a kid who did his best to sustain the hopes of thousands of strangers.

***

It's been an unseasonably warm November in Berkeley, which reminds Riley of why he came to Cal in the first place.

"Look at this," he says as he gestures to the view of the sunny Campanile and San Francisco beyond. "Only in California."

Cal was his first Pac-10 offer. During his official visit, it was raining in his home state of Oregon and sunny in Berkeley. That, combined with the academics, were extras enough to sell Riley.

"Oh my God, it'll be fine if I don't play a snap," he thought. "I'll get a degree, I'll get a job, and I'll be fine."

He saw the promise then, and he still sees it now.

Riley turns the knobs on his leg brace as he discusses his options. He'll rehab his knee and try to get drafted. If that doesn't work out, he feels ready to join the corporate world.

"I think a little competitive background will be nice." He smiles. "I'm usually pretty good at winning competitions."

Until the season ends, though, Riley will keep one foot in the game. He sits in on quarterback meetings when he can, and he watches morning practice on crutches. Last Saturday, he went around the locker room encouraging his teammates before the game.

The sunset was beautiful that day, and Riley, who is so attuned to the world around him, could not have failed to notice.

The blue sky was streaked with coral clouds, glazing Memorial Stadium gold. Beyond it, the lights of a thousand lives clicked on all across the city.

With each moment that passed, the skyline became a sweeter reminder that the most breathtaking light of the day comes right before the night - and that there is always light again after the dark.

Tags: KEVIN RILEY, CAL FOOTBALL


Katie Dowd covers football. Contact her at [email protected]



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