Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Joe Ayoob: Time to shine

Marin Independent Journal
Dave Albee
The yellow 1967 Chevy Impala, with a pair of foam dice dangling from the rear view mirror, was parked outside in the driveway while, inside the Lucas Valley home, the car's owner was sprawled on his family's couch watching TV.
It seemed like old times for Joe Ayoob.
It is not. He's got morning practices, meetings, lifting, conditioning, more meetings, afternoon practices, studying, more studying. Ayoob is really busy these days trying hard to be a good college student and the next great starting quarterback at Cal. That industrious goal consumes him and his spare time so it's rare for Ayoob to play couch potato.
Whether he is in the passing pocket or just passing through San Rafael, Ayoob has been as elusive as the General Lee on the run in the Dukes of Hazzard.
"The other day was the first time I've seen him in three or four days," said Joe Ayoob Sr., his father.
"Last year he was relaxed and I think he had fun all the time," said Marie Ayoob, Joey's mother. "This situation is entirely different."
This is everything Ayoob had hoped for a year ago when he verbally committed to play football for Cal coach Jeff Tedford. Last summer, Ayoob was a nationally-touted junior college star quarterback returning to City College of San Francisco. He was taking it easy, hanging out with friends and camping out at home where, he jokes, he was "roomless." Ayoob dragged the mattress out of his bedroom, which didn't have a television set, and parked it in front of the family's Sony big screen TV in living room where he could watch it to all hours of the night.
Now, Ayoob is living in a nine-bedroom house in Berkeley with eight other Cal players plotting to beat defending national champion USC among others. Ayoob, a wanna-be wide receiver at Terra Linda High before he was switched to quarterback, enrolled in school at Cal in January and competed in spring practice with quarterback guru Tedford and the Bears. If Ayoob's nose wasn't in a class book, it was in the team's 3-inch thick playbook.
"I was tossed into the mix and didn't really know too much about what was going on," he said.
Yet, with all the success he enjoyed at CCSF and all the attention that's accompanied him to Cal, Ayoob remains even keeled. The hype hasn't gone to his head because the other day his parents and uncle, Ray Mayoral, measured him against the wall by the kitchen where the family has charted his height since Joey was in grade school.
For the record, Ayoob stands 6-foot-3 3/4 inches, the same as he did on Aug. 8, 2001, the last time he got a pencil mark over him with his back to the kitchen wall. Success, it could be said, hasn't made him big-headed.
For the record, Ayoob turns 21 tomorrow - the opening day of Cal's preseason football training camp - but that's about the only thing in his life he might allow himself to gloat or brag about.
"He's big-time Joe now but he's still the same guy," said friend Andrew Strom, a rival quarterback at Novato High who has succeeded Ayoob as the starting QB at CCSF. "People expect a lot more of him now."
And Ayoob knows it. Ayoob admitted that much this summer when he met his mother for lunch in Berkeley.
"He was really nervous and I asked him, 'What's going on? Not getting enough sleep? Too much caffeine or what?,'" Marie said. "He said, 'No. I'm just worried about what if I don't measure up. I know you guys will understand but what about everybody else?'
"I said, 'Just don't worry about it.' But he was feeling the pressure."
Ayoob remembers that conversation and regrets letting those words escape him.
He told his mother he didn't mean what he said. It was an uncharacteristically weak moment. Otherwise, Ayoob is usually unflappable, cool under fire and pressure.
"I know he's got a lot of expectations and he hasn't thrown a pass yet (at Cal), but I think he's going to live up to all the talk and hype," said Derrick Young, Ayoob's friend since sixth grade who is now a Navy hull technician stationed on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in San Diego. "He's always shown he can do it at every level he's played. He seems as relaxed as he can be for the situation he's in."
The situation is only as big as Ayoob chooses to make it.
"It's just my personality," he said. "I don't worry too much about a lot of things. I fly by the seat of my pants."
That free and easy style befitted Ayoob at CCSF, whether he was playing "Randy Moss Ball" with Strom and their pals in their apartment or Ayoob was engineering scoring drives with his strong arm and quick feet for the Rams on the field. His athleticism and competitiveness at CCSF earned Ayoob the nickname White Michael Vick, a moniker that miffs Ayoob if only because he considers himself merely a mobile quarterback.
That tag won't fly at Cal.
"He'll be fine," said Bears senior offensive tackle Ryan O'Callaghan, who, impressed by Ayoob's sense of humor and confidence, has become fast friends with him. "He never came in arrogant or anything. If he did, we would have fixed it. He's very humble. He knows what he has to do."
Besides, quipped Cal senior center Marvin Philip, "He's not white. He's half Mexican and half Lebanese."
Joe Sr.'s ancestors came through Ellis Island from Lebanon. His wife was born in Mexico City. Joe Jr. is their second child. Their 24-year-old daughter, Susan, is currently in Spain working toward her Masters in language translation and interpretation through the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She's made a point to be home Nov. 12. That's the day the Bears play USC at Memorial Stadium.
