LIVING IN THE MOMENT | Jeremiah Masoli’s resiliency has the Ducks flying high once again
By Adam Jude
Appeared in print: Thursday, Nov 5, 2009
Sports: Home: Story
He suddenly found himself in the middle of it all as many in the record crowd poured onto the field, surrounding Oregon’s star quarterback after the historic victory.
Two fans then grabbed Jeremiah Masoli and hoisted him in the air, high above the crowd, right toward the top of the college football universe.
“It was fun. It was a once-in-a lifetime-type thing,” Masoli said of the wild celebration after the Ducks’ 47-20 victory over USC. “I was just embracing the moment. It was great.”
The scene was a stark contrast to another moment, more than four years ago, that he also will probably never forget.
It was Aug. 24, 2005 — Masoli’s 17th birthday — and he was alone, locked inside the Hillcrest Juvenile Hall in San Mateo, Calif., serving out a three-month sentence for his role in several strong-armed robberies.
His future, and his faith, were in doubt. Football, he figured, might be over.
The Ducks trailed by one point when Masoli and the Oregon offense took the field with 2:18 left in the game.
Masoli’s first pass attempt fell awkwardly at the feet of his receiver. Boos rained down from the Autzen Stadium stands, and the quarterback once again seemed as if he might be down for good.
But there he was a minute later, on third down, scrambling 25 yards to the Stanford 8-yard line. Three plays later, LeGarrette Blount scored the game-winning touchdown with six seconds left.
Starting with that 35-28 victory over Stanford on Nov. 8, 2008, the Ducks are 11-1, including last Saturday’s victory over USC that put the Ducks in prime position for their first Rose Bowl berth since 1994.
Oregon (7-1, 5-0 Pac-10) rose to No. 7 in the Associated Press rankings this week, No. 8 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.
Similarly, after totaling nearly 400 yards of offense against the Trojans, Masoli is back in the Heisman Trophy discussion and drawing rave reviews from coaches and teammates.
Oregon’s first game of this final stretch run is Saturday at Stanford, marking a return home for Masoli, who grew up in the Bay Area and later starred at the City College of San Francisco.
From there, in a well-documented rise, he came to Oregon as the fifth quarterback before, in a matter of weeks, taking over as the starter.
This season he’s had to overcome questions about his ability to lead the team and a knee injury some thought was serious enough to end his season.
But before all that, he had to overcome something much greater.
Masoli is unwilling to discuss the details of his guilty plea for the robberies in and around San Mateo, Calif., in 2005, which resulted in his expulsion from Serra High and a stint in the juvenile detention center.
But, speaking in general terms, Masoli acknowledged the significance of his experience in the detention center.
“I definitely grew up quickly,” he said. “Once you go inside, you definitely have to grow up quickly.”
Juvenile court records are closed, but media accounts and a source close to the school confirmed that Masoli was one of several Serra football players arrested in June 2005, and subsequently expelled, for targeting individuals at San Mateo’s Hillsdale Mall and isolated bus stops in the area, muscling them for money.
A respected student and a team captain, Masoli pleaded guilty to robbery, according to the San Francisco Examiner.
Citing California student-privacy laws, Serra football coach Patrick Walsh wouldn’t discuss specifics about Masoli’s involvement with the crimes but did say it had a tremendous effect on the school and the football team.
“Very shocking,” said Walsh, now in his ninth season as the coach at the private, all-boys Catholic school. “It was very difficult on all of us. He was an all-league quarterback, and he just got caught up in something he shouldn’t have.”
Masoli said his family and his faith helped him get through.
“It’s one of those things I was taught when I was little, just to persevere no matter what,” he said. “You just gotta lean on God. That’s really what I was brought up on. Everybody has their bad days, bad weeks, whatever. I just feel like I’m such a strong person because of the people who raised me that I could get through anything.”
He admitted, though, that there were moments his faith waned, moments when he wasn’t sure if he’d be given another chance to play football.
“It’s always tough. There’s temptation everywhere,” he said. “I’m just like any other person on the street.
“It is what it is,” he added. “It’s life, and that’s what happened. And now I’m here and doing this.”
Masoli was named the national offensive player of the week by Walter Camp Football Foundation after the win over USC. He threw for 222 yards, rushed for 164 more and accounted for two touchdowns, and the Ducks amassed 613 yards of total offense.
