Justin Forsett - A Season All His Own
This story originally appeared in Cal's Kickoff Game Progam on Sept. 1, 2007.
By Patrick J. Merrill '01
Justin Forsett has been working toward this day since, well, last year's 45-14 Holiday Bowl win over Texas A&M, in which he ran for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Yes, that's right, working. Not waiting. Working - and rather hard. The senior who inherited the marquee running back position took just three days off after Spring Camp. Three days.
While many college players throughout the nation took time off from football, relaxing, visiting with friends and family, taking vacations, Forsett was back at work. Hard at work. 'You want to go out,' Forsett confessed earlier this fall. 'When everyone is taking a vacation, it's hard, but this is my last year and to be so close, there's nothing else I'd rather do during my summer than workout and do the best I can, to not have any regrets.'
'Coming through that tunnel, with over 70,000 fans screaming, there's nothing like it. I'm a Cal Bear until I die.'
By close, Forsett meant starting for the Bears, a position that has never been solely his. Yes, Forsett has started before, but during his first three years at Cal, the 5-8 Florida native with two years of Texas high school football experience has had to play a complimentary role beside Strawberry Canyon standouts J.J. Arrington and Marshawn Lynch.
Those weren't just any two backs either. Arrington recorded the most single-season yards in school history (2,018 yards) during Forsett's first year on campus. Lynch followed by capturing the third and fourth spots on Cal's single-season list over the next two years, rushing for 1,246 yards and 1,356 respectively during Forsett's sophomore and junior seasons. Both are now in the NFL.
That's a tough act to follow by anyone's standards. But what most observers around Memorial Stadium didn't realize, Forsett himself included, is that during Forsett's first three seasons at Cal, he tallied 1,674 career rushing yards. No. 10 on the Bears' all-time rushing list is John Tuggle, who put up 1,813 yards between 1979 and 1982.
While sharing time with Arrington and Lynch, Forsett has quietly inched up the all-time list and now sits just 139 yards away from breaking into Cal's Top-10 despite starting just four games. For those wondering, Forsett is just 516 yards shy of the No. 9 spot (held by Lindsey Chapman), 582 yards short of Reynard Rutherford's No. 8 position, 830 yards off No. 7 John Olszewski and a very reachable 951 yards from No. 6, J.J. Arrington.
How'd he do it? Consistency and hard work. Lots of it.
'I've always viewed him as a starter,' commented running backs coach Ron Gould, now in his eleventh season with the Bears. 'He just performs at that level. As a freshman, I couldn't believe his maturity. He focuses in and does all the little things that we ask him to do in order to be successful. He's a coach's dream in a lot of ways.'
Despite all his natural talent and some very impressive numbers in his last two years at Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas, during which he won back-to-back state championships while rushing for nearly 5,000 yards, Forsett was not initially recruited by California.Notre Dame was seriously courting Forsett and it seemed to all that he'd be wearing green come signing day. So much so that Forsett wasn't even on Cal's radar. But that day didn't come - Bear fans should be grateful. Very grateful.
'Justin is an awesome guy. He's the guy that you would want your son to grow up to be like; he's so well-rounded, a great teammate and a great leader. He is just a great person to have on the team.'
The stars lined up in California's favor thanks to another legendary Cal running back, Chuck Muncie. After seeing Forsett's skills, Muncie forwarded a Forsett highlight tape to Coach Gould. 'My first thought was that something must be wrong with this kid,' remembered Gould. 'He was too good to be true. Once I had a chance to talk to him face-to-face, I knew he was a special kid.'
Forsett roomed with Arrington during his visit to campus and immediately things felt right for 'Tex,' as his teammates later nicknamed him. 'Everything happens for a reason. Coming here for the first time, I knew it was the spot,' Forsett remembered. 'I didn't think it could get any better. The people surrounding me, they were all down to earth people. I just felt right at home.'
And a good home it's proven to be for Forsett, who immediately connected with head coach Jeff Tedford's family-oriented environment around the program.
'Justin is an awesome guy,' Tedford said. 'He's the guy that you would want your son to grow up to be like; he's so well-rounded, a great teammate and a great leader. He is just a great person to have on the team.'
Three years later, it is now Forsett's team to lead, his season to shine. The moment, and the responsibility, is not lost on him. That's why he only took off those three days.
'I've been working on everything I could to become a better back,' said Forsett. 'Lifting, running, stretching, flexibility, explosion, Pilates, everything you could think of.'
All of that off-season work added up to 15 additional pounds of muscle. 'Everyone's going to look at him and say he's small,' said Gould, 'but he's a lot stronger than he's ever been. He knows his body and he did what he felt he needed to do to be successful this year. His desire to be a great player is second to none.'
Forsett understands what's expected of him. He expects it of himself as well. And more.
After a 999-yard sophomore season and 626 yards last year, Forsett now finds himself the No. 1 running back in the country in yards per carry (6.39) with six 100-yard games already under his belt. 'This system is very good for a running back,' said Forsett. 'You get a lot of opportunities to have the ball in your hands and the offensive line has been awesome, which makes it pretty easy.'
Compiling the kind of yards Forsett has in the Pac-10 is never easy, but he has benefited from some very talented linemen, including the likes of current NFL players Aaron Merz, Ryan O'Callaghan and Marvin Philip. As well as current Golden Bears such as All-American center Alex Mack and all-conference tackle Mike Gibson.
'He's a fun running back to block for,' said Mack. 'Justin is a quick back and always reads the holes well. Whatever hole we give him, he's going to hit it hard.'
Forsett's off-season regimen did not just include off-the-field activities. The entire Bear offense followed his lead and conducted informal workouts on the turf of Memorial Stadium regularly this summer. That has given Forsett and the offensive linemen the opportunity to learn what each other are looking for and prepare. But Mack is also quick to point out that as an offensive line, they won't be changing much from last year.
'We just go out there and try to dominate and push people around,' explained Mack, somewhat humbly for the Rimington Award candidate. 'Justin's a very positive running back and we're planning on opening up some big holes for him.'
Big holes are exactly what Forsett will be looking to take advantage of in California's season-opener today against Tennessee. In what is unquestionably the biggest game of the weekend, No. 12 California and Forsett are ready to show the country what California Football can do when the spotlight shines in Memorial Stadium.
'We want to go out and show that we can play with anybody,' said Forsett. 'That wasn't us, the real Cal Bears, down in Tennessee [last year].'
Everyone is aware of what's at stake. But for Forsett, running through the north tunnel and onto the field Saturday will carry added significance. It will be the beginning of the end, the first game of his senior season, a time to reflect as much as it will be to focus, to remember all the work he's put in over the past three years to give himself this opportunity.
'It went by so fast,' reflected Forsett. 'Coming through that tunnel, with over 70,000 fans screaming, there's nothing like it. I'm a Cal Bear until I die.'