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The intelligence game: Michael Saffell was destined to be a center

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STEPHANIE LI | SENIOR STAFF

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AUGUST 30, 2019

Before he could see or speak, Michael Saffell’s birth announcement read, “Our center has arrived.”

His father, who also goes by Mike, played center at El Camino Community College and has a deep passion for the game of football. As Saffell’s eventual mentor, emotional rock and best friend, his dad could only have dreamed of having a son who revered the game as much as he did.

Saffell is projected to start at center for the first time against UC Davis in game one of a highly anticipated 2019 Cal football season. More importantly, Saffell will fulfill his birth wish at the highest level of college football after years of dedicating himself to the craft.

Moving from right guard to center after the departure of former center Addison Ooms last season, Saffell has a brand new role of being smarter, craftier and more emotionally sound than the brute “mauler” type mentality that the right guard position garners.

“I think of myself as an emotionally driven offensive lineman,” Saffell says. “I’ve always been very intense and have played with a chip on my shoulder. When you move to center, you have to remove yourself from all of that emotion and be able to play more of the intelligence game.”

Saffell’s relatively small stature among the behemoths of Cal’s offensive line presents an additional set of challenges, on top of directing the offensive line, snapping the ball cleanly and maintaining proper blocking assignments.

His biggest concern is winning the play pre-snap. When he approaches the ball on the line of scrimmage, he is assessing how his opponents have lined up while simultaneously dishing out assignments to the giants on either side of him.

Saffell played at the center position in youth football under the guidance of his father and at his alma mater, Edison High School. Before he chose to take his place front and center, however, Saffell had a much different stance on those who played on the offensive line.

“When I was younger I was playing middle linebacker and running back, so I didn’t really care about the offensive line,” Saffell says. “I’m like, ‘Offensive line sucks, I will never play this position. They never get to touch the ball.’ And fast forward a few years and I’m like, ‘offensive line is the best position ever.’”

Saffell’s childhood home in Huntington Beach, California housed his father’s trophies from his playing days, some of which the elder Mike wouldn’t hesitate to pull out to remind his son who the premier lineman in the house was.

Any time the older Saffell’s favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, played the New York Giants, his son became that day’s biggest Giants fan. Each had more banter to throw than the other, a dynamic that has strengthened their relationship to this day.

“Say Notre Dame is playing USC,” Saffell says. “That week, I’m the biggest USC fan in the world.”

One thing was for sure, both preferred football over any other sport. When Saffell played baseball in between football seasons, Mike always told his son that it only passed the time between football seasons, even though baseball is widely known as America’s pastime.

As the jokes flowed freely from his father, his mother took on the “disciplinarian” role in Saffell’s upbringing.

“I’m still scared of her till this day. She can still beat me up,” Saffell says.

His two sisters each had their own unique impact on Saffell’s personal development. He took all of those values and applied them to every part of his life. 

When playing football became more competitive in middle and high school, Saffell linked up with 49ers legend and four-time Super Bowl champion Jesse Sapolu, who became an integral part of Saffell’s development on the offensive line.

“What it means to be a pro — that’s what I try to bring to the college level,” Saffell says. “Am I always going to be the best? No, I just turned 20. I’m not always going to be emotionally rock steady. But being a pro in everything, the classroom, in sports and around adults as well is extremely important to me.”

Even while being an anybody-but-the-Eagles fan growing up, Saffell idolized Philadelphia Sports Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and Chicago Bears Pro Football Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, fellow linebacker, for their passion and heart.

Stephanie Li / Senior Staff

On the gridiron, Saffell is a vocal leader for his offensive line core, which enters its first season as a collective unit under the direction of offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin and position coach Steve Greatwood.

“He has a huge role (on the team),” Baldwin explained. “He’s one of those guys who you could tell from day one when he got here in 2017, he had natural leadership qualities … He’s got great fire to how he plays the game, so he’s a guy who we really count on.”

After two starters from 2018 graduated and projected starting left guard Gentle Williams fell victim to injury late in fall camp, many on the offensive line, like Saffell, are exploring new positions.

“(The offensive line is) a hardworking, trust-oriented, nose to the grindstone type of group that is very dedicated,” Saffell says. “I don’t doubt anyone’s preparation, mentally or physically. Everybody is going to be ready to go when it comes to those aspects.”

The newly minted center entered the preseason fold later than his teammates, after nursing a season-ending lower body injury last fall. Despite his time off, Saffell was put on the Rimington Trophy watchlist, an award that recognizes the nation’s best center.

“It’s great to have some recognition, that people know that you’re working hard,” Saffell says. “It’s great for your mom to post it on Facebook, but at the end of the day I don’t even think about it.”

Saffell’s legacy at Cal has been epitomized by his inclusion on the Wuerffel Trophy watchlist, an award that is given to the student-athlete who best combines athletic performance and community service outreach.

Saffell personally requested to take over graduated running back Patrick Laird’s Summer Reading Challenge for this season, an effort that has resonated throughout the Berkeley community.

His season-ending injury in 2018 gave him the perspective and drive to take over for Laird after his departure to the NFL. It taught him how fast the gift of football can be taken away from him.

“When you’re a football player, kids are looking up to you. Kids are looking at you to establish the culture on what is cool and what is not,” Saffell says. “I don’t even know how long this football career can keep going, it could end tomorrow. So you really have a slight window where those kids look up to you and really follow your lead.”

Through his community efforts, Saffell hopes to set a precedent of mental and physical growth for future athletes and students.

“When I leave, I just want to show that in the classroom and on the football field, I took everything very seriously,” Saffell says. “That I was very intense in my preparation for both of those things. And that I gave my fullest effort to getting this offensive line group together and getting (Cal) back to a winning, historic program.”

Spencer Golanka is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.
LAST UPDATED

AUGUST 30, 2019


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