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Meeting The Challenge

Dec 21, 2020

When Michael Saffell first agreed to take over the Cal Athletics Summer Reading Challenge, he never thought jumping jacks would be part of the job description.

Saffell, who began spearheading the program last year after creator Patrick Laird graduated and moved on to the NFL, was forced to shift operations to 100 percent virtual last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Saffell was forced to visit Bay Area classrooms via Zoom rather than the in-person appearances he made last year.

"It's really hard on Zoom, but I tried to do a little bit of 'Simon Says' or have everyone stand up and do some jumping jacks, just to try to get the energy up," Saffell said. "If you can get them out of breath, they'll listen a little better. I had to get those kids riled up."

Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the challenge was another success this year, with much of the credit going to Saffell's creativity and resourcefulness. Saffell expanded the program to have some of his teammates as well as student-athletes from other sports post read-alongs on YouTube and other social media platforms. He estimated he was still able to visit about 20 classes on Zoom.

Saffell, who carries a 3.62 GPA and graduated this month from the prestigious Haas School of Business, is a semifinalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, given annually to the football student-athlete who best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.

The three finalists for the award are scheduled to be announced Tuesday.

"I was really happy that Mike took the initiative, because he could have easily given up because of COVID," said Laird, the former Cal running back who is now in his second season with the Miami Dolphins. "He could have decided to push it off or postpone it until next year. Even with all of the challenges of COVID, he was able to connect with kids. I was really happy with how he went about it."

Laird created the challenge before his senior season in 2018 and it was wildly successful. Schoolchildren in grades 1-6 were challenged to read a certain number of books during the summer and earn free tickets to a Cal football game. Laird visited over 25 classes and participants earned 3,500 tickets.

Saffell became the ambassador for the program last year and made the rounds to areas classrooms himself, with more Cal football tickets being handed out to young readers.

"Last year, getting to experience in-person visits and the kids' excitement when we were on campus, it made it a lot easier to engage with kids that age, obviously," Saffell said. "This year was definitely more difficult. But we still got a good amount of sign-ups. I'm proud of the work that we got to do. We knew it was a needed thing during the pandemic. Kids needed resources online to get access to books and to read."

Along with his teammates, student-athletes from lacrosse and women's swimming also made video read-alongs for the summer program. Saffell also conducted a video interview with Cal chancellor Carol Christ, where they discussed their favorite books and love of reading.

"That was a dream come true," Saffell said. "That's someone who I really admire. She's a celebrity in my mind. Some of the books she was talking about were right over my head."

Saffell also had the summer's focus on racial injustice in mind for this year's challenge. He strived for more minority representation, and was happy that teammate Josh Drayden, who is African American, did a read-along about civil rights activist Ruby Bridges.

"When someone like Josh Drayden speaks about what race means to him, and reading, these kids can say, 'That guy looks like me,' and I want to go to Cal'," Saffell said.

Saffell graduated from the Haas School of Business in three and a half years and is a Pac-12 All-Academic selection, but he never came to Berkeley with designs to study business. He had his sights set on medical school before he observed many other student-athletes thriving in the competitive business program.

"Mike is an extremely competitive individual," said Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan, who went through the Haas School with Saffell. "He's very focused. He's very intense. He's very diligent, whether we're talking about school or about football. He puts in the extra hours to study for a test, or he puts in the extra hours to study film for games. He brings the same approach to everything that he's doing."

Saffell's business school experience has inspired him to continue his education. Saffell has been admitted to Cal's Master's of Information and Data Science program, which he will attend next fall and continue to play for the Bears.

Saffell's interest for data science was piqued last summer when he took a business analytics class from Haas professor Dr. Richard Huntsinger. Saffell called Huntsinger at the end of the course, and they ended up having multiple discussions about a career path in the field.

"He told me afterward that he got so excited about it, he wanted to know if it was possible to make a living doing this," Huntsinger said. "He definitely has the aptitude and the spirit for it. He stood out in my class. I knew him right away because he would ask lots of questions. He has sort of an over the top personality, in a very positive, engaging way."