Making a hero: Jake Curhan is more than a lineman

Related Posts

There is a superhero for every super villain — the two are complementary, sometimes mutually dependent on one another.

Even unsung heroes have enemies. 

It’s just a requirement for the archetype — nothing personal. And there are many people that have reasons to be scared of Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan. 

Take local skiers at Lake Tahoe, for example. Can you imagine anything scarier than a 6’4” brick wall of a teenage boy hurtling down the mountain at breakneck speed right toward you? The only thing worse would be skiing with him and getting dusted on every run because you can’t keep up with him. 

“I was a really big skier growing up,” Curhan said. “Yeah, that surprises a lot of people.”

Cramped up by the thin rows of California Memorial Stadium, where any average-sized person would have at least a foot of legroom, Curhan had thrown his legs over the seats in front of him. Sprawled out over the bleachers, Curhan gazed over the field where he never thought he would find himself playing football.

“I never envisioned growing up that this was the path I was going to take,” Curhan said, as even though he was a multisport athlete for the majority of his life before coming to Cal, he hadn’t played football before his freshman year of high school.

But now that Curhan’s here, it’s hard to imagine a Bears squad without him — with 31 consecutive starts and a team captain title now under his belt, he has been integral to Cal football’s success in recent years, but never as much as he currently is. 

A physically battering season for the Bears has left the offensive line in shambles. Cal needed a hero, and no one has filled the role quite like Curhan. 

As is the case with every hero, though — especially those who are unsung — Curhan’s work saving the day is far from over.  

Like any good, unglorified protagonist, it’s not easy being in Curhan’s position on or off the field. Cal’s offensive line has allowed 21 sacks this season, the most of any Pac-12 team, largely due to the injuries that have ravaged its starters — Will Craig, Gentle Williams and Valentino Daltoso have all lost game time to injury.

Curhan has played all six games of 2019, but even when he and the offensive line are performing well, the credit usually goes to someone else.

“When the team’s doing great, you don’t expect anyone to talk about you, and when things are going wrong and the quarterback’s getting pressured and all that, everyone’s going to be talking all about you,” Curhan said. “When there’s a long run, it’s all the running back that did the great stuff.” 

Yet without Curhan’s hard work, some of the most notable plays of the season are unlikely to have happened. In the season opener against UC Davis in which the offense had 233 rushing yards, the most to date this year, nearly every question in the postgame press conference was directed toward running back Christopher Brown Jr., whose 36 carries stole the spotlight. After a joking nudge from Curhan, Brown Jr. course-corrected. 

“What I did tonight had little to do with my running,” Brown Jr. said. “I know you’re asking me these questions, but it’s really the guys at the front — I just ran, they blocked.”

“Appreciate it, man,” Curhan grinned. 

Curhan’s mindset has spread to new and returning players alike, fostering a humble yet hard-working mentality among offensive linemen.  

“It’s not about the individual accolades for him,” Daltoso, a close friend of Curhan and a fellow Cal offensive lineman, said. “I think that rubs off on the younger guys. It’s not about being recognized by other people. Especially for him, it’s showing other guys that it’s not about everyone else saying ‘Nice job’ — it’s about the standard you hold yourself to. I think he exemplifies that.” 

Curhan understands that his thankless job as a lineman is par for the course, but he has never let it discourage him. 

“I don’t need to be talked about to have motivation,” Curhan said.

Sam Albillo / Staff

C
urhan is not a very subtle person. His imposing stature and size are enough to strike uneasiness in even the biggest defensive linemen. You would be able to pick his curly head of hair and thick beard out in a crowd without trying, and his absolutely luminous personality is not one that goes unnoticed in a room. His position at right tackle, however, is one of the most understated in football — if he is doing his job right, you shouldn’t be focusing on him at all.

Much like himself on the field at times, football was hardly on the radar, much less on the table, for Curhan going into high school. Born and raised in Larkspur, California, his family was almost completely ski-oriented and had very few ties to the gridiron. “Growing up, we were a skiing family,” Curhan said. “I could still do it, but I don’t because I’m not allowed to. If I get hurt skiing that would be a big no-no over here.”

When Curhan wasn’t on Tahoe’s slopes with his family, he was busy either going to theater shows and museums or playing competitive travel basketball, a game that his size gave him an incredible advantage in. 

“Kids would always be kind of ricocheting off of him in the game. He was like a wall,” said Curhan’s mother, Randi Curhan. “He would lift the kids up if they would bounce off of him — he would always give them a hand and help them up.”

It wasn’t until Curhan joined the Redwood High School football team as a freshman with no prior experience that defensive linemen and coaches found reasons to fear him. Already staggering above his peers in terms of height and size, Curhan was a natural fit for the offensive lineman position, and once introduced to the technicalities of the game, he thrived. 

Curhan was starting varsity by his sophomore year and left Redwood High School as one of the most instrumental and successful players the school had seen. Mentored by teammate Alex Kosinski, an offensive lineman who landed a spot on the University of Arizona’s football team, Curhan became indispensable in athletic skill and leadership alike.

Curhan was named Lineman of the Year by the Marin County Athletic League in his senior year and led his team to the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. He was also the team captain in his final year at Redwood and put the school on the map, so much so that making playoffs became a regularity even after he graduated.

