He was never formally diagnosed, but looking back on it now, Vachel Samuels realizes he was depressed. He acted out. He wasn't himself. He was disinterested at practice. He was inattentive during meetings. His behavior got so bad in 2011, that then-head coach Jeff Tedford dismissed him from the California football team.
"They said it was character issues, I suppose," says Samuels, who has gone from dismissed to a failed transfer to a young father to homeless and finally, back to being not just a Cal student again, but a Cal football player, who will take the field on Saturday during the Bears' Spring Experience for the first time in nearly two years. "They didn't specify. They just said I had character issues, in regards to my effort with the team."
That depression didn't come out of the blue. After being recruited to Berkeley by then-running backs coach and Southern California recruiter Ron Gould, the former three-star corner – who had offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Nebraska, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State, not to mention a sparkling 3.8 GPA out of Lynwood (Calif.) High School – found himself unable to stay healthy.
Samuels suffered two season-ending injuries – both Lisfranc fractures, in each of his feet – before the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
In the fall of 2009, he suffered the fracture in his left foot on the first day of fall camp. A year later, the same thing happened to his right. First day of camp. Season over.
"I planted, it snapped," says Samuels. "Both times. Six to nine months, both times. Screw in the left, no screw in the right."
Between the two breaks, Samuels became a father, with his girlfriend Brittany Mendez. His little boy – Vachel Samuels III – was born on March 25, 2010. He now had three, full-time jobs: Student, athlete and father. The second break didn't make that time crunch any easier, as he tried to rehab to get back on the field. The weight of the world was on Samuels' shoulders, and there was no way to get it off.
Tedford sent Samuels an ultimatum.
"You're going to play, or you're not. You've got to make a decision," Samuels says.
That decision, though, wasn't completely in Samuels' hands, insofar as he wasn't in his right mind. He couldn't help it. He was in a hole, and wouldn't ask for help to get out. His father had raised him on his own. There wasn't any reason he couldn't deal with this, himself.
"I tried to deal with it, on my own, as much as possible," Samuels says. "I didn't talk to anyone about my problems or my issues, but suffering those two severe season-ending injuries, it took its toll."
After he was dismissed, things only got worse. Without a scholarship, Samuels had no way to make ends meet for himself or his family. The once-conscientious student began to slip.
"It was hard," he says. "I wasn't focused on school like an average student would be. I was dealing with a lot. I couldn't even afford books, at some point. I had to ask people in class, I had to ask if I could use books, because I wasn't on scholarship at one point."
During that time, Samuels and his family were, essentially, homeless. He still tried to train, to stay in football shape, but there were times when Samuels didn't know where he, Mendez – a student at Cal State East Bay -- or his son would lay their heads at night.
"It was tough. Definitely tough," says Samuels, who has relied on Mendez's strength throughout the ordeal. "She does everything with me. She's right there."
There was cereal for dinner, relying on the kindness of friends, "every sacrifice imaginable, from not knowing where we were going to sleep sometimes, to not knowing what we were going to eat sometimes. You name it," Samuels says.
The three had an apartment "at times," but for six months, they stayed with former teammate Alex Logan, who could not be reached for this article.
"Alex Logan helped out a lot," Samuels says. "We stayed with him for the whole spring semester. He had a two-bedroom, and we kind of split bills and utilities as best as possible."
After the fall of 2012, Samuels withdrew. He tried to transfer to Prairie View A&M, hoping against hope that he could play football again, that he could start over, that he could somehow get his life – and the lives of his family – back on track.
"I tried to transfer in 2013, after the coaching change," Samuels says. "I tried to transfer, but the classes from here didn't transfer over to the university I was trying to get into."
No football. No school. No home. All Samuels had was family. He and Mendez moved back to Southern California, staying with Samuels' father. All was not well, though, as Samuels attended community college in Compton, Calif.
"Her father passed away at the same time I went down to do school, so we were down there together," Samuels says.
In February, Samuels decided it was time for yet another change, but this time, it would be for the better. He re-applied to Berkeley, and, without any help from the Athletic Department, got in, on his own, on the merits of his own academic record.
"It was extremely difficult," says Samuels. "It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I faced a lot of adversity. But, I was able to overcome it, and I was able to get back into the university through a letter of appeal, through classes that I took at a community college (Compton College). I had to take classes, I had to show that I was able to get back into the University, academically, nothing to do with football. I only need one class to graduate and get my degree."
