Feels Like the First Time

Cornerback Stefan McClure sits down to talk with BearTerritory about all he's been through in the past 20 months, recovering from a potentially career-ending injury, watching his dear friend go through the same struggles and finally, proving doubters wrong.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The cadence plays. The fight song blares. The student section stumbles to its feet. A circle of smoke coils into the air and a sharp rapport issues from the foothills. Inside the north tunnel of California Memorial Stadium, players lock arms, swaying back and forth. The yelps and hollers and roars swell ever louder until, finally, a tide of blue and gold rises and crests, crashing onto the turf. This is what every one of them signed up for. This is tradition. This is game day.

Not for Stefan McClure. Not yet.

He's never sprinted out of that tunnel. He's never bashed his helmet into a teammate's, he's never been fired out of that emotional cannon. After 20 months of waiting, through rehab, a year of playing home games on the road at AT&T Park, suffering a potentially catastrophic knee injury and then having to watch one of his best friends suffer the same, after spending hours alone in a cavernous weight room, it's finally almost time.

"It'll be my first time playing in Memorial," McClure smiles. "I've never played in Memorial. It's really going to be like my first time. I'll feel like a freshman all over again ... I'm more than eager. I'm more than anxious. I don't know what I am. I just wish we could play tomorrow."

Running out of that tunnel was, just 20 months ago, almost incomprehensible.

It's the night of Nov. 25, 2011, tailback C.J. Anderson is in the midst of scoring three touchdowns as the Bears romp over Arizona State, 47-38, in Tempe, Ariz. McClure was playing in his 11th game of the season as a true freshman. He'd tallied 24 tackles – one that night. He had gone nose-to-nose with Robert Woods.

It was that win that sent Cal to the Holiday Bowl against Texas. It was also one of the worst days of McClure's life. During a kickoff in the second quarter, McClure cut awkwardly, trying to stop Jamal Miles on a 27-yard kick return.

McClure thought that the worst it could be was a dislocated kneecap. He was wrong.

"It was ACL, MCL and meniscus," says McClure. "I think they call it the Terrible Triad."

His doctors would say that, just 10 years ago, that injury would be a career-ender. On Sunday, he'll return to Bowles Hall once again, as the Bears report for fall camp. For the first time in two years, he'll be healthy.

"This is the longest I've gone since I was seven-years old – this is the longest I've gone without playing in a football game," says McClure on Monday, at the Bay Area College Football Media Day.

In the past 20 months, McClure had to stand by as his teammates – his brothers – sunk to a 3-9 record, made all the worse by having to watch his dear friend – H-back Spencer Hagan -- suffer through almost the exact same injury, right in front of him.

McClure and Hagan share almost identical knee scars, but over the past two years, they've shared much more.

The pair had made fast friends during their early nights at Bowles that first camp. McClure had been friends with now-former Bears hoopster Brandon Smith before coming to Cal, and it just so happened that Smith was close with Hagan.

"I knew his roommate – it was one of my friends from back home," says McClure. "I started talking with Brandon, so the first day of move-in for fall camp, I just happened to get there on the field on the Juggs machine, catching some punts, and Spencer came out there and introduced himself: ‘I'm Brandon's roommate,' and ever since then, we've clicked, and we've been hanging out and been tight."

While McClure fought against the emotional quicksand of recovering from his injury, Hagan was there. The four-star All-American cornerback and the walk-on receiver-turned-H-back shared not just a love of the game or a work ethic, but a deep sense of faith, as well.

No one was happier for Hagan's increased role in the offense heading into the 2012 season than McClure, but history has a cruel way of repeating itself.

In the first quarter of the Bears' loss to Ohio State on Sept. 15, 2012, Hagan took a helmet to his knee – the same knee McClure himself had injured – in the third quarter. McClure – standing on the sideline – felt his heart drop.

"My stomach cringed," says McClure. "You hate to see that happen, especially to a teammate and a close friend. It hurts, just as a human being."

Before the flight home, McClure took Hagan aside and spoke quietly, but firmly. He had been right where Hagan was not a year prior.

"It was that you can make it out," says McClure. "There are going to be some days where you think ‘I'm never going to be running, I'm never going to be my same old self.' Right when it happens, you drop your head a little bit and you get disappointed: ‘Why me?' I just tried to help him get through that stage and get a little motivated."

When the two did not travel with the team, they spent Saturdays in Hagan's living room, yelling at the television screen. This summer, McClure served as one of Hagan's groomsmen during his wedding.

After that diversion, though, the pair got right back to work.

"With my knee injury, he was helping me, and with his knee injury, I was just helping him and preparing him for what to expect and how the rehab was, how grueling it was," says McClure. "We kind of relaxed that weekend, and it was all football from there. He had to amp up his rehab, I was doing extra stuff to try to make sure my knee was stronger than before, and ever since then, we've just been working and putting in extra work, whether it's doing balance stuff, doing single-leg wall squats – whether you have a good leg or not, you can never do too many of those – so I've been right there, with him, helping him out.

"I know how the rehab process can be. It's long. You've got to come in there extra, when the team has days off. You've got to be like, ‘I can't take a day off. I've got to get out there.' You're the only one in that big old weight room. Now, both of us are in there, working."

McClure admits to not a bit of jealousy that his partner in crime recovered quicker than he did. This summer, Hagan's been running dig routes, stopping hard and cutting with ease, and will be at full strength before the start of the season, if all goes right.

