Ryan Gorcey / Scout.com

Cal linebacker Jake Kearney announces he will medically retire

With linebacker depth sure to be tested this spring, Cal has lost another piece in senior Jake Kearney, who, due to a chronic back injury, has medically retired.

BERKELEY -- California senior linebacker Jake Kearney has announced his medical retirement, and head coach Sonny Dykes confirmed at his pre-spring football press meeting on Tuesday.

"It's something that we anticipated at the end of last season, coming in," Dykes said. "We love Jake, appreciate what he did. He's worked really hard, fought through some injuries, but really proud of what he's done for our program, and he showed a lot of toughness. We hate to lose him, but the good thing is, we feel like we have enough depth at that position and will continue to develop guys there, and get more athleticism on the field."

Kearney, out of Livermore (Calif.) Granada, was a JuCo transfer from the College of San Mateo in the spring of 2014, and was expected to play a big role this spring and fall, if healthy, given the depth issues at linebacker. Aisea Tongilava and Hamilton Anoa'i were both on the shelf for last season due to injuries, and while Tongilava will be full-go, both had knee procedures, and will be limited a bit this spring. Devante Downs had turf toe last season, but looks to be fully recovered, but the loss of Michael Barton, as well as the choice of Nathan Broussard to graduate, instead of seeking a sixth year, now loom large.

That being said, the Bears still do have options, said Dykes. Firstly, Cal will likely play more nickel and dime formations come fall, and will practice those this spring, so that's one linebacker spot off the field. Kearney played in 10 games, with six starts, and tallied 40 tackles in his first season, with 4.0 tackles for loss, one interception and two pass breakups.

Last season, he was very limited, making 21 tackles in 10 games, with one sack.

Dykes said the Bears are looking for "big things" out of Ray Davison this season, and that Hardy Nickerson is a "bell cow" for not just the defense, but the whole team. Them, and Tongilava, will be the only healthy linebackers this spring -- at least, the only players who played linebacker this year. Preferred walk-on Harrison Mayo will be a potential solution, but more likely, the linebackers will add Evan Rambo (he'll get reps, Dykes said) and Derron Brown (who came in as a corner, and is now listed as a linebacker).

"Derron Brown has got a frame, and we're going to play him at outside linebacker," Dykes said. "He's a little over 200 pounds, and he's got a good frame. He'll be a 205-210 guy that can really run. He's somebody that we're going to move down. A.J. Greathouse, as well, is another guy that's going to be a possibility at linebacker. His frame is up to about 200 pounds, and we're trying to get faster guys on the field. Those are two guys that we're going to experiment with, and obviously, we've got guys coming back. As much single-linebacker as we play, and two linebackers in most, we certainly have enough depth, if we get everybody back healthy."

In Kearney's words:

"For those of you who do not know, I sustained a severe back injury in July of 2015 right before camp when season was about to start. Through extensive physical therapy, doctor appointments, and unfathomable pain, I fought just to be able to manage playing this past season the best I could. In years past, I had always played in season no lower than I would say 80% of my full health. This year, I'm not sure if I got past 50%. Not only physically, but mentally this took a huge toll on me. I have suffered many injuries throughout my playing career, some serious some not, but this one was the wake up call I needed. Trying to manage school, football, and hours of physical therapy each week was not easy.

During that time, I spent a lot of time thinking. I reflected on everything that was happening over these past couple of years, everything I'd overcome, only to realize my body and mind could not take it anymore. I suffered through periods of anxiety and depression. I have mornings it takes me 15 minutes just to get out of bed. I can't move the way I used to. I can't work out the way I used to or want to. But the biggest thing for me was thinking about my future. I want to be able to run around and play with my kids and be there for my future family. I want to be able to enjoy other activities without having to worry about my back. All in all, I just want to be healthy enough to enjoy the rest of my life.

I know that I will always have problems with it, but just being able to minimize the pain and suffering as much as possible is to the upmost importance to me. It was at this time that I made the decision, and I knew in my heart, it wasn't worth it to me anymore to risk my overall well-being by playing again. That was just the beginning of the realization that my playing days were over. It was my time and I knew that in my heart. I was finally at peace with letting go.

This next part is hard for me to talk about and I had a hard time getting all of this down. But I think it's another huge part that a lot of people don't realize or are afraid to admit. Although, some people may relate in their own ways and some may not, I feel it is very important for to me to share my story and journey. I realized I was serving a dream that didn't fulfill me anymore. I got to a point, I would say half way through my 2014 season at Cal, that I knew something didn't feel quite right. I was going in the right direction to achieve my dreams but there was a churning in my stomach. This dream wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be. I didn’t feel the joy I thought I would when I was on the field. It was the University of Oregon game at Levi stadium that I realized the feeling in my stomach was dread and not the nervous excitement I used to have in the early days. It was then that I knew something was wrong. And yet still I was scared to do it—to let go of the dream. Everyone believed in me so fiercely that I felt obliged to keep going despite my body, my heart and I honestly believe God telling me it was time to move on.

I had put so much time, energy, and sacrificed my body for the path I had chosen and I felt that if I walked away, I was a failure—that I was letting people down, especially my Dad. Slowly, however, as I disconnected from the life I once knew, it dawned on me that those who loved me and believed in me would love me and believe in me no matter which way I turned. My dad, more than anybody, would be proud of the man I've become today. He lives in me, more than just on that field. It took courage and a good year and a half to properly let go—to finally say that I was no longer a football player.

On reflection I see that my time in the profession had so many ups and downs, but the biggest revelation was that I lost my identity throughout the years. I bought into this system and truly believed I was just "Jake the football player." Nothing else. I'm on my journey now to find out who just Jake is, as a sole individual. Since making the decision to let go, I am slowly but surely identifying my strengths, abilities, and the true desires. Don't get me wrong, the journey I have taken over the last sixteen years, has made me who I am today and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

The only thing I regret is the struggle I put upon myself as I resisted the change in direction and ignored, for so long, the calling in my heart to let go of a dream that no longer served me. I will forever be grateful and appreciative of the lessons this game has taught me. Football is so much more than a game.... Remember, every end is a new beginning. We can’t live our most expressive, fulfilled, and empowered life trying to labor away at something that doesn’t light us up from the inside out. I am getting ready to graduate from the #1 public institution in the world this summer and could not be more proud of myself. That in itself is more of an accomplishment to me than my scholarship to this wonderful school. I just want to thank everyone who has supported me throughout these years; coaches, teammates, teachers, mentors, family and friends. You all have shaped me into the person I am today. I am beyond blessed to have been graced by your presence and guidance throughout my life. I hope I can make you just as proud in this chapter of my life than I did in the one before."

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