BERKELEY — Mike Tepper had had enough.
He'd had enough of the nightmares, enough of the withdrawals, enough of his parents' contentious divorce, enough of being away from football.
Mike Tepper had had enough of life.
On an October afternoon in 2005, Tepper sat in the coaches' office at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, attempting to finish writing a paper that was due the next day. It was a lost cause. He walked out into the stadium, climbed to the top row of bleachers on the west side and looked out at the picturesque view of the San Francisco Bay.
Tepper felt like jumping over the edge. He felt worthless, helpless and confused.
He needed help. Tepper called his girlfriend, whom he knew was in the middle of her calculus class, to ask her to come to the stadium immediately. She hardly ever answered her cell phone in class. Tepper told himself he might jump if she didn't answer.
This time, she did. A few minutes later, she was sprinting up the steps of the bleachers to Tepper. She found him shaking and emotional, and immediately brought him back to her nearby sorority house.
What could have been the end of Mike Tepper's life became the beginning of his resurrection. It marked the start of a healing process from ailments both mental and physical that could be traced back to a harrowing incident four months earlier.
Tepper, an offensive lineman, had
Tepper and some of his neighbors were walking along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley around 1 a.m. when a group of men in a car stopped and began making flirtatious comments toward Camille Leffall, one of Tepper's friends and a former star for the Bears' women's volleyball team. After Leffall refused the men's advances, the car pulled in front of them in a crosswalk to cut them off.
Tepper and Leffall attempted to walk behind the car, and the driver quickly put it in reverse. That's when Tepper stuck up for his friend.
"I said, 'What the hell? Let us get by,'" Tepper said recently during a lengthy interview in an empty Memorial Stadium. "That's when I got in an argument with the passenger. Words were said back and forth. I was leaning down to talk to him because he was leaning out the window. All I saw was the driver put the car in reverse and push down on the pedal."
Tepper didn't have time to react before he felt the car's right front tire run over his ankle. He went flying backward, pushing Leffall out of the way in the process. His foot got caught in the car's wheel well, and he was dragged until he grabbed hold of a metal grid on the road. That enabled him to dislodge his foot from the car. But the driver reversed course and ran over Tepper again, this time over his calf.
"The whole life flashing before your eyes definitely happened," said Tepper, now a sixth-year senior with the Bears. "I saw the people that mattered most in my life."
With that, the car sped away. An off-duty Berkeley police officer was just a block away and she called for help. The suspects were chased by police and ultimately crashed into a parked car. The driver of the car, John Ray Smith, was out on parole and eventually reached a plea agreement and was returned to prison.
Tepper had a broken leg and torn ligaments in his ankle. He knew he couldn't play football for a while. He just wanted to be able to walk again.
"I remember just laying in the street facedown in the most excruciating pain," Tepper said. "I was lying in a puddle of blood that went from my ankle to my hip. I pulled my hand up and it looked like I had dipped it in a bucket of paint."
Tepper had surgery two days after the incident and soon began the arduous task of rehabilitation. To help him recover, doctors prescribed Percocet, a pain relief medication. Tepper said within three weeks, he was "hooked" on the drug.
"I was like your standard heroin or cocaine addict who doesn't have his pills and scratches himself or gets all fidgety," Tepper said. "I was having withdrawals. It came to a point where I flushed them down the toilet. There were moments when I'd wake up, and I'd be all fidgety and could feel myself needing it. I would grab a bottle I had, but it would be empty, and I'd throw it against the wall."
Tepper said he had to stop taking the drug for the side effects to end. He managed that, but there was more heartache in the near future. His motorcycle was stolen from in front of his house in July, then in September he was summoned to testify against his mother during his parents' divorce trial.
"My parents were going through a pretty filthy divorce," Tepper said. "I had to slam a parent, which isn't fun. Picture a 19-year-old kid whose life isn't going very well sitting 25 feet from his parents who are going through a divorce and essentially having to say that my mom's case isn't holding any weight. It was a crumby situation to be in."