The criticism he endured at the beginning of the season, and the knee injury he suffered a few weeks earlier, seemed as if they’d happened ages ago as Masoli darted around the field freely.
“We know we’re capable of those kinds of things,” Masoli said. “For it to happen against ’SC was just amazing.”
This week, a handful of prominent Web sites with watch lists for the Heisman now include the 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior quarterback.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who was in Eugene as a host of College GameDay and to broadcast the game, went so far this week to rank Masoli in his top three for the Heisman.
Not that Masoli is paying much attention to his national profile.
“You see it, and you definitely acknowledge it,” he said. “But it’s one of those things (that) you can look at after the season. I mean, you can definitely have patience to wait on it because those are the types of things that get your head big, and we don’t really want that here.”
Keeping a peripheral watch of his former quarterback, Walsh said he’s proud that Masoli has remade himself, and isn’t surprised by his success, or his toughness to come back from the knee injury.
Walsh recalled that in Masoli’s last game of his junior season at Serra, the quarterback broke his left collarbone in the first quarter of a playoff game, but he continued to play, leading the team on a “miraculous” drive for the tying touchdown in the final two minutes, forcing overtime.
“He must’ve been just cringing inside,” said Walsh, who didn’t realize the extent of Masoli’s injury. “I felt horrible. You just don’t play a kid with a broken collarbone. But that just shows the sacrifices he’s willing to make for his team.”
Oregon defensive tackle Simi Toeaina, Masoli’s cousin, attended high school in American Samoa, but he had heard about Masoli’s ascent as the quarterback at Serra High and, then, his sudden dive into crime.
Toeaina, who lives with Masoli now, has also witnessed firsthand how Masoli has rebuilt himself with the Ducks.
“Jeremiah’s story is just amazing,” Toeaina said. “Just from how far he came, the world he came from, it’s just amazing that somebody could get through something like that. At the same time, once he got here, he’s made the most of it.
“The things that happened before definitely have an effect on him now,” he added. “He’s learned how to deal with certain situations and get through adversity.”
UO athletic director Mike Bellotti, the former head coach, said he was aware of Masoli’s past when the Ducks were recruiting him.
“I delved into that,” Bellotti said. “I confronted him immediately about that, and he was fine.
“We have a lot of kids (with a similar history), based on who they hung out with in high school, the kind of crowd they ran with or the environment they were in,” Bellotti added. “And luckily for him in some regards, he removed himself — or his family removed him — from that environment, and it paid dividends.”
Masoli moved with his father to Hawaii and attended St. Louis High in Honolulu, where he was the backup quarterback. (If dismissed from a California school, students are banned from competing in sports at any California school for one year.)
After graduating, he moved back to the Bay Area and attended City College of San Francisco, grayshirting in 2006.
Upon his return to the field, in his first significant role in three years, he shined in 2007, leading the Rams to an undefeated season and a national championship.
“He competed every day, worked hard every day, did everything the way you would want someone to do it,” CCSF coach George Rush said. “Everybody deserves a second chance. … Do you vilify him, or give him a chance to redeem himself? The purpose of our college is to give guys an opportunity, that’s what’s great about the Jeremiah Masoli story — he grabbed the opportunity and didn’t let it go.”
When he first arrived at Oregon, Masoli only acknowledged “getting into a little trouble” in high school.
“No comment,” he said last year, when asked to elaborate. “It was something in my past that helped me be who I am today.”
Still, it’s a comeback story worth telling, and Masoli said he hopes to do so, in some way, by speaking at the John Serbu Youth Campus, a juvenile detention facility across the street from the stadium.
It was at that same facility that Blount, the Ducks’ suspended senior running back, and a dozen other Ducks spoke to a group of troubled teenagers last month.
In the meantime, Masoli this weekend will head back to the Bay Area for a game to be played less than 20 miles from San Mateo. In a way, it’s a chance for him to come full circle.
With a dream of playing in the NFL, he believes he hasn’t quite completed the comeback.
“We gotta half a circle to go still,” he said, smiling. “We’re not done with the circle. … I got too many people anxious to see what I do in the future.”
Oregon vs. Stanford
12:30 p.m. Saturday at Stanford Stadium. TV: FSN. Radio: KUGN-AM (590),KZEL-FM (96.1).