Life under center: Chase Garbers is Cal football’s man of the hour

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

Don’t screw up.”

The date is Sept. 1, 2018, and the first quarter of Cal’s home opener against the University of North Carolina is winding down. Both offenses have struggled early on, and the turnover bug strikes as Jaylinn Hawkins picks off an errant throw from UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott, setting up the Bears on the edge of the red zone.

Out comes the Bears’ offense for its fourth possession of the afternoon. With the crowd buzzing after the first of Hawkins’ two interceptions of the game, many don’t notice the seismic shift in Cal’s season happening on the field less than 15 minutes into the season.

“Who is that? Is that Garbers?”


“I was just telling myself, ‘Score and don’t screw up.’ ”

Starting tailback Patrick Laird gets the first touch of the new drive — a run over left guard — but those paying attention to every detail are focused on something else.

“Who is that? Is that Garbers?”

As a word sounding oddly like “starburst” begins to circulate around California Memorial Stadium, the ball is snapped, and a new face etches himself into the Cal history books with his first collegiate throw — a pass underneath to Laird out of the backfield. The throw sails high, and that’s when everybody realizes that a new number is lining up in shotgun formation.

“Growing up, I always wanted to play college football — just watching everybody on TV, and as a little kid, you always thought, ‘Oh, that’d be awesome!’ to do that. Now I’m here.”

It wasn’t Ross Bowers, the incumbent starter from 2017 who led Cal’s first three drives. Nor was it Brandon McIlwain, the transfer from South Carolina with two-way potential. It was No. 7, Chase Garbers, a late recruit of former Cal head coach Sonny Dykes who many viewed as a future starter down the road.

The future arrived early. After Garbers finds Malik McMorris to set up Cal at the UNC two-yard line, Laird powers his way into the end zone for the blue and gold’s first score of the season. No. 7 points his arms in the air in triumph.

The blond-haired, easygoing kid from Newport Beach — who quietly had an impressive fall camp competing for playing time — is back in his element after redshirting his freshman season.

His parents, watching from the stands, express both shock and excitement at his successful, albeit abrupt, appearance. Bowers re-enters the game a couple of drives later. But when the second half kicks off, it’s Garbers who gets the call for most of Cal’s offensive snaps — from then until now.

Unexpectedly for most, the Chase Garbers era is underway in Berkeley.

Grant Garbers competed as a collegiate golfer at the University of Georgia. A two-time letterman for the Bulldogs in the 1980s, he knows a thing or two about identifying athletic talent. When his son expressed interest in football at a young age, Grant spotted flashes of stardom.

“I just grew up as an athlete-junkie. My dad played college golf, so that’s where I got the golf from, and then football and basketball came along in high school.”

—Chase Garbers

“I coached him when he was young, and I knew he had a pretty good arm all along,” Grant says. “His accuracy was prolific as a passer, and as a football guy, that’s always one of the things you always look at.”

Being a quarterback, however, wasn’t a slam dunk. When middle school arrived, Garbers initially struggled as a passer, but his love for the game of football persisted. He switched to linebacker and tight end for a couple of years, taking advantage of all the resources that his family and home presented him.

“Newport Beach is a wealthier place in California, I would say, so I definitely had certain luxuries that other people didn’t, which I’m very thankful for,” Garbers says. “I just grew up as an athlete-junkie. My dad played college golf, so that’s where I got the golf from, and then football and basketball came along in high school.”

With his parents encouraging him in his athletic endeavors, Garbers emerged as a two-sport star in basketball and football at Corona del Mar High School. He decided to give quarterback another chance, and in time, he became a prodigy under longtime head coach Dan O’Shea. The precision that his father noticed all those years ago hadn’t waned after his two-year hiatus.

“Freshman year came along, and I just tried out the quarterback thing again and it worked out,” Garbers reflects with a smile. “The rest is history.”

Garbers ran away with the starting quarterback job in his final few years with the Sea Kings. But as members of his recruiting class began to announce their commitments to bigger and brighter colors, the Garbers’ home mailbox remained empty.

His demeanor on the field didn’t change as the lack of interest continued. Nearly every one of his coaches and mentors growing up will tell you the same thing: Garbers doesn’t show negative emotion, staying calm and collected while getting the job done.

Ultimately, his hard work did pay off, and a handful of connections helped put him onto the path that he’s on today.

Like Grant Garbers, Karif Byrd is also a former University of Georgia student-athlete — in football and track, to be exact. Years after his playing career ended, Byrd began training young athletes professionally in the Newport area, and connected with the Garbers family early on in Chase’s life.

“He’s like a second dad to me — he’s always been there,” Garbers says of Byrd. “He’s been training me ever since I was little.”

While Garbers and Byrd met when the former was just 5 years old, it was their workouts during high school that changed Garbers’ chances at earning a well-deserved shot at Division I football.

