Monday, July 11, 2011

"The Show"

The launch of the new Aggie Legacy Award, the first of which went to Boise State head football coach and former UC Davis quarterback Chris Petersen, has prompted me to keep a watchful eye on what kind of athletics-related pursuits our student-athletes enter after turning in their blue and gold uniforms.

Right now, that's easy to do.

All things considered, current fans live in a relatively thrilling time when it comes to seeing recent Aggies heading into the professional ranks. Daniel Descalso, who roamed the Dobbins Stadium infield from 2005 to 2007, became the first UC Davis alum to bat in a major league game last September. Two-time All-American Scott Gordon emerged from last December's Q-school with his PGA Tour card, becoming the first Aggie to achieve that goal. MMA fan favorite Urijah Faber, who held the WEC featherweight title for two years, looks to square off for a third time with UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz after falling just shy of the title earlier this month.

Extend this list to include one Mark Grieb, who at 37 years old continues to rank among Arena Football leaders in most passing categories. (High on the same lists is former Sacramento State QB Aaron Garcia, which means the Causeway Classic rivalry extends to the 50-yard turf). On the full-sized grid, Daniel Fells posted career highs of 41 receptions and 391 yards last fall, appearing in all 16 games (with six starts). Add 10 yards and subtract a down, and you'll find Bakari Grant looking to make a splash with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. And this is American football: when discussing the sport of football as it is known to the rest of the world, Quincy Amarikwa has appeared in 15 contests for Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids. Last year, he helped his team capture the MLS Cup.

Who else?

Recent grads and well-known BFFs Mark Payne and Joe Harden had our entire department following the NBA draft a few weeks ago. ("Time theft? No, this falls under 'other duties as assigned.'") Golfer Austin Graham crushed the rest of the field at the Gateway Tour's CA Series 2 tournament last week. That's right, crushed. He shot 63-65-62 for three rounds, beating his nearest competitor by 14 strokes. The only time I've heard of such domination on the links was on a PlayStation.

Stay posted on those three individuals, as I suspect we have only begun to hear of their professional sports exploits.

At risk of stretching the premise a tad, I hereby submit two honorable mentions. First, being a huge poker fan, I scanned the chip counts at this year's World Series of Poker for Will Haydon, a member of the Aggie golf team in 2005-06. He scored a mid-sized cash in the $2,500 six-max no-limit hold 'em event -- the very tournament in which he won a WSOP bracelet a summer ago. Secondly, in a more sports-related venue, former UC Davis golfer Brittany Smith and hurdler Natalie (Russell) Smith form two thirds of the "California Girls" team on ABC's hit reality show "Expedition Impossible: Morocco."

For those furrowing their eyebrows at these last two inclusions as not truly being sports-related, well, you're mostly right. But the WSOP is slated for 32 prime-time hours on ESPN during this summer and fall. As for Expedition Impossible, in the episode I saw, the competitors rode wild Arabian horses across the North African terrain. Which would cause more soreness, a seven-mile trek atop an animal once bred for war, or the business end of a Urijah Faber guillotine choke? I couldn't survive either ordeal, and feel the need to pop an Advil just thinking about it.

So why this verbose exercise in Where-Are-They-Now column curiosity?

For starters, 'tis the season for class reunions, and I enjoy imagining the conversations these experiences must elicit at such events:

"Long time, no see. How's work treating you?"
"Not bad. Finally earned my promotion, moved to the big city, got an office with a window. How 'bout yourself?"
"Same idea. Earned my promotion, moved to the big city, got a triple off Tim Lincecum."
"Yeah, can't complain. I got an upgraded dental plan, too."

More importantly, as I did my usual June/July project of updating the various record books, I caught myself looking at the Aggies In The Pros section of our football media guide. The first words on that page read, "Drafted in 1983, the Year of the Quarterback..." Until now, it never clicked with me that 1983 brought three notable firsts regarding UC Davis athletes in the professional ranks.

Of course, the above passage refers to Ken O'Brien, who on April 26 became the first Aggie ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Four other Aggies played in the league during the previous year: Mike Moroski (Atlanta), Rolf Benirschke (San Diego), Casey Merrill (Green Bay) and Jeff Allen (San Diego). Of that group, the highest pick had been Merrill, a fifth-round grab in 1979.

Almost exactly two months later, the Kansas City Kings picked UC Davis' own Preston Neumayr in the eighth round. (Yes, kids... in those days, the NBA Draft went 10 rounds.) To date, he remains the only Aggie player to be drafted by an NBA team. Other late-round choices that year: Manute Bol went in the fifth, and Sedale Threatt heard his name in the sixth. And for you real trivia buffs, the 68th overall pick in 1983 was Craig Robinson, head coach at Oregon State and the brother-in-law of some guy currently residing in a large white house in Washington, D.C.

Then on August 1 of that year, California Angels right-hander Steve Brown started on the mound against Minnesota. He surrendered 11 hits and gave way to reliever Rick Steirer in the fifth, but it was a significant moment in UC Davis athletics history: Brown became the first Aggie to reach the major leagues. He would be the last until Descalso earned the call to the big club last September.

I must reiterate: this was 1983. Back then, UC Davis athletics was a Division II non-scholarship program. The women's teams had wrapped up just their second year in Division II, with half of their athletes having competed in the AIAW Division III. One sport, women's soccer, was brand-new. So while the Aggies had enjoyed a substantial amount of success, we were in many respects still budding as a program. Thus, to hit those three milestones in such a short amount of time stood -- and still stands -- as a singular achievement.

As for me? I was 11 years old in 1983. Is there any age at which a child is more impressionable when it comes to following sports? Think about it -- whatever team you now consider your favorite, when did you truly become a fan? (Note: Actually, I'd love to hear these memories -- please fill out the comment box below.)

My father took me to my first Aggie basketball game in early 1978, the year Recreation Hall (now Pavilion) opened its doors. I attended my first UC Davis football game in 1981, and sat with my Dad for several games during the magical 1982 season. By the following fall, O'Brien/Neumayr/Brown had achieved their feats and -- perhaps not coincidentally -- I became enamored with the Aggies. Enamored? Hooked. My father had to double his season ticket purchase to four, just to satisfy his son's new fix. My brother and I sat one row up, learning the various songs of the Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh (for which he later played the trumpet). I used to eagerly await the mimeographed "Quickie" stat sheets that passed from hand to hand through the west bleachers.

Much of the excitement stirring in that 11-year-old kid stemmed from three UC Davis student-athletes making the show in their respective sports. Today, with so many former Aggies making headlines in their respective arenas, I like to think that somewhere in the stands, a youngster has become stricken with the same fever that caught me oh so many years ago. And I hope that he or she is instilled with the same desire to eat, sleep and breathe Aggie athletics -- so much so that a lifelong devotion is born. Oh, I'm not saying this child will pursue a career in athletics communications, but...

Kid, if you're reading this, I'll leave the key to the press box in the top drawer.

- Mark Honbo, now the assistant director for UC Davis athletics communications, sat in the end zone when Ken O'Brien hit Allen Fleming for that 91-yard touchdown against Northern Michigan in the 1982 playoffs. He just got his voice back yesterday.

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