Things started early for Kyle Wells. That’s what happens when your dad was in the NFL.
“When I was a little kid, I had one of those tackling dummies in my backyard. We’d play around with that and play catch for hours,” he laughs.
Though Wells didn’t start contact football until he was in 8th grade, growing up in Loomis, California, he couldn’t deny that the sport seemed to be in his blood — and that’s no cliche. Not only did his pops grow up and play football around there — as well as eventually playing for San Diego State and in the NFL — but his mom’s dad was the high school coach who helped him get there.
“So he coached my dad and my dad’s brother and then all the brothers on my mom’s side, and I think there were even a few cousins over there too,” Wells says as he pulls out a few fingers to count. “I think he coached seven of my uncles and cousins.”
For Wells, now a redshirt junior tight end, football has always been a family affair. And while his actual blood family no longer coaches him at Cal, the community he feels with the Bears seems just as strong. Football players often call their teammates their brothers, and Wells’ brothers love to give him a hard time. They catcall him as he poses for a photo shoot, and he tries hard not to smile.
“Show them that ‘Kyle Face!’ ” Ross Bowers demands.
Wells isn’t so generous, though, and he doesn’t quite let loose in front of the camera. It’s understandable for a guy who’s had to be locked in on football since day one.
All the kids in the Sacramento area knew about Cal, but for Wells and his family, the team’s games were a weekly tradition. For most of his childhood, there was a lot to talk about.
“They had Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson. Everyone was a huge Cal fan in Sacramento; everyone was watching Cal games and keeping up with the Bears,” he says.
When the recruiting season finally came around, the Bears were still on his mind. After visiting a few Ivy League schools during his senior year of high school, Wells realized that when it came to his next step, football was just as important to him as academics. He needed more than a challenge in the classroom — he wanted it at a Division-1 school in a Power Five conference.
Eventually, the choice to come to Cal became the obvious one. Being just a couple hours from home doesn’t hurt either. So while he had to walk on to make the Cal football team, everyone in the organization welcomed him with open arms.
Well, almost everyone.
“I’ve always played tight end, and during the (Sonny) Dykes era, we didn’t really have that, so I didn’t really have a spot,” he says. “My first three years here, I just played scout team — I didn’t really play at all. I was just a forgotten soul.”
But a change in coaching staff this past offseason brought with it a sense of renewed opportunity for many players on roster, and for Wells especially. The redshirt junior is seeing more playing time than ever before and is having his best collegiate season, contributing to a Cal team that is overperforming for the first time since he’s arrived. For Wells, it feels good to help rebuild the team he grew up rooting for.
“For the average fans, there hasn’t been much to get excited about the last few years,” he says.
Wells walked on to a team in utter disarray, and he has been one of the few stabilizing forces on the Bears’ long path back to relevance in the über-competitive Pac-12. The team, as he acknowledges, was only projected to win two or three games this year. Yet here they are, competing for a bowl and still playing meaningful football in November.
“We’re going places — this program is on the up, so a bowl game would be a great foundation for guys to look back on and say ‘Hey, we were the first bowl in the Wilcox era, and look where the program is now.’ ”
But it’s not lost on him what earning the right to a bowl game entails. Cal needs one win in its last two games to win six on the season and become bowl-eligible in the first year of head coach Justin Wilcox’s tenure. And its first chance comes against an all-too-familiar foe from Palo Alto.
Big Game Week lights the Cal campus ablaze in blue, as does the customary Bonfire Rally that Wells laments the team will have to miss this year. But while Wells notes that the Bears’ week-to-week practice schedule hasn’t been tampered with, even with Stanford on the Saturday docket, the Bears are not without the spirit of California.
“We notice it,” he says. “We definitely know how much it means to this Cal community. We’ve seen all the YouTube videos where they tear down the goalposts, get the Axe back and start celebrating with it.”
It’s a nice thought, but those videos are old. Stanford hasn’t just held the upper hand in the rivalry for the past decade — it’s dominated. The Cardinal would own the new longest win streak in Big Game history with another victory over the Bears on its home turf, and the seven straight to this point have been rough enough.
“I mean, I’ve never played with anyone who’s ever beaten Stanford,” Wells admits. “Even the guys who were redshirt seniors when I was a true freshman hadn’t beaten Stanford. That spot for the Axe in our trophy room has been empty for too long.”
It’s a sentiment he shares with everyone on the team, both young and old. Wells wants to win the Big Game for the redshirt seniors, who were on roster for the disastrous 1-11 season in 2013, as much as he does for the wide-eyed freshmen who could have never dreamed of playing in a game as intense as Saturday’s will be. All those guys have become brothers to him. The memories he’s made in his recent years in Berkeley will be remembered as fondly as the old ones from back home in Loomis.
“The stuff I’ll take away from Cal is just all the memories with the guys,” he says. “Guys who will be my best friends for life.”
The ups and downs that come with college football — the freshman dorms to the cross-country flights — all add up to a whirl of moments that he and his teammates know will be done sooner than anyone realizes.
It’s what makes the special ones — his last game in Stanford, for example — all the sweeter.
“Stanford has a chance to win the Pac-12 North,” he says, reciting information he’s clearly been thinking about. “So if we could ruin their chances, get the Axe back, and get our sixth win to go to a bowl, that would really be something.”
It would indeed. So into the Farm they will ride — Kyle Wells, and the rest of his family.