Perhaps the moment that epitomizes Patrick Laird’s career as Cal’s running back wasn’t one of his 19 all-purpose touchdowns, eclipsing 1,000 yards in a season or busting loose for a 73-yard touchdown run — though all were memorable.
It was a fourth-and-1 play at the Los Angeles Coliseum in November against USC when the Mission Prep grad was handed the ball to try to clinch the game.
Laird was among five Cal walk-ons on the field, playing for the program that previously featured future NFL stars Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch and Desean Jackson.
Calling the play pure “grit and determination,” he plowed 14 yards to seal a 15-14 win, Cal’s first against the Trojans in 14 years.
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“They had four five-star recruits on the other side of the ball,” Laird told The Tribune. “It was our in-state rival, and instead of punting in that situation, our coach decided to go for it. We all just felt an overwhelming feeling of happiness afterward.
“It’s the play I’ll probably always remember.”
As perhaps as unlikely as that play, it would have been difficult to predict Laird’s success in Berkeley.
Despite rushing for more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in high school, earning The Tribune’s County Player of the Year in 2013, Laird wasn’t a top recruit.
Laird came from a small school of 320 students, had no scholarship offer to play for the Bears and wondered how he might fit in as a walk-on.
Flash forward five years, and the unassuming running back — at 6-foot, 205 pounds — has become an indispensable member of a team that at 7-5 has secured its first winning record since 2015 — rushing for 932 yards and five touchdowns and amassing 291 yards and four touchdowns receiving this year.
He’s already the school’s all-team leader for catches as a running back with 98, more than former Cal stars such as Lynch, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen — each of whom went on to successful careers in the NFL.
As Laird prepares for his last game at the collegiate level Dec. 26 in the Cheez-It Bowl against TCU in Phoenix, Laird could reach 1,000 yards rushing for the second straight season.
He rushed for 1,127 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017.
“He was not heavily recruited, but he got some opportunities and he took advantage of them,” said Burl Toler, Cal’s running backs coach. “He expected it of himself. He set high expectations, and he continued to have that mentality through his senior season.”
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox told The Tribune in a phone conversation that Laird also helped create good team chemistry and accountability, and cites his character as one of his strongest attributes.
“It starts with character and work ethic,” Wilcox said. “(Laird) has the intangibles, along with being a good athlete and having good vision and balance. He has gotten the most out of himself, and it has been great to watch that happen.”
A humble beginning
Cal coaches were aware of Laird after a stellar senior season in which he carried Mission Prep to the CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division final as the go-to offensive option.
After Mission Prep lost several of its stars and 21 seniors form the year’s previous team, Laird took it on himself as a senior to bear the brunt of the offense — rushing for 229 and 248 yards against two strong opponents (Rio Hondo and St. Genevieve, respectively) early in the season to set the tone for an 11-3 record that year.
“He’s a special kid,” said Chad Henry, Mission Prep’s head coach throughout Laird’s career there. “His mindset, his work ethic, his upbringing, taught him that whatever challenges were in front of him, he was going to find a way to get it done.”
Henry recalled Laird waking up at 5:30 a.m. to run the sandy slopes at the Oceano Dunes, and he eventually got the whole offensive line to join him. “They all came into the season the strongest and best shape they’d ever been,” Henry said.
Laird also accumulated a 4.35 high school grade point average in high school; he had recruiting interest from Cal Poly and multiple Ivy League programs, including Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth. Cal and UCLA both recruited him as a preferred walk-on.
Laird had conversations with Henry about the decision and was leaning toward Cal, mainly because of its highly reputed business program.
“We talked more about the academic side of Cal than the football side,” Henry said. “We had a pointed conversation that going there might not be the kind of football career that he’d want, or maybe it was. He said, ‘I’m going to make the most of my opportunity. I’m going to get it done somehow, someway.’
“It worked out way better than anyone expected.”
Laird set his hopes on playing special teams and finding a way to contribute on offense as a fullback, he said. But when he got onto the practice field, he sized himself up and felt differently.
“Running around with the guys, I realized my athletic ability is on par with these guys,” Laird said. “It was still going to be a challenge being a walk-on, but I knew I was capable.”