After attending school for over a month, Samuels finally felt stable enough to head back up to Memorial Stadium, which was quite different from the way he remembered it. Unannounced, he walked into the office of head coach Sonny Dykes.
"He came in, talked to me, and I talked to him a little bit about kind of his experience here, and we had a real frank conversation," Dykes says. "He was really honest with me and said, ‘Hey, I probably was a little immature and made some bad decisions, and did some things before that I probably shouldn't have,' and I just told him, I said, ‘Hey, look, we're going to give you an opportunity. I don't know what the experience was here before, but I'll welcome you back, and here's our guidelines and our rules, and if you can exist within those guidelines, then we'd love to have you back,' so he's come back out and he's done a good job. He really has. He's a little bit raw. You can tell he hasn't played football in a while, but he's got some ability, so we'll see how he develops."
The once-coveted cornerback was now a walk-on, but he was walking on his own two feet, thanks to hard-won financial aid through a grant that helps students with young children.
"I get financial aid, and then I get money for having a child, which helps with my housing and food and transportation and stuff like that," says Samuels, who lives with Mendez in an apartment in Hayward, Calif.
Even through all the trials, Samuels says, there was "no doubt, no doubt," that he would play football again. Now, every day, Samuels commutes to class and practice, never once complaining. Compared to where he's been, even coming in third on the depth chart is a blessing. It's damn near Heaven.
"We were pretty close," says redshirt junior safety Avery Sebastian. "He was here when I first came here. It was great when the coaches told me he was coming back, this past semester. It's definitely some motivation for me, because I'm getting my man Vachel back. That's a good thing. We definitely need some depth at corner, and he's been getting in there, grinding, staying on top of academics and athletics, as you need to here, under coach Dykes' system. It's been motivating. It's keeping the group together, and that's a good thing that we have from him as a senior."
Very few players, though, actually know Samuels' full story. Even defensive backs coach Greg Burns wasn't aware of the full depth of Samuels' struggles off the field, because he just doesn't talk about it.
"We've had the chance to sit down and touch base on some things. Not in-depth, I don't believe, but just in general, the simple fact that he was dismissed at one point in time, and he's getting a second chance, but there are some things you just mentioned that I didn't know," Burns says. "He's going to try everything he can to get better."
On the field, though, the deep impressions left by the past three years are evident; if by not their exact shape, then by the emotional maturity Samuels now possesses. But, to many, he's still a mystery – one that will unfold as the offseason workouts and 2014 season progress.
"Right now, it's not to that point. I'm not sure how much our current players truly know him," says Burns. "They know him as in, they've seen him around, but they don't know his story yet. Some may. It may be whispers. I don't know as much. But, I believe that once everyone starts to hang out a little bit more, they'll be able to have some more camaraderie and get a little bit more in-depth. Right now, I think it's too early to tell."
As a player, Samuels is, understandably, raw, and, yes, a little bit rusty.
"I've seen a little bit of everything, both good and bad," Burns says. "He's a little rusty, has got some work to do, in regards to getting back into true football shape, so to speak, but he does show some promise. He has a very good understanding of the cornerback position, and he's just in the process of learning, just like everybody else."
There are no expectations, no promises, no assurances, other than a chance to prove himself.
"I was real blunt with him, I said, ‘I don't expect a whole lot, just because you haven't played in a while, so it's going to take you a while to get back into playing shape, and back where you have a chance to contribute, so it's going to be a long journey,'" says Dykes. "He said, ‘I'm up for trying it.' I've been happy with what he's done. He's had a good attitude, he's worked hard, he's done what we've asked him to do, so we'll see how he develops."
Samuels is a different man than he was the last time he pulled on a Cal football jersey. One could argue that the very fact of the matter is that he now is truly a man, instead of a boy.
Regardless of how many times he steps on the field, how many snaps he plays, or even the team's finish, Samuels will be a winner after the fall 2014 semester. He'll be a college graduate. He will have made it back from the brink.
"Definitely, I feel like I'm a stronger person than ever," he says. "I can face any adversity, whether it be school, whether it be life, whether it be football. I don't let petty things get to me. I can always overcome, because I've overcome everything this far."
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