By TARA SULLIVAN STAFF WRITER
The cellphone rang, and the parents held their collective breath. When they answered, all they could do was cry. Tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of relief, tears of redemption. Their son, the Cal football player they'd watched for so long get churned, turned, wrung and twisted by the cement mixer that is college football, was calling with this incredible news. Young Steve Levy was about to give the father the best birthday present of the son's 21 years. "Usually I get him socks and underwear, but this year he asked me for something else," Steve said recently from California. "He said, 'I want you to start in a big game.' "I was like, 'Yeah, whatever.'Ÿ"
Forgive the apparent indifference, but Steve had already steeled himself from such whimsical fantasy. His long and winding road was paved with more than enough roadblocks to suppress even his lifelong optimism. Take a tour:
2002: Levy was recruited out of powerhouse Don Bosco as a quarterback, but redshirted as a freshman while future Baltimore Raven Kyle Boller starred.
2003: Ready to compete as a sophomore, Levy had to undergo shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, future Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers arrived on campus to take over the position.
2004: Levy switched to fullback just to get on the field, but was miserable over the lost chance to prove his ability and leadership behind the line.
2005: As spring practice began, Levy returned to his original position, getting the OK from coach Jeff Tedford months earlier to switch back to quarterback, but only with the understanding that Nate Longshore and Joe Ayoob were way ahead of him on the depth chart.
Fast forward to this month and join the Cal players as they ready themselves for the "Big Game," the annual blood war against rival Stanford. Longshore has long since been out of the picture, breaking his leg in the season opener. Ayoob is fading, losing four of his previous five starts. And while Levy had already subbed for Ayoob the previous game, Tedford has yet to name a starter for the Stanford game.
Now sit in the car with the parents, Mark and Angela, as they await a cellphone jingle.
"We were on our way to Maryland, where our youngest son, Eric, is a redshirt freshman, to watch Maryland play Boston College," Angela said. "We were on pins and needles waiting for [Steve's] call. When he told us, he was really like in shock. He was numb. I don't think it went through him. It was the greatest moment of his life." Steve would start the Stanford game.
"They both started to cry," Steve said. "And then I told them I'd get an even better present, 'I'm going to win.'Ÿ" And win he did, throwing a 56-yard touchdown pass six minutes into a 27-3 thrashing, earning much more than the appreciation of an entire student body, many of whom blocked the scooter he uses to get around campus just to shake his hand. The junior also earned another start, and this one comes tonight against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl (8 o'clock, ESPN).
"I'm focused on winning," Steve said. "I'm all about leading a team down the field. I don't care if I'm 0-for-7 or 7-for-7, I'm all about victory." Still, there is a small measure of personal pride in just getting on the field. "A lot of people saw me fall off the map a little bit," he said. "To finally get a shot and to beat Stanford, which played pretty close against Notre Dame, was great. Now I want to prove I'm not a one-game wonder."
Though Levy's first choice would be to play in a January bowl, he'll gladly take the opportunity to get home for Christmas (he once had to turn down a local Jewish athlete of the year award because he wasn't eligible). So Mark and Angela will have their three boys (oldest son Mark Jr. is 24) together for the holiday for the first time in years.
"It's all one big package," Angela said last week as she and her husband readied for their trip to Las Vegas, where they and nearly 20 family and friends will root for Steve.
Mother and son are great friends, touching base almost daily, bridging the 3,000 miles between them with at least a "hello" on a voice mail. She was the only one who didn't agree with the switch to fullback, knowing the leader trapped inside her son would never stop the fight to get out. Steve was indeed tormented, forever longing for the chance to take charge of the huddle.
"I was really depressed at the fullback position, I just didn't feel good in that spot," he said. "I talked to Coach and said, 'What do you think about me throwing the ball again?'Ÿ"
Turns out his arm felt better than ever. Mom was right all along, and she was there against Stanford for the living proof.
"He just went out there like he owned the field," she said. "He was so confident, and that's what Steven is. He's a leader." A win in the bowl game tonight and Steve presents Cal with plenty of happy problems next season, when the three current quarterbacks will face stiff competition from redshirt freshman Kyle Reed and prized recruit Kevin Riley. But Levy has already proved he belongs.