After stalling at the Northwestern 10-yard line in the first drive of the season, Cal lined up in field goal formation. Redshirt senior Jackson Bouza knelt on the ground to take the snap. Instead of placing the ball on the ground, however, Bouza lateraled it to kicker Vincenzo D’Amato, who broke out of the pocket. But that wasn’t the end of the razzle-dazzle. As defenders closed in on D’Amato, he lobbed the ball over the defense to Bouza.
The Bears lost the game, but that touchdown catch — the first in both Bouza’s and head coach Sonny Dykes’ careers at Cal — was a precious reward for Bouza after four years of sporadic playing time. Bouza said that for days after the catch, his friends would text or call him to tell him where it was on ESPN’s list of top plays. He thinks it got as high as third.
A walk-on whose father also walked on at Cal on his way to a nine-year career as a wide receiver in the NFL, the 6-foot, 180-pound Bouza not only earned a scholarship after his third year but was one of four players to be voted a captain for this season.
“Having the respect of the coaches is one thing, but having the respect of your teammates and best friends is another thing completely,” Bouza said. “When they voted for me, it was really cool. That’s definitely a big highlight.”
Beyond earning a scholarship, being voted team captain has been the highlight of Bouza’s time with the Cal football program.
Bouza has spent the majority of the past two years on special teams, but he’s also had the chance to go in as a wide receiver. In 2011, he had three catches for 32 yards. In 2012, he had one catch for 18 yards. In 2013, he has nine catches for 141 yards.
“It’s just cool to make plays in front of everyone,” Bouza said. “It’s fun rotating in. When I came in here as a freshman, I just wanted to get on the field. I still get that feeling of excitement. I’ve always been a confident football player. I always knew I could play. It just took a little while for it to happen.”
Despite having some highlights — a 26-yard catch against Ohio State on third-and-20, two catches for 28 yards in the 2011 Big Game to help cut the score to 31-28 — what matters most to him is having the respect of his teammates.
Bouza tries to lead by example. That means spending lots of time watching film, fitting in an extra lifting session here and there and trying to keep the team motivated. For him, being a leader means being able to be vocal. That means bringing energy to practice, which is “a grind, especially at this point in the season.”
“We basically live up here,” Bouza said of Memorial Stadium and the football training facilities.
Friend and fellow wide receiver Bryce McGovern, a junior, likes having Bouza as a captain because he’s always upbeat and encouraging. Even if Bouza is upset about something, he tries to turn it around for the sake of the team.
“I really wish he weren’t leaving after this year,” McGovern said. “I know it’s kind of selfish, but we’ll miss him.”
Having seen stadium and coaching changes, Bouza still hasn’t gotten over how fun it is to play college football for the Bears. He said he’s still having fun and sees a lot of good things in the future of the football program.
“This is the best stadium in college football,” Bouza said. “It’s amazing. It really makes you appreciate all the alumni and people who made it happen.”
His dad, Matt Bouza, couldn’t be prouder of his son. Matt Bouza said that while his son’s journey has been a long one, he exemplifies the ideal that you should be entitled to nothing and grateful for everything.
According to his dad, Bouza has a very dry sense of humor and is known as a bit of a prankster — a “rally starter,” as Matt Bouza put it. On Halloween, Bouza came up with the idea of replacing a mannequin dressed in a Cal football jersey with a real football player. People walking by got quite the scare.
When Matt Bouza and his son play football, Bouza gives his father a hard time, laughing and telling him to be careful not to pull a muscle.
Still, Bouza has a serious side that comes out when he needs to be a leader for the team.
“He’s very introspective,” Matt Bouza said. “He’s always improving himself. He’s never satisfied. He’s always looking for improvement. Plus, he has a gift of making people feel very welcome and comfortable.”
Matt Bouza, who does his best to never miss a Cal football game, never doubted his son would leave a mark on the Cal football program. As a kid, Jackson always gave everything he had to all of his interests, one of which was reptiles. Until eighth grade, Bouza played basketball, which his father thinks contributed to his quickness and hand-eye coordination. In high school, Bouza sacrificed family vacations for football practices and games.
“I think his journey has been to never say something can’t happen,” Matt Bouza said. “It was his dream to walk on to Cal, to earn a scholarship. I think he’s accomplished more than he ever thought was possible. When he looks back on his time with the program, the fact that he persevered through all of that will help him through the rest of his life. This has set the framework for him. It makes you a believer.”
Bouza, a sociology major who needs only four more units to graduate, hasn’t started looking forward to what the rest of the year and the future hold, even though there are only three weeks left in the season.
“I put everything I have into the season. That’s what I owe my team,” Bouza said. “I just think it’s crazy how far I’ve taken my college career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Shannon Carroll covers women’s swim. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.