The Ayoobs are a football-first family. When they lived in Southern California, they would spend holidays with Joe Sr.'s sister, Genevieve, and her six boys, all of whom went to college on football scholarships. One of them is 14-year NFL veteran and former 49ers offensive lineman Matt Willig, who currently portrays a big, angry cellphone-toting customer in a Capitol One credit card commercial. The 6-8, 315-pound Willig, who played at USC, showed up at Cal this spring to watch his "little" cousin compete for the Bears starting quarterback position.
The Ayoobs moved to Marin when Joe Jr. was eight before he converted from a Jim Everett fan to a Joe Montana fan. That's when he began measuring up to expectations beyond the family's growth chart. Now he'll be playing in front of more than 50,000 people on Saturdays, but really he needs only to please two of them - his head coach and his doting father.
Ayoob struggled with his footwork and mechanics with Tedford looking over his shoulder in spring practice. That's understandable. Ayoob was trying to juggle a lot of things all at once - going to class on campus, learning Tedford's complicated system at practice, dealing with all the hype - and things weren't coming naturally.
"He might have expected himself to come in and light it up right away but I know through experience that that doesn't happen that way," Tedford said this week. "But I was pleased with the way he handled it because I didn't sugarcoat it that he was doing well. I let him know that he wasn't doing well and he responded very positively to that and so I felt great about his mental make-up."
Ayoob feels more comfortable now. Tedford said he is excited and anxious to see how much of the offense Ayoob has retained over the summer. Ayoob can call "Right Tame, R Spin 4 742 sting layer" in the huddle and know what every one of his teammates is supposed to do on that particular play.
"I didn't feel the pressure to step in and be the man right away. I knew that he (Tedford) knew," Ayoob said. "It's a learning process and I might come along slower than some other guys."
Ayoob is determined to catch up and reach Tedford's level of expectation on the eve of his junior eligible season at Cal. The Bears quarterback is just as driven to please his dad.
"I'm a '50s guy and I'm old school," Joe Sr. said. "I've been a little tough on Joey through the years."
Joe Sr. grew up in Pittsburgh and was recruited to play basketball at Clemson University where he became the team's captain. His claim to fame at Clemson is he made what is believed to be the longest game-winning shot in the school's basketball history. Though he made only 14 field goals and shot 30.4 percent from the floor in the 1965-66 season, on Feb. 19 Ayoob netted a 40-footer at the buzzer in the first overtime of a game in Charlotte for a Tigers victory.
Joe Sr. used his accomplishments at Clemson as a carrot to dangle in front of Joe Jr.
"I wanted to pass him up on the college ranks. He used to talk mess back in the day," said Joe Jr., smiling. "When I was third string in junior college, he used to tell me he played in the ACC. That was one of the motivating factors."
Joe Sr., a bank executive, has lent his personal big-time college experience to help his son prepare for the Pac-10. He has always had a way of motivating him. When Ayoob was 10, he was convinced by Young to become a 4-foot-10, 75-pound tight end for the Rebels of the Central Marin Pop Warner League. Soon after joining the team, Ayoob got mad at Young and came home crying wanting to quit it right then and there. His dad wouldn't let him.
"Joe's been extremely tough on Joey but, from my perspective, Joey really looks up to his mom and dad," said Ray Mayoral, his uncle. "Joey has that need, maybe, for Joe's validation."
Joe Sr. said he doesn't "smother" his son, but he always has given him an honest critique if Joe Jr. seeks one. He's realistic about his son's ability.
"I've always teased him knowing he was a far better athlete than I ever was," Joe Sr. said.
It is Ayoob's athletic prowess that may ultimately give him the edge over rival Cal quarterback Nate Longshore, a redshirt freshman. Ayoob is more versatile than Longshore. He performs better on the move and appears to rise to the occasion as the competition heats up.
"He just has a good thermometer," Joe Sr. said.
Joe Jr. is the more heralded of the two contenders for the starting Cal QB job, but he also seemingly has more to prove, more advance billing and expectations to live up to playing for a budding national power.
"There's so much at stake now," Ayoob said.
"We've talked about the pressure and all the rest of it and I say, 'Well, the alternative is Joe carrying a clipboard (as a backup quarterback). Where would you rather be?'" Joe Sr. said. "He seems like he's stepped up to it."
He's certainly not taking it lying down. Ayoob, not an especially gifted student, battled and managed to attain straight Cs in his first semester at academically-challenging Cal, making his dad proud. The quarterback's grades are bound to improve in football, too, to the point he might be able to come home every once in a while in his prized Chevy Impala, a 16th-birthday gift, and relax for a change.
"It's totally different now," his mother said. "He looks a lot more comfortable and self-assured when then I think the playbook and everything was coming at him in the spring." In other words, Ayoob is ready to measure up.

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