It was not long ago that the prospect of playing big-time college football was nothing more than a dream on the computer screen for Patrick Laird.
The dream is not yet a reality, but it took a major leap forward Wednesday, when the Mission Prep senior signed a Letter of Commitment to walk on to the Pac-12 football program at Cal.
“It’s awesome,” said Laird, who was surrounded by family, friends, coaches and teammates at a signing ceremony held in Mission Prep’s gym. “It’s a sense of relief, but I’m also so excited.”
Laird said he would spend hours online taking virtual tours of stadiums and facilities of football powerhouses, never knowing if he’d have the chance to experience the real thing.
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But thanks to a stellar senior year in which the running back rushed for more than 3,000 yards and garnered All-American honors, Laird earned the right to step foot in such facilities — and the field of Cal’s Memorial Stadium — Saturday, when he made his official visit to Berkley.
“I told the strength and conditioning coach that I had seen the facilities online, but being there in person, they were way bigger than I had expected,” Laird said. “Then I got to go see Cal beat No. 1 Arizona (in men’s basketball), which was a great experience as well. So, I got a good sense of the school atmosphere while I was there.”
Laird took one other official visit during the recruiting process — to Cal Poly, which also offered the 6-foot 205-pound rusher a walk-on spot. He gave both schools serious consideration before landing on Cal.
“I wouldn’t say I was leaning anywhere; I went in with the mindset of, “What’s the best place for me?’ ” the Tribune’s County Player of the Year said. “I just went into both official visits with an open mind.
“Once I got (to Cal), toured the campus and met the players, I felt like it was the right spot.”
Laird will switch from running back to fullback for the Golden Bears, a move head coach Sonny Dykes told Laird will utilize his size as well as grant him a better opportunity to see the field and eventually earn a scholarship.
Mission Prep coach Chad Henry thinks the transition should fit Laird fine.
“It’s nothing he’s not used to,” Henry said. “He’s had to play multiple positions during his time with us. He’s had to block before, and being a bigger back with 400-plus carries, I think he’s a guy that knows how to run inside.
“I think once he gets there, they are going to see he’s a lot more dynamic than they even realized, and I feel his role can even expand from where they see it now.”
Laird also garnered significant interested from Ivy League schools Brown and Dartmouth, and his brother, Kevin, played football at Cornell in upstate New York.
A smaller school might have afforded him a faster path to the field, but Laird didn’t want that alone to dictate his decision, and he wanted to stay in California to pursue a degree in either business or economics.
“I think academics were my No. 1 focus,” he said. “That’s something that Cal offers me. And I think I have the confidence and work ethic to go to a big school like that and get some playing time.”
Henry, who set a goal of 1,500 yards for Laird prior to this historic year, knows firsthand what that work ethic can lead to.
“We had lofty expectations this year,” Henry said. “But even with those lofty expectations, he exceeded everything that we thought would be possible.
“(Cal) gave him a clear vision of what he can do and where they see him, and he’s the kind of guy; once you put that carrot in front of him, he’s going to go get it.”