Even at the end of his stellar junior season for Corona del Mar, Garbers still hadn’t received a single offer to play college football.

“I would call myself a late bloomer — I guess that’s what you’d call it in the recruiting world.”

—Chase Garbers

It wouldn’t happen until an MVP showing at the renowned Elite 11 quarterback competition started to put him on the recruiting map. Letters from all over the country began to stuff the Garbers’ mailbox, but it was Byrd’s routine and commitment to his trainee that pivoted Garbers in Cal’s direction.

“I would call myself a late bloomer — I guess that’s what you’d call it in the recruiting world,” Garbers says. “I didn’t get my first offer until going into my senior year, and there were guys in my class who had been committed since freshman year.”

Before the offers started flowing in, Garbers was invited to work out with one of Byrd’s most prized clients — a player by the name of Jared Goff. One of the most successful student-athletes in Cal history, Goff made an immediate impact on Garbers’ decision process.

On April 20, 2016, the Bears sent Garbers an offer he coveted. Eight days later, Goff was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL draft, but even with all the newfound fame and fortune, Goff remembered to send his friend a congratulatory text after Garbers committed to Cal in June.

“It’s exciting to be here at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the greatest academic institutions in the world,” Garbers says. “And I get to play the sport that I love.”

With 90 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions thrown in his time at Corona del Mar, Garbers had successfully overcome his middle school doubts of playing the quarterback position. He was just steps away from fulfilling a childhood dream of starting at the collegiate level — the only question was when those steps would be taken.

The answer to that question came Sept. 8, 2018, when Garbers was announced as Cal’s starter for the first time. Unlike his UNC appearance, he was facing an upstart BYU team, along with more than 50,000 Cougar fans dressed in white at LaVell Edwards Stadium — and a national audience was tuning in.

While many anticipated early-game jitters, those closest to Garbers knew that inside, he wasn’t panicking.

“Chase is a flatliner,” Grant says. “No highs, no lows — at least externally. He’s always just been a calm kid who’s easygoing and good with people.”

Despite a rocky start offensively, the Bears escaped Provo with a 21-18 win over the Cougars (and their home crowd), as Cal head coach Justin Wilcox earned arguably the biggest road win of his career to date.

Cal’s new starter remained cool, even after the team committed three turnovers in the second half. Along with McIlwain, Garbers put Cal in position to start the year 3-0 with a win over Idaho State the following week.



Karen Chow/Senior Staff



But while his name has garnered headlines in the early going, Garbers’ altruistic side shines through — his success has come at Bowers’ expense, as the former starter’s playing time has vanished.

“From a quarterback competition standpoint, we have the best quarterback room in the country — I truly believe that,” Garbers says. “All of us could go out on Saturday and win a game for us. And the amount of support that we have for each other is incredible. Other places in the country, you go there, and if there’s a competition, they may hate each other or wouldn’t help each other out, but here I think … we’re competing and also best friends.”

If Cal’s quarterback group is among the best, then it’s no secret that Garbers has put in the work to separate himself from the rest. Against Idaho State a week later, he completed 80 percent of his passes en route to a 45-point showing for the offense.

While McIlwain received a small portion of the snaps against the Bengals, it’s Newport Beach’s hometown underdog who continues to emerge as Cal’s primary passer — in the now, and in the future, too.

“If it turns out to be like high school, then it’s a very exciting future,” Garbers says of Cal’s outlook.

Today is Sept. 29, week five of the 2018 college football campaign. Like last season, Cal enters its fourth game with a 3-0 record, but kicks off conference play knowing that 2017 was largely a disappointment down the stretch. As Cal mustered only two wins in its final nine contests and fell short of a bowl game, Garbers watched from the sidelines.

This year, he’s at the forefront of changing the Bears’ destiny.

“As a team, we’re very ready for the Pac-12,” Garbers says of this year. “We’ve been preaching what we did wrong last season, and how we can fix that. I think after what we did through winter, spring, summer and then fall camp, it’s definitely going to be exciting to see what’s going to happen.”

For the first time since 2015, when Goff led the Bears to an 8-5 record, the Bears are ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll. But a tough loss to any upcoming opponent could bump Cal out of both the national and conference conversations, meaning the pressure is on as Pac-12 play commences.

In the second halves of close games, Cal fans should feel confident that the guy under center has the right mindset — just ask the one who instilled in Garbers his trademark calm.

“He studies hard, he doesn’t get flustered, so I don’t think the situation is going to create anxiety in him,” Grant says. “He’s a pretty calm guy and pretty confident. He’ll do what he has to do to help the team, and to get better.”

With a trio of quarterbacks ready at a moment’s notice and a defensive lineup that continues to impress, Cal’s outlook coincides with the team’s ranking — looking upward. Only time will tell if this is the year for Chase Garbers and Cal football.

Josh Yuen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @joshcal2020.