Ball so hard

Seven years ago, C.J. Anderson's high school friend was killed. The Cal tailback plays on in his memory.

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Kevin Foote/Staff

Life is tragedy, confront it.

Walk into the Jesse Bethel High School weight room and there is a 16-line poem about life that begins “Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.”

This poem is dedicated to Michael Tracy Pennerman Jr., a former Bethel student who was killed after sustaining injuries during a football game on Nov. 7, 2004. Pennerman chased after a bad snap on an extra point attempt and ended up on the bottom of a large pile. Moments later, Pennerman collapsed. Several hours later, the promising junior was pronounced dead.

The death shocked the entire Vallejo, Calif., community, but 13-year old C.J. Anderson had just lost his role model. A blossoming young freshman, Anderson sought to emulate Pennerman’s success on the field as well as his character.

“It was like losing a big brother,” Anderson says. “I was always following his footsteps. He always kept me motivated, because he was on the rise of getting some offers. He was the man at the high school I was coming into. He was the man making the plays, and I wanted to put myself in that position.”

A close friend of Pennerman’s younger brother Trent, Anderson adopted the new team motto as his own credo. His own tribute to his lost friend:
“Ball for Dawg.”

Every time he pulls at his jersey and sees his number nine, the number Pennerman wore when he took the field for the last time seven years ago, Anderson reminds himself why he plays this game. And this season more than ever, he is constantly reminding himself that he needs to ball for Dawg.

“I say it before every game,” Anderson says. “I run out to the goal line, say a little prayer and point to the sky for Dawg. Ball for Dawg.”

Life is a challenge, meet it.

C.J. Anderson anxiously bobs with anticipation every time the ball is snapped, because he wants the ball. He’s not used to a backup role, and it is testing his patience.

Anderson typically has his number called in short-yardage situations on third downs and near the goal line. A stocky, bruising runner capable of shedding defensive linemen and bursting through seams, he is hungry for more carries.

“He’s a physical guy that’s got some quickness to him,” running backs coach Ron Gould says. “Once he gets behind his pads, he is a load to bring down.”

He caught the eye of Cal fans when he erupted through the Colorado front seven for an emphatic 20-yard touchdown run that gave Cal a fourth quarter lead on the road. The crowd has started to chant for him when Cal gets near the goal line.

But even with his growing popularity and effectiveness in short-yardage situations, Anderson is averaging only 4.5 carries per game.

Patience, he says. This season has taught him patience.

Life is a dream, realize it.

Everywhere Anderson played before he arrived in Berkeley, he was the feature offensive weapon. At Bethel as both an option quarterback and running back, he racked up over 4,000 total yards while leading his team to four consecutive playoff appearances. In two years at nearby Laney Junior College, Anderson earned first team All-American, All-State and All-NorCal Conference Honors.

With its running back depth chart stacked with multiple upperclassmen and several promising underclassmen, Cal did not initially recruit Anderson out of its neighboring junior college. Despite his local ties, Anderson himself never thought of Cal as his future destination. He was deciding between Utah and Kansas State before a surprise offer came through.

“To tell you the truth, I never really wanted to go to Cal,” Anderson says. “When I got the offer I was excited. I got to come to a prestigious school, and then I knew this was a place where I could make my dreams come true.”

Despite being monitored for several months by schools across the U.S., Anderson wanted to give Cal the same chance he gave other schools.

The prospect of playing locally became more and more appealing for Anderson. He had strung together tremendous success at both Bethel and Laney, and now he had an opportunity to stay near his mother, Barbara and little brother, K’lan — who is a standout for top-ranked Bethel. After a successful visit that included some kind treatment toward his mother, Anderson knew that he could trust the Cal coaching staff.

Anderson would commit to Cal to play under touted running backs coach Ron Gould with visions of becoming the next great Bears running back. He became the first Bethel graduate to sign with a Pac-12 school and gave himself an opportunity to ball for Dawg at the top level of collegiate football.

And after he couldn’t don the number nine at either Bethel or Laney, Anderson could now wear his tribute to Pennerman.

“Every time I look down at my chest it reminds me what I am playing this game for and who I am playing this game for,” he says. “He had big dreams. If I can live those dreams with that number all the way through, then it is like we are living our dreams together. When I look down at that number, I know I need to push myself a little bit harder.”

Life is a struggle, accept it.

Nine games through his first season in Berkeley, things have not quite worked out the way Anderson envisioned. His carries remain limited, his assignments few and his playing time infrequent.

“I’ve learned to be patient and to wait my turn,” Anderson says. “I’ve been the guy all of my life, and now I’m on the sidelines. I’ve learned to serve the role that I need to play. When I am out there I perform and I try to make plays. Right now I’m just waiting for my number to be called. My time will come.”

Like any determined team member, Anderson is frustrated by his lack of playing time, but he has excelled in his limited action. Despite some strong running, he still has plenty of room to improve according to the man he came to play for: Ron Gould.

“He’s getting better every week with the details,” Gould says. “He took a step back recently, but now he’s starting to rebound. He’s really starting to learn how to accept constructive criticism, and he’s responded in a positive way.”

Life is a game, play it.

Throughout his bouts with playing time, continuing adjustment to college life and coping with the demands of being a Division-I athlete, Anderson has his number to assure he exerts his best efforts on a daily basis. His number, Michael’s number, is his motivation.

“I am proud to wear that number. It means a lot. ” Anderson said. “(Pennerman) died doing what he loved doing. He is the only person that I know that died doing what he loved doing.”

Break that extra tackle, get that extra yard, get in the end zone.

That is ballin’ for Dawg.

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