Left side, strong side: Tyler Rigsbee’s final season at Cal

For Tyler Rigsbee, football is more than a passion — it's a way of life. But come December, he's ready to leave it behind for a radical change.

Michael Tao/Staff

In Memorial Stadium, Tyler Rigsbee and the rest of the offensive linemen huddle around a bench on Cal’s southeast sideline when they aren’t on the field. They stake that bench as their territory, and they wait out the defensive drives.

More often than not these days, each defensive effort feels like a three-and-out; Rigsbee and the linemen don’t spend too much time by the bench.

More often than not, the bench could be a sanctuary in comparison to the field. The Bears march onto the field as soldiers approaching war — one they sometimes don’t win.

A fifth-year senior, Rigsbee has spent his final year with Cal as the starting left tackle. He weathered injury and half-completed seasons to get to this point, and thus far he’s watched the line blunder through errors, watched the team suffer through disappointing losses.

This year is it. When the season is over, so is Rigsbee’s football career.

He doesn’t have dreams of going to the NFL; he’s ready to move on to the next challenge in his life. He is a political science major who will graduate in December with the hopes of attending law school.

But Rigsbee hasn’t been alone in his pursuit of a complete, memorable season; Jordan Rigsbee, a redshirt freshman and Tyler’s younger brother, has lined up right next to Tyler before every snap as the Bears’ starting left guard.

Football is more than a passion for the Rigsbee family; it’s an inalienable right. Tyler’s father Craig was the head football coach at Butte College before becoming the community college’s athletics director in 2005.

Tyler inherited his father’s world. When he was in elementary school, he was a ball boy for the Roadrunners and spent every Saturday “wreaking havoc” on the sideline. He’d watch the young men on the field and look to them as real-life heroes.

“A lot of the older players were always really cool to me, they’d play catch with me,” he says. “I thought they were the greatest things ever and there was no way I could be as good as them.”

At that point, he had yet to play a single snap of organized football. His family loved the sport, but that didn’t stop his parents from fearing the harm it could wreak on Tyler and Jordan. His mother, Karla, didn’t want her babies to get hurt or burned out on the game that sustained the entire family.

For Tyler, the big break came in sixth grade when he was first allowed to play contact football. He started out on the offensive line, and he’s been there ever since.

Jordan took Tyler’s blazed trail the following season.

The brothers are three years apart but go through life in tandem, constantly one-upping and supporting each other. They even competed together in a few playoff games during Tyler’s senior campaign at Pleasant Valley High School.

But when the time came for Tyler to choose a college football program, he was alone in his decision.

And that was how he wanted it.

Cal was the lifetime love, the dream fulfilled. Only three hours from his family home in Chico, Calif., Memorial Stadium was a feasible commute each Saturday for his parents and brother.

Rigsbee sifted through other Pac-12 schools like UCLA and Oregon, but in the end the choice had always already been made. He occasionally took advice from family and friends during the recruiting process but based the final decision on his own gut instinct.

It was the same advice he instilled in Jordan three years later when the latter had to commit.

“You’re gonna spend every waking moment here,” Tyler says. “You’re gonna wake up, go to football, go to school and then go back to football. And if you don’t enjoy that, it’s not worth it.”

There was never regret over his own decision. Not when he redshirted his inaugural year. Not when he came off the bench for a combined total of eight games in his first three years at Cal.

The regret didn’t even surface when he suffered a knee injury in 2008. Just before the 111th Big Game, he took a jarring hit during practice and tore his ACL.

The road to recovery lasted throughout the offseason and spring training. Rigsbee had to play catch-up not only that season but the following two as well. Injuries kept occurring, and all Rigsbee could do was wait out the storm.

“It was already hard enough coming to college and not playing as you did your whole life,” he says. “And then being hurt, being out all that time, took a lot of hard work to get back from.”

But he loved football, and he loved the team. Recovery didn’t feel like a punishment, just a waiting game.

It seems fitting for Rigsbee that his final season should be the one in which he finally stakes a starting position.

He takes the duty seriously and knows that with it comes an accountability to more than just himself. His work ethic trickles down to influence the younger players who start alongside him.

Players like Jordan.

Tyler isn’t the captain, but he acts as an additional leader. He thrives off the team concept — the unity and collective goals and shared emotion.

“It teaches you a lot more about life than just playing a sport,” Rigsbee says. “In my mind it’s the ultimate team sport. You have to have 22 guys totally believing in the same thing to win and be successful.”

But all that camaraderie could smolder in the wake of a season like Cal’s.

The team must win out in order to make a bowl this year. There have been glaring problems never addressed and subtle turning points never seized.

The turning points are hard to pin down, but a glaring problem could be the porousness of the offensive line. The unit has given up 37 sacks, alarming enough for worst in the entire FBS.

Even now, Rigsbee doesn’t doubt his line’s and his team’s ability. If the players’ backs are against the wall, that only means they finally know where they stand and what they need to do.

Rigsbee believes in his team because he believes in the power of this sport.

He believes in the potential of those who will play after him — Jordan foremost among them.

“I couldn’t ask for a better way to finish my college career,” Rigsbee says. “Being able to play with Jordan and playing with a great team …

The only thing I’d love is to hopefully have a couple more wins right now.”

As the clock wound down on Cal’s 43-17 win over UCLA on Oct. 6, the offensive linemen weren’t huddled around their bench.

Instead, Rigsbee and his teammates stood along the sideline with the rest of the Bears. They watched the Bruins’ quarterback rush for garbage yards. They heard the thunderous din that emanated from the packed stands and echoed throughout the jubilant stadium.

Moments later, Tyler Rigsbee turned his back to the field and looked up. An ecstatic Jordan — who recovered a fumble earlier in the night — jumped into the stands to belt out the California fight song alongside fans.

Rigsbee frequently leaves the theatrics to his younger brother. In the last three years, Tyler has learned to settle down into football, to appreciate the intricacies that make up a team and fill a bigger picture.

Give Jordan a bit longer to get used to it. He’s got three more years to play the sport both brothers love.

And Tyler has three more years to watch him, just as he did that night.

Contact Annie Gerlach at [email protected]