Tepper said he didn't speak with his mother, Elaine, for several months after that, and it took a while for them to renew their relationship.
Shortly after his court appearance, Tepper bought a new motorcycle, only for it to be stolen four days later.
All along, Tepper was having recurring nightmares about the night on Telegraph Avenue. He would wake up in a cold sweat, shaking. Then he would have trouble falling back asleep. He found himself dozing off in class. His grades started to suffer.
The boiling point
He finally reached his boiling point that day in October, just before Halloween. After his girlfriend, who declined to be interviewed or identified for this story (they since have split up,), brought Tepper back to her house, former academic coordinator Mark Jensen counseled him. He and Tepper had formed a close relationship, in and out of football.
"He was extremely distraught and obviously upset," said Jensen, who was a kicker at Cal from 1998-2002 and now does academic consulting. "If you know Mike, he is about the happiest guy on earth. When you see an emotion other than a smile with Mike, you know something is going on."
Jensen did two things. He immediately arranged to have Tepper withdraw from school for the remainder of that semester, and he hooked him up with Dr. Bill Coysh, a psychologist from the school's University Health Services.
"There was no way he could continue the semester with the condition he was in," Jensen said. "Those circumstances were very extreme. Every year, you're going to see the gamut. But when you combine multiple things, it can be very hard for a guy. I knew if I could remove one or two of those things, he could regroup and get where he needs to be."
With the pressure of school and football no longer weighing on him, the healing process began. Tepper saw Coysh three or four times a week for four months. The nightmares became less severe, and he started sleeping better. He also began thinking about playing football again as he continued to rehab his ankle.
"A penny doesn't weigh that much, but if you dropped a penny in a jar every time something happened, suddenly that jar weighs a lot," Tepper said. "That's what was on my shoulders. At that point in October, that was the breaking point where that jar cracked, and it all came falling down on me. But when I withdrew from school, I reached into that jar and pulled out a bunch of pennies."
Tepper worked hard at his rehabilitation and was able to participate in spring practice in 2006. He ended up playing in all 13 games that season, starting two. The following season, he started every game at right tackle.
"At some point, it's not about if he's coming back to play but more about his well-being and how he's coping with the situation," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "When you're going through those types of things, sometimes it's very difficult to concentrate on things, and you need a break."
By 2008, Tepper was regarded as a late-round prospect for the NFL draft. But then another setback: While lifting weights shortly after spring practice, Tepper tore his pectoral muscle. He was forced to sit out another season.
"The thing I always tell him is to just stay on the football field. It's about the only place he doesn't get hurt," joked Tepper's father, Gus. "He gets hurt everywhere else. If we can keep him on the field, I think he'll be fine."
The pectoral injury seemed trivial compared with the dark times of 2005. Tepper, a self-anointed "partial comedian," seemed to shrug off the latest setback as a minor nuisance.
"He's a guy that isn't going to be kept down," Cal head athletic trainer Ryan Cobb said. "He rolls with it. That makes it fun to work with him."
Still, Tepper was concerned about his long-term future. There were no guarantees the NCAA would grant him an extra year of eligibility. It would be harder to make an NFL roster as a free agent.
Then in January, while visiting Disneyland with some friends, Tepper received the call from Tedford that the NCAA had granted him a sixth year of athletic eligibility. Tepper knew the verdict would be coming that day, and said he "wanted to be at Disneyland because it's the happiest place on earth."
Tepper is both physically and mentally healthy now and ready to take over for departed center Alex Mack as the leader of the offensive line. Tepper looked sharp during the Bears' spring practice, which recently ended, and says he's never been more appreciative of the chance to play football.
"I grew from it. I lost time. It was a tough time in my life," Tepper said. "I learned a lot from (the 2005 season) and this past season, too. It was a positive. It's over now. I can laugh about it now."