Getting his chance
Laird saw limited action in his first two seasons at Cal, rushing for 6 yards as a freshman (playing in the first five games but not the final seven) and 59 yards rushing as a redshirt sophomore.
But then in his junior season, Laird got his chance under Wilcox, the university’s new head coach in 2017. Wilcox remembers the first game that year at North Carolina when Laird sprinted wide left on a wheel route, broke one tackle and slipped by two defenders on the sideline to score a critical, 54-yard third quarter touchdown. The team went on to win the game 35-30.
“He never quit on that play,” Wilcox said. “He really hadn’t played much up until that point, but he came to life in that game. I thought, ‘This guy is really going to help us.’”
Laird said the touchdown was meaningful, and from that point on, he really settled in. With injuries to another running back on the team, Laird became a crucial part of the offense.
He had a team-high 12 carries for 192 yards against Weber State in the second game of the 2017 season, including a 73-yard touchdown, and a team-high 22 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown against Old Miss in the third game — both wins to tally a 3-0 start to the season.
Laird never expected to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he became the 16th Cal player to do so in 2017, and this season could join Marshawn Lynch (two times) and Russell White (three times) as the only Bears to eclipse the 1,000 mark in multiple seasons.
“He is a multi-purpose back,” said Toler. “He is shifty and can side-step you, but also can bulk up and hit it downhill. He knows what his strengths are and how to get open.”
Henry said he has seen Laird go through three transitions as a player: a speedy receiver who was light and quick as a high school junior; a pounding, powerful runner who bulked up to break tackles and carry the offensive load as a senior; and a trimmed down, faster, all-purpose runner at Cal.
“It’s amazing what he has been able to accomplish there,” Henry said. “It’s a dream-type, true story of hard work and determination.”
Coaches said it was Laird’s idea, and they supported him to implement it.
Laird, who is double majoring in business and political science with a 3.58 cumulative grade point average (earning first-team Pac-12 All-Academic honors during his time at Cal), said he enjoys reading and how it has helped him in the classroom.
“We joke that we’re all going to be working for him someday,” Wilcox said.
Laird recognized the need for kids, especially low-income students, to continue reading during the summer, as well, and hoped to inspire them.
He challenged first and second graders to read at least four books during the summer to receive four complimentary tickets to Cal’s game against North Carolina on Sept. 1. Kids in the third through sixth grades had to read at least six books for four free tickets.
More than 3,600 kids signed up for the challenge, according to ESPN, and about 1,000 attended the game.
And Laird provided them with yet another reward: Upon scoring a touchdown, he held his hands open as if he were reading a book for his celebratory gesture. He also spoke to the kids and their families after the game.
“I really encourage you all to continue to read, not just to get free tickets, which are nice,” Laird told them, “but to continue to read throughout the school year. It’s really important. It’s the foundation of your education and anything you want to do in life.”
Laird said his sole focus after his last collegiate game will be to improve his top-end speed and strength to prepare for the NFL.
He has spoken with coaches, scouts and agents, and “ all think I have a shot,” whether it’s as a later-round draft pick or as a free agent.
“I realize I’m not a first- or second-round guy, but I’m going to train as hard as I can. And if I get the opportunity, I want to prove to a team that I can contribute,” Laird said.
Toler said Laird has “big goals and ambition” and that he “wouldn’t put anything past Laird,” whom he describes as a cerebral, reliable player who attends every meeting, asks questions and pays close attention to detail.
“I see him fitting in on a NFL team,” Toler said. “... We have a great relationship on and off the field. He challenges me in meeting rooms and wants to be a better player and individual every single day.”
Henry said teams may underestimate Laird’s speed, as well, which has been a criticism as a NFL prospect.
“He has better speed than people gave him credit for,” Henry said. “I remember when we played against schools like Sierra Canyon with big-time college recruits, he was running away from those guys. And in the Central Coast all-star game, he ran away from everyone.”
Wilcox said his NFL chances will depend on Laird finding the right fit — but said he’s confident he will be prepared and do all he can to succeed.
“Overall, this has been an amazing experience,” Laird said. “It has been a challenge definitely, but I’ve learned a lot from those challenges of going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond. Overall, I’m super grateful.”