A group of Cal football players is putting in the time to try to make a difference. But it has nothing to do with touchdowns, interceptions or field goals.
These players are members of the SAGE Mentorship Project, a program started a few years ago that pairs Cal students with elementary school children in Berkeley and Oakland.
The project, devised by former Cal student Alex Velez, is designed to give local elementary school children a college student to follow closely and from whom to seek advice.
When Velez began the program, he thought no group of students would make more of an impact than Cal's football players.
"Before it ever got started, it was by far my biggest goal and dream to get them involved," Velez said. "Some may think it's a bad thing, but in this community much is driven by athletics. Personally, I want to get away from that, but we have to be realistic. That's why I wanted to get these guys involved. They go to schools, and the amount of influence they have is unbelievable. The kids look up to them like they are gods. It's amazing to see."
Velez graduated from Cal last spring and now runs an urban mushroom farm rooted solely in recycled coffee grounds.
His project was embraced by Cal's football program. About 40 players participated last spring and currently 15 are involved.
"It's been a great program for them," coach Jeff Tedford said. "We try to take advantage of every opportunity to do that. I don't force them to do it, but I encourage it. When anything comes to our attention, we like to be involved with it."
It's a modest commitment for the mentors. Each is asked to spend an hour a week with his student.
Linebacker Mike Mohamed spends Thursday afternoons with a fifth-grade boy at Washington Primary School in Berkeley. He is there while his mentee takes part in an after-school program and helps coach and organize basketball games while offering encouragement.
"I'm a little bit of a role model, a little bit of a friend — just somebody he can look up to," Mohamed said. "His dad is a single parent. He doesn't have his mom. I'm sure that's tough at such a young age. I'm just trying to be a good role model for him."
Nose tackle Derrick Hill also mentors a fifth-grade boy at Washington, playing sports, helping him with his schoolwork or "just talking, if he needs to." Hill has a unique perspective on the experience, because he has a 1-year old son of his own.
"I want somebody to teach my son the same things I've been able to help out with," Hill said. "Maybe when my mentee becomes my age, he'll be able to do the same thing for my son that I've been able to do for him. I have a great bond with him. You leave a lasting impression on them. They see the things that you are doing, and they think they can do them in the future."
Velez says "mentors learn more from their mentees then the mentees learn from them," and both Mohamed and Hill acknowledge the value the experience has given them. They say it's made them realize the innocence of childhood and given them a fresh perspective on life.
"It means the world to the mentors," Cal's director of student-athlete development Jon Giesel said. "It's a symbiotic relationship they have with their mentees. There are a lot of benefits that come out of it. It's being able to be there and having an impact on a kid, and just being a positive influence. When you do that, you learn from that, as well."
Indeed, the program can have a profound effect on both mentors and mentees. Giesel said former wide receiver Verran Tucker had his mentee invite him to on an overnight field trip to the State Capitol in Sacramento last year. Both Mohamed and Hill said they expect to continue their relationship with their mentee long after they leave Cal.
The project is well represented by Cal's entire athletic department, not just football. Todd Huber, a former Cal offensive lineman and current student who stopped playing because of knee problems, is the program's vice president in charge of athlete relations. He said every sports program at Cal has gotten involved in the project.
"Kids gravitate toward athletes," Huber said. "We feel athletics are a big part of Cal, and we've made a strong push to incorporate them. You don't know how grateful the kids are until you do it."