“It’s a rarity that you see a lineman a leader of the team,” said Curhan’s high school football coach Allen Talley. “Seeing him as a freshman, just a big, tall kid, still didn’t have his feet underneath him — to turn into what he did as a senior, it was good growth.”

And since Curhan has grown into the leadership role, he hasn’t grown out of it. At Cal, Curhan has started every single game he has been eligible for — an incredible feat considering the physical toll that offensive linemen pay. 

That price has been heavy for the Bears this season, especially with three of five starters now benched because of injuries.

“He’s been extremely consistent over his three-year span as a starter here,” said Steve Greatwood, Cal’s offensive line coach, about Curhan. “He’s been durable, and Lord knows we need him to continue to be durable, because the way they’re dropping this year … you know, it’s nice to be able to at least count on him showing up to every game.”

As is true for every real hero, it’s never about the title or recognition — it is about helping others first and foremost, which is something Curhan never shies away from. As one of the only uninjured lineman left standing, Curhan has had to take young players under his wing who have, despite all expectations, been thrust into action.  

“We’re banged up,” Curhan commented. “It’s hard. I remember my first year actually playing games; it’s like, things are moving fast, you don’t always know what’s going on. It’s trying to help those guys out the best I can and keep them encouraged — and also keep myself positive through it too, because it can get frustrating at times.”

Curhan’s own veteran status has helped him become more adept to the intricacies of college football, which in turn has helped him flourish as a leader and captain. 

You get a lot better when you‘re able to play that much just by being on the field and being able to see a whole lot of different things. Your anticipation gets better, and I think that helps make me a better teammate and helps me communicate better to the coaches,” Curhan said.  

Curhan’s ability to put himself in the cleats of players from all walks, runs or routes of life is what earned him the status of captain and, more importantly, the friendship of virtually everyone on the team, as well as the respect and trust of the coaches. 

“I think just to get his presence out there every day is instrumental,” Greatwood said. “Jake’s one of those guys on the field, when I’m not there on the bench, that can keep things focused and centered, and you need that when you have less experienced guys around.”

Curhan is proof that heroes aren’t born, they’re made. 

 

Perhaps those who should fear Curhan the most, however, aren’t the players he faces on the field. In fact, more than anyone else, it is the people who will find themselves in the same job market as Curhan one day who should seriously consider packing up and shipping off to a foreign country.

Luckily, not many of us are as likely to end up in the NFL as Curhan is, and since the league is his goal after college, we might all be safe — for a while, at least. 

But the ephemeral nature of athletic careers is well-known to Curhan, and one day, he will enter the same economy as the rest of us as a hero among men. 

His veteran experience on the field has translated into a deep understanding of how to balance every aspect of life outside of football with the sport itself. “There’s no question that college football is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Almost anyone on this team with me would probably say the same thing,” Curhan said. “I’ve gotten to a point where it’s like, ‘I can do this.’ It just gives you a whole lot of confidence and the ability to push yourself and see what you can be.”

But beyond all he has already achieved, Curhan yearns to continually build his own character and knowledge of the world, much like your friendly neighborhood hero might do in order to stay a step ahead of the bad guys at all times.

“He’s doing great in school; he’s got a business degree. You know, you don’t really need to step outside yourself and do more, but he really does,” said teammate and close friend Henry Bazakas about Curhan’s constant hunt for knowledge. “He has these interests, and he goes and pursues them, and that’s something I really admire about Jake.”

“I’m figuring out that I can handle football, I can handle school, I can handle having a social life — what more can I do to challenge myself, and what more can I do to grow and learn?” Curhan said. 

The answer? Start a podcast. 

After connecting with Hakeem Valles, a recently retired NFL tight end turned real estate investor and Pac-12 football analyst Yogi Roth, Curhan discovered that talking with successful people who had “been there and done that,” as he outlined it, would allow him to learn from some of the best in their fields and teach him valuable life skills and lessons along the way. Thus, the seeds for what would become Curhan’s podcast, titled Sooo Stignatious! and described by him as “the podcast where the name is made up but the people are real,” were sown. 

Over the summer I bought a couple of $40 mics, and I’ve been using GarageBand on my computer — the lowest setup ever — but I’ve been talking to a lot of different people who have been what I consider successful in whatever their diverse career interest is,” Curhan explained. “Just figuring out why they love to do what they do — and why they get up to do it — and what makes them so good at it. I think I’ve released about seven or eight episodes, but I’ve got a ton in the bank. I was planning to do them each week of the season, but turns out the season’s a pretty busy thing,” Curhan smiled. 

Curhan has interviewed a whole spectrum of people from professors to music producers, including former Cal running back Patrick Laird. Others, such as Bazakas, are still waiting eagerly for the chance at an episode of their own. “I haven’t done anything cool enough, I guess. Not stignatious enough,” Bazakas joked.  

“His approach to his podcast is more about other people’s curiosities and other people’s passions and saying, ‘These people are doing something that’s something to look up to and emulate,’” Randi Curhan said. “It’s not necessarily about him all the time, and that’s part of his nature — he’s humble.

Curhan is exemplary of humility, kindness, academic achievement and athletic ability. His temperance and capacity to understand others through empathy makes him the ultimate teammate, and his sense of humor is unmatched. So if you find yourself out of a job one day because Curhan was a better fit for the position, don’t take it personally — it’s the hero archetype. 

Turns out, Curhan isn’t someone to be feared at all — if you’re on the same side of the ball as him, at least.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.