The distance from Laney Community College to California Memorial Stadium is less than seven miles.
For Cal junior Marcel Dancy, a redshirt running back, it seems like much more than that. A lot more.
A product of East Oakland, Dancy is undersized and quiet in nature. His personality doesn’t scream exuberance, but his support system off the field does.
He calls himself blessed. Growing up in a tight-knit family, Dancy competed year-round in football, basketball and baseball — with a cheering section he describes as his “village.” Not everyone in his neighborhood was as fortunate, however.
He pauses when asked what he means by that.
“Just certain things such as, the good and the bad of life,” Dancy elaborates.
He pauses again.
“Let me rephrase that …”
Dancy collects himself and contemplates his answer.
“The different paths you can go in life … I’ve seen people take certain paths that led them to a negative life. I’ve seen people take certain paths that led them to a positive,” Dancy continues. “I was able to see that at a younger age than most people would.”
Two years ago, Dancy was enrolled in a community college just a short trek from where he was raised — and just a few miles from his next goal.
Walking out of a morning class one day, his phone buzzed. It was a call from a local number. Nearly 2,000 rushing yards at Laney and two decades worth of determination had led to this, another step toward his ultimate dream of playing for the NFL.
But no matter how many yards he rushes for, it’s safe to say he’ll be remembered for being more than just a player.
Sports can take an athlete all over the country, sometimes all over the world. Thus far, Dancy’s been lucky enough to remain close to his home in the East Bay, virtually next door to the family that raised him.
“My family’s been there since my birth, and they’re a major reason why I do what I do,” Dancy says.
But the journey from his home in East Oakland to Cal’s Memorial Stadium would prove to be a lot longer than seven miles.
Like most tailbacks, Dancy is quick on his feet. But unlike his backfield teammate Christopher Brown Jr., he doesn’t boast an overpowering physique or running style — and despite an impressive resume on the field at West High School, Dancy’s aspirations of playing for an NCAA Division I program were capped at first.
“I knew I would have to take the junior college route, so Laney was kind of like the perfect choice,” Dancy says. “I did what I had to do for two years over there, and my whole goal was to get out and get up the street to Cal.”
To truly stand out, a tailback needs more than just speed and instinct. For Dancy, his uniqueness comes from a “slippery” style of running, utilizing spin moves and sharp cuts, making him a frustrating, moving target for would-be tacklers.
“He’s got one of the meanest one-cuts I’ve ever seen, and his spin move is definitely something people are beginning to see nowadays,” says redshirt senior running back Alex Netherda.
Dancy’s athleticism was on display at West High School in nearby Tracy, where his family lived for a short time toward the end of his childhood. No matter what position he found himself in — running back, safety or return specialist — Dancy was the team’s primary playmaker.
When his explosive play translated at the junior college level, it was only a matter of time before a Division I offer would arrive. But after years of representing the 510 area code with pride, it almost seemed too good to be true — Dancy’s next landing spot would be just up the street.
It’s just after 9 a.m. on a weekday morning, and Dancy is walking out of class at Laney. His phone buzzes, and the contact lights up on the screen.
Burl Toler on the line.
Toler, Cal’s 2018 running backs coach and current receivers coach, was a former Cal star himself in the early 2000s. As Dancy answers the call, Toler’s excitement can’t be hidden.
It was four years prior when Dancy knew UC Berkeley was a future possibility. An unheralded prospect at the time, Dancy sought to make a good first impression the moment he got the chance. With the help of another former Cal star, he did just that.
“I came up here my sophomore year of high school, to the Cal (summer) camp, and Jared Goff happened to be my head coach,” Dancy says. “So I did what I did as a sophomore, and Jared introduced me to the coaches as a player to watch and to this day, they remember that — that camp.”
Toler’s call informed Dancy that he had received an athletic scholarship. The comeback kid was staying home.
Dancy redshirted the 2018 season — but not before seeing action in four contests, the maximum amount of games a student-athlete can play without using up a year of eligibility. In a win over Idaho State, Dancy made his debut, scored his first touchdown and proved himself worthy of a future role on the offense.
During the 2019 Spring Game, he broke out with two scores, eager to be a key cog in the committee seeking to fill the shoes of departing tailback Patrick Laird. He’s now played four more games as a Bear — complementing Brown Jr. as Cal’s one-two punch in the backfield and helping lead Cal to its first 4-0 start since 2015.
“The door of opportunity happened for me to come up here and play,” Dancy says. “I took it and ran with it.”
In the field, Dancy has run with his opportunity, showing off in front of his family and neighbors on weekends. But he knows firsthand how difficult it is to travel the winding road from spectator to star, and is eager to pave an easier path for the next generation.
When the subject of mentoring kids comes up, it’s easy to see what many already know — Dancy is mature beyond his years, wise enough to recognize his place as someone who’s looked up to by others.
“As an off-the-field guy, whatever he does he’s going to be successful because he knows the art of what it takes to be successful,” says running backs coach Nick Edwards.
This semester, Dancy has balanced out a weekly routine that would be overwhelming for anyone with classes, football practice, homework and studying. But his responsibilities don’t stop there.
His “free time” consists of being an assistant coach at the Oakland Dynamites Pop Warner Football Association, a program committed to teaching youth in Dancy’s hometown leadership and teamwork skills on and off the field. At Laney, he also volunteered his time as a coach for Next Level Flag Football, a program with roots in Berkeley.
Coaching is his way of giving back to the “village” that shaped him into what he is today.
“They’re all unique in their own way, they’re all special and very bright,” Dancy says of his players. “They’ve got all the potential in the world, and for me, I noticed for the first time that I was somebody that was looked up to as a role model.”
Dancy’s efforts off the field have been brought into the national spotlight. Two weeks ago, he was named to the 2019 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors a select number of student-athletes exemplifying leadership in local communities.
He’s one of 11 players at the NCAA FBS level named to the team, an honor that just three prior Cal student-athletes have earned.
“(Marcel) is a tremendous role model to anyone looking to succeed in life and an inspiration to so many,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “I’m so happy for him that he is being honored for his good works.”
Cal football is a program eager to find individuals who will better the world in countless ways. Marcel Dancy is as complete as they get, both on and off the gridiron. While his football story remains largely unwritten, the determined student has also matured into the humble teacher.
“Any chance I can get around my kids, those are my little brothers and sisters — so anytime I can get around them, I’m there during the week,” Dancy says. “My phone is always open to them, so it goes beyond the football field.”