It was just before midnight in Salt Lake City when the score went final: the Utes had shut out Cal football, 35-0. Moments after the game ended, redshirt senior running back Alex Netherda grabbed his phone in the visiting locker room and saw a text from his father, Mark.
Back home in Santa Rosa, the Kincade Fire was slowly closing in on Netherda’s hometown. Just a few weeks prior, the community had remembered the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs Fire, which burned nearly 40,000 acres and destroyed nearly 6,000 structures.
“It rocked my family pretty hard,” Netherda recalled. “People definitely had it worse, but we had it pretty bad. We all got out alive so we were lucky in that regard, but it was tough.”
In 2017, the Netherda family’s entire neighborhood was destroyed after the community received little to no warning when the Tubbs Fire escalated to a state of emergency. While they managed to escape along with their pets, Alex and his family lost their home and a majority of their belongings.
This time around, if the wind blew in the wrong direction again, Netherda knew right away he needed to act quickly.
Still, he was more than 700 miles from the home his family had rebuilt in the exact same spot after the devastation of the Tubbs Fire. As he boarded the team flight back to the Bay Area, he grew increasingly anxious, twiddling his thumbs and tapping his foot while awaiting his parents’ next text.
“That was the longest plane ride of my life,” Netherda said. “It was like an hour and 15 minutes or something like that, but that was awful.”
When the plane finally landed in Oakland, it was almost 3 a.m. — and like the rest of the team, Netherda had been busy all day long. But after arriving back in Berkeley, showering quickly and packing a small bag, Alex didn’t hesitate with his next move.
“As soon as I get home, I want to come up and be with you guys,” Netherda texted his parents.
An hour later, he pulled up to his house, where his parents were waiting for him.
“I (wanted) to help because they didn’t have any warning last time and they weren’t able to get out with anything really,” Netherda explained. “I wanted to come up and change that this year — because if we were going to lose the house again, as far as I was concerned, we weren’t going to lose a damn thing that was in there.”
The next few days were mentally exhausting and more than nerve-wracking, as Netherda slept only a few hours over the next couple of nights, monitoring the situation and preparing for different scenarios as the fire remained a threat.
But for a guy whose collegiate career has defined by ups-and-downs, resilience — and emerging stronger on the other side of adversity — is nothing new to Alex Netherda.
Mom, can I please play football?”
Paula Seitz-Netherda remembers her son’s numerous pleas throughout his elementary school years. She cites injury concerns and “the aggressiveness of the game” as her primary reasons in initially keeping him off the gridiron and focusing on other sports, like baseball and soccer.
“I’ve always been a very, very active kid,” Netherda said. “Growing up, (my siblings and I) played all the sports we could. (My sister) played soccer, softball. I always wanted to play football, but my mom was never keen on the injury deal.”
Regardless of which sports Netherda, his sister and his brother were playing, the trio of siblings cheered each other on. But when his father Mark — a medical specialist in HIV and AIDS work — temporarily moved the family to Namibia for two years, there were no more soccer practices or baseball scrimmages on their schedule. On top of his mom’s home schooling, it was a different environment than what young Alex was used to.
While Netherda loved his experience on the other side of the world, his mom could tell that he missed doing what he loved most — competing in whichever sport was in season.
After the family arrived back to the United States when Netherda was in fifth grade, his mom finally caved.
“I felt bad enough because we went away for a year and missed baseball season — and it was critical because he was behind all of his friends in the skills arena,” Paula said. “He came to me and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to be a running back in the NFL, that’s what I want to do with my life.’”
“That’s great!” was her response. But his mom encouraged him to have a backup plan, reminding him of how many boys have that dream — and how many really make it.
After thinking about it for a bit, Paula recalls that her son returned to her later with his elaborate plan.
“‘Okay mom, my backup plan is, I’ll be a tight end!’” Paula recalled. “He’s just been dedicated and that’s the one thing he’s always wanted to do.”
Sure enough, it was at tight end where Netherda got his start on the football field. But his eyes remained fixated on the running back position, a role he grabbed hold of at Maria Carrillo High School.
It was fitting that Netherda wore a No. 1 jersey throughout his high school career. Both on the field — as a running back and safety — and off the field as a leader, Netherda was recognized as equally skilled and mature.
“They called him ‘the Senator’ because he’d be the first kid to walk over to the crowd and stick out his hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Alex! How are you? Thanks for coming to the game!’” Mark said. “It’s been like that for forever.”
As a senior, Netherda accumulated 24 touchdowns on the offensive side of the ball, while recording four interceptions and six forced fumbles as a safety. But while his popularity soared, it was a moment involving his younger brother that stands out the most from that memorable season.
“We played Ukiah High School and my brother had gotten pulled up to varsity that day, just for that game,” Netherda recalled. “They put him in and he just clips this 40-yard touchdown run. Every time we score, someone would run our school flag up and down the track.”
And since nobody was happier for his brother than Alex…
“Just out of pure euphoria I guess, I grabbed the flag up off the ground,” Netherda said. “I just started charging down the track straightaway, while my brother is circling in the endzone getting patted on the back by the rest of my team and I just lost my mind.”
Popular duo, to say the least. But to say it runs in the family might be an overstatement — nobody in his family had played college football and navigating the recruitment trail proved to be difficult. When Netherda began the process, his family wasn’t sure where to start and coaches weren’t sure where to put him on the field.
“It was kind of like trying to drive across town, blind, because you know the direction you need to head — but you don’t know the steps to get there,” Netherda said of his recruitment.
Fortunately, Netherda caught the eye of current Cal receivers coach Burl Toler III, who immediately took the aspiring running back under his wing and did everything he could to give him a shot.
Three years after walking on to the team, Netherda received a scholarship and has grown into a teammate that coaches and players alike can’t help but root for.
“He’s a student of the game and he brings energy and it’s what this program needs and what this program is built around,” Toler explained. “There’s not one person I’ve met who’s said anything bad about him. He cares what kind of human he is and he reinforces the fact that how you do anything is how you do everything.”
Today, Netherda’s claim to fame is the whirlwind of an experience he’s endured across five seasons in Berkeley. The numbers speak for themselves: 12 position changes, two coaching staffs, four jersey numbers and of course, two houses. Through it all, he’s been a popular figure in the Bears locker room regardless of his minimal opportunities on the field.
Ironically, one of the position groups he did not join during his time at Cal was that of tight end — the position he lined up at during his first game in fifth grade. And while he’s received just three snaps at running back over the course of his time with the program, this experience has been pivotal in shaping the person he is today.
“It’s been rocky, a lot of turnover, a lot of flip-flopping, a lot of back-and-forth,” Netherda said. “It’s definitely not how I drew it up in my head coming out of high school. But I am ever grateful for my experiences here. I owe a lot to both administrations that I went through and I’ve been pretty blessed in my experience.”
With a background in legal studies and a passion for entrepreneurship, Netherda is poised to succeed in whatever he plans on doing next. And when he ran out of the California Memorial Stadium tunnel on senior night just last week, he did it with his head held high.
“I never gave up,” Netherda said. “There are lots of times throughout my career here that I thought, ‘I might need to step away, I might need to stop.’ But I stayed true to who I was and how I was raised — and I never gave up.”