Master of 1: Cal cornerback Joshua Drayden’s acceptance of accountability

Joshua Drayen
Karen Chow/File

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Joshua Drayden clapped his hands to his helmet and shook his lowered head as the referee’s voice echoed across the stadium in Corvallis, Oregon.

“Personal foul, face mask, defense No. 20. Fifteen-yard penalty, automatic first down.”

It wasn’t flagrant, and it was hardly premeditated, but Drayden’s hand grazed Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson’s face mask plain as day. The gain pushed Oregon State, about to punt and down just 3 points with plenty of time on the clock before halftime, to its 40-yard line. Drayden knew it was a slip-up.

A former version of himself may have obsessed over it, allowing it to bury itself within his psyche and rattle him for the rest of the game. As any player would tell you, it’s not easy to know that your actions can have such an impact on the whole team.

Drayden, now a redshirt senior and well-versed cornerback, has become comfortable with this kind of accountability.

Drayden believes that you get out what you put into any venture, a value instilled in him by his parents and solidified by his five years at Cal. Life is a constant give-and-take in which hardships are balanced by the fruits of hard work, and even for all the variables that might play a part, Drayden is only concerned about the one he can control: himself.

“It starts with you. You have to be able to wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m in control.’ Coach (Justin) Wilcox always tells us to control your square foot first,” Drayden said. “If everybody does that, then the building will get built.”

Drayden has mastered the art of keeping a stiff upper lip despite the adversity, injury, criticism, dismissal, injustice and uncertainty that have unfolded during his life, a skill that few ever truly accomplish. His outlook has paid dividends beyond the gridiron in his personal experiences, but it’s particularly clutch at cornerback. After all, controlling your square foot is the second step for a cornerback. The first is knowing which square foot to be in.

Not but a single play after that penalty, Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia misfired a pass and Drayden capitalized, already in position with open arms. He moved only vertically to make off with the tipped ball, cradling it gently as he set his sights downfield and turned on the jets.

This time, the announcer’s voice rang out across the broadcast: “Cal’s got the football! It’s Drayden with some payback!”

Drayden swung his arm across his body, practicing the simple motion. One broad lateral movement and he’d be home free, his dad promised — he’d already learned this move in taekwondo lessons, so it would be easy.

“He’s playing defensive end in flag football, and I’m telling him to use this sweeping motion to get around a guy,” recalled his father, Edwin Drayden. “Well, that sweeping motion for someone that’s not expecting it is usually used to get your hand off of them, to keep the person from blocking you. He was doing it so well that he was hitting the kid’s arm and catching the side of his face. … We weren’t realizing it was happening until the kid was crying.”

The cornerback began his pilgrimage through football at the ripe young age of 4. His father formed a youth league team in Drayden’s hometown of DeSoto, Texas, and it was nothing less than an obligation for his son to play in it. As it turns out, football was just the springboard for Drayden’s subsequent love affair with sports. He had successful careers in lacrosse, track and field, swim, basketball and taekwondo growing up, his uncanny athleticism allowing him to thrive in every situation.

Though he may have been the first, Drayden’s father was far from the only one to realize Drayden’s exceptional knack for the game.

“I always knew Josh was special,” said Delone Williams, Drayden’s former coach. “Going all the way back to middle school, you can see that he had the athletic ability to be a great player.”

Drayden and his younger brother Jalen, now a sprinter at Arizona State University, played side by side most of their lives. Every Saturday, the whole family would pile into the Jeep, put the roof down and turn the music up as they commuted to the brothers’ football games.

The intensity started to ramp up once Drayden joined a travel team based in Rockwall, Texas, in middle school, where they played football “for real.” For Williams, the experience diagnosed Drayden, already a promising talent at defensive back, as a