Iron Man

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On the very first play of the very first game of what was supposed to be the Cal football team’s coming-out season, the game that turned into the Flop at Rocky Top, the Bears lost one of their most crucial pieces—All-Pac-10 tight end Craig Stevens.

As soon as the man named the Bears’ toughest player by head coach Jeff Tedford hit the ground, so did Cal’s chances of overcoming Tennessee and its 100,000-plus screaming fans at Neyland Stadium.

“Craig’s an all-conference tight end so any time you lose your tight end on the first play of the game, it’s bound to have an effect,” says Tedford.

On the opening kickoff, Stevens was knocked to the turf with a concussion and missed the remainder of the 35-18 loss, unable to block for Heisman-hopeful Marshawn Lynch and unable to help out quarterback Nate Longshore—making his first start in over a year—with his sure hands.

“It was just two of us, really aggressive, going at each other and I just got the worst of it,” says Stevens. “I had my head turned a little bit and he came right down the middle at me.”

Without Stevens to lead Lynch, the junior tailback gained just 74 yards on 12 carries, his lowest total of the season. Longshore completed 11-of-20 passes for just 85 yards and no touchdowns before being relieved by senior Joe Ayoob.

“The backups did a good job, but Craig’s a great player,” says Tedford. “He’s really good at the point of attack, and he catches the ball well, understands the offense really well, so yeah, it’ll be nice to have him this year. He won’t be on kickoff return, let’s put it that way.”

After Stevens recovered, Tedford took him off the kickoff team, though he still saw action on the punt team. But originally, Stevens was not even supposed to start the game on kickoff return, that is, until the last day of fall camp.

“Julian Arthur was the guy on kickoff return and he ended up getting hurt the last day of camp—he cut his leg or something,” says Stevens. “We had switched it up, and I was always the backup and I ended up going in.”

There but for the flip of a coin go the Bears. Not that Cal would have certainly defeated the Volunteers that Saturday had Stevens been in, but the game likely would have been closer. Despite circumstances that seem to have conspired to knock Stevens out of that game—the freak injury, the one-time start on kickoff—he doesn’t blame fate or luck for his injury. To him, it was just football.

“I had been a right end my whole career as a redshirt freshman and a sophomore, so that was my spot,” says Stevens.

After missing the rest of the Tennessee game, Stevens was shaken up for another week or two before he was able to return to full-time duty.

“It was frustrating not being out there,” says Stevens. “In two other games I didn’t really get to play a whole bunch, and I missed practice.”

Despite missing time, he ended up having a career year, helping the Bears to 10 100-yard rushing games and two 300-yard passing games. He caught a career-high 17 passes for a career-high 239 yards and scored one touchdown.

This season looks even more promising for the senior, as he has landed a spot on the John Mackey Award Watch List, the award given annually to the nation’s top tight end.

This Saturday, Stevens will embark on his final season with one last home opener, against that same Tennessee team, a game that Cal has been feverishly preparing for over the offseason.

“We’ve been up here every day,” says Stevens of the Bears' summer routine. “Our team did a good job this whole summer, real good attendance, lifting, seven-on-seven drills, stuff like that.”

Now, instead of the 100,000-plus fans clad in orange and white, Cal will be playing in front of a sellout crowd in Strawberry Canyon, with all of the noise and pent-up frustration that Bears fans have been saving for an entire year.

“We need to play more physical, execute better,” says Stevens. “I think (having the game at home) will definitely help, have our fans get loud and rowdy and cheer for us and flip the coin a little bit.”

Despite what some would think, Stevens isn’t looking for revenge on the player who hit him. He admitted, there was nothing dirty about the play. It was just a good, clean tackle.

“There’s no revenge,” says Stevens. “It’s part of the game.”

The most perturbing thing about the hit was that it was Stevens’ first trip to the injured list. But this year, he will be there, healthy and ready to catch passes from a more-confident Longshore and block for the stable of running backs headlined by senior Justin Forsett.

“It was the first time I’d gotten injured in my career, so it’s frustrating,” says Stevens. “But I’m ready to get back out there and I’m excited to play Tennessee.”

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