"I sit there and I say, ‘Man, you're coming back ready to go, and I had to take a whole year off.' His was pretty grueling, and somebody hit him," McClure laughs, throwing his head back. "Here he is, running routes and doing 7-on-7. He'll be good to go."

While Hagan's rehab has been remarkably quick, McClure's time on the shelf allowed him a luxury afforded to a precious few. When McClure was on the field, he was an ersatz bonus coach, donning a headset as he learned not just what works in a defense, but why.

"I got to see more than any other 19-year old player," says McClure. "It just helped me look at it from another angle. You're talking to people in the press box, so you get to see how they attacked you one way and what the counter is, to it. They were always talking about, ‘Hey, they ran this, now look for them. They're going to be coming back to set up this,' or ‘Watch: They're going to set this up,' or just hearing about how one small person, doing their own thing – whether it's on the D-line or the linebackers – not fitting the gap the right way, affects everybody."

McClure saw how one mistake up front multiplied and cascaded back into the defense. If one lineman missed a gap, two linebackers would have to re-adjust on the fly, and if those two linebackers had to abandon their responsibilities to cover for the mistake up front, then both safeties had to abandon their posts.

"On the D-line, it multiplies to the linebackers, if the linebackers mess up, it multiplies to the secondary, and you know you have open holes and guys are running, untouched, 60 yards," says McClure. "Everyone has to make up for somebody, so you're playing a gap behind. It looks like you're playing with nine guys out there, when you really have 11."

The season-opening loss to Nevada was gut-wrenching, the narrow defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes maddening. He could do nothing but watch, chained to an emotional rack.

"Every loss hurt," says McClure, his toothy grin vanishing. "I was there every meeting, every morning practice, and I'm doing my rehab on top of just trying to be out there and help the team in any way I can, and it's tough to watch a team lose like that, to watch us lose."

As if the 3-9 free fall, Hagan's injury and the drudgery of rehab weren't enough to test McClure, he had to navigate a course between being a leader to a team which had just lost its entire coaching staff, while also trying to prove himself to a new regime.

"In this case, change was good for us, because nobody had any resume, basically," says McClure. "It wasn't like, ‘Oh, I started two years before, so I'm probably going to start again.' Everybody was a clean slate. Even. You just had to go out there and work, from conditioning in January, when we were out there, doing our stations at 5:30 in the morning. Nobody knew who nobody was. Nobody knew if you'd ever played or not. They could just see how you worked the drills and how you practiced."

All McClure had was his work ethic, those hours in the underwater treadmill, the lonely days in the weight room. Nevertheless, he was anything but alone.

"Spring ball, everybody was trying to earn a spot," he says. "It doesn't matter if you were a walk-on, if you were a fifth-year senior trying to return in your fourth starting year – everybody had to try to earn a spot, and that's how I think it is, going into camp. It's really open competition. Everybody's really trying to earn a spot to play on this team."

When he was finally cleared to participate in football activities this spring, McClure did what any young athlete would do: He bucked and chafed at the leash wrapped around his neck, prison bars his own body had forged. Even weighed down by precaution, though, McClure sparkled.

"The little bit I saw him do in the spring, he was pretty good," says head coach Sonny Dykes. "There will be some growing pains, but what I saw this spring was enough to convince me that he's got a chance to be a really good player."

McClure pawed at the turf with anticipation as wizened defensive backs coach Randy Stewart sprinted from drill to drill, flitting about the field on Red Bull wings and buzzing about his charges like a Will-o'-the-wisp.

"He's over there, breaking his glasses every day, just running around with tons of energy," McClure says. "That's what I like. He's energetic. He'll try to beat you from drill to drill, when we go from individuals to one-on-ones, he's running over there with tons of energy. It's exciting. You can just feed off of that energy, and you can't help but be ready."

With his time in the wilderness almost ended, McClure is set to anchor a defensive backfield with precious little starting experience, beyond him, Kameron Jackson and safety Avery Sebastian.

"The work that Kam and Avery and Mike [Lowe] and Alex [Logan] and all of us have been putting in, I think we can turn some heads," he says. "Being a weak part of the defense going into the season, I think we'll be able to hold our own through this gauntlet of a schedule that we have. We'll be able to hold our own and surprise some people, because we've got great coaching and we've got a great scheme. We're going against some elite guys in practice, so I think we're going to be good."

Dykes is relying on him to be just that.

"He participated some, got in there some and mixed it up some. He's very competitive, and that's what I like about him and Kam Jackson, both," says the first-year head coach. "I think when you sit down and you look at what makes a great corner, it's guys that are competitive and guys that aren't afraid. Both those guys nail those characteristics. They're both incredibly competitive and they're both incredibly courageous."

McClure has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He relishes collisions. He delights in the fight.

"He's a really good tackler," says Dykes. "You look at college football now, and there's not many corners who tackle. The whole Deion Sanders deal, where the guy catches the ball and Deion's running away from the receiver just like the receiver's running away from him. That's kind of permeated college football, where guys aren't really fond of tackling. But, he and Kam both play very physical, and I think that sets them apart."

McClure's own words to Hagan 10 months ago echo in his own head: You can make it out. Keep your head up.

"It all starts with that first game," he says. "We're all just trying to work through the knee injuries, and it's good. I see [Brendan] Bigelow making progress when he cuts and changes direction. He's running full speed, so I'm going, ‘There we go, Bigs, get back out there.' Spencer is running corner routes, and I'm going, ‘There you go!' The hard work is finally paying off. When I get out there, I can cut and change direction, so the mental part, I think we'll all be mentally free of any fear when we go out there."

Free from fear. Free from doubt. Free. Finally, free.

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