Rusty Simmons, Chronicle Staff Writer
Phillip Mbakogu tried sitting, then standing and then gingerly limping along the sidelines before settling on sitting again at a Cal football practice last year. He pulled the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head and tugged on the draw strings until his eyes were barely visible through a small hole. Then, just that quickly, he removed the sweatshirt altogether. Nothing feels right any more. As long as the defensive end is on the sidelines instead of the field, he may never feel comfortable again. "Playing football with this group of guys is something I love, so it hurts that I can't do it," said Mbakogu, who is expected to miss his second consecutive season with a knee injury. "Every time I come out and see these guys practicing without me, it adds to the hole in my soul." Mbakogu has been reduced to observer for almost two years, and, in some ways, he has started to grasp the idea of never playing again. "He's trying to evaluate his future," coach Jeff Tedford said. "There's still a glimmer of hope there, but it doesn't look good."
After emerging as a sophomore, Mbakogu started to feel pain and see swelling in the back of his left knee. Doctors were confused, so they planned a simple exploratory scope. They found that the problems were not with the ligaments but the cartilage of the knee. One surgery, no progress. Second surgery, about the same. "Even with all of the advances in technology, there isn't really anything that works for this kind of injury," defensive line coach Ken Delgado said. "He's keeping his hopes up, and we are too, but we can't plan around having him on the field." But they can always count on having him nearby. Mbakogu can be found in the trainer's room, the weight room or the pool nearly every day. For about 21/2 hours a day, he does pool workouts, gets treatment and takes yoga classes. Mbakogu admits that the pain and rigors are intense, but he's found the proper motivation. "I remember being tired on the field and feeling like I didn't have anything left," he said. "I wish I would have played even harder in those situations, because now I can't even get out there. That will always drive me."
Receiver Robert Jordan, who teamed with Mbakogu at Hayward High before both came to Cal, sees his teammate's frustration. "He's battling back," Jordan said. "He wants to be back out there so bad. "He apologized for not being able to get out there for my senior year, and I could see that it was killing him." But good news comes every once in a while. Recently, doctors cleared Mbakogu to walk up and down the steps of Memorial Stadium. These days, it's the little things. "That's the current positive," Mbakogu said. "If you get caught thinking too far ahead, you can stumble over the things that are right in front of you."
That was never clearer than in the two months following the first surgery. Mbakogu, a 6-foot-3, 275-pounder who once seemed destined for the NFL, needed a wheelchair to get from class to class. "It gave me the simple appreciation for walking," he said. "You remember what you used to be able to do, and now, you need a chair to help you move." Mbakogu was rated as the No. 4 high school defensive end in the country by the recruiting site Rivals.com. He started to prove the projection accurate in 2005, when he burst on to the college scene to lead Cal's defensive linemen with 40 tackles and the team with 10 tackles for a loss. In five starts, he tallied 51/2 sacks. "I probably won't be able to do that stuff again," Mbakogu said. "Some guys really wrestle that inner-war that comes with the emotional attachment to the game," Delgado said. "Some guys come to the realization that they can't perform physically, and some guys carry it on to the nth degree.
"I understand that he has to keep his hopes and dreams alive, but we've also had conversations with him about focusing on a degree and the next step up in his life." Mbakogu is on pace to graduate in 11/2 years, and he's set a deadline for his return to the field. He said he wants to be 100 percent by spring drills, or he'll call it a career. "At least I'll know that I gave it everything I had," he said. "I'm literally doing everything I can to come back." Surely, there's some comfort in that.
Briefly: Two days after Kyle Reed left the field crestfallen, having gotten word that he had lost out on the backup quarterback spot to Kevin Riley, he said Saturday that he wouldn't entertain transferring or switching positions. "Obviously, I was disappointed and kind of confused, but it's just something I've got to deal with," said Reed, a sophomore from McClymonds High-Oakland. "It's still something that's wearing on me, but I've got to suck it up as a man and try to better myself." Tedford said he wasn't upset by Reed's behavior Thursday. "That's natural when somebody has invested so much time and energy," he said. "You don't expect him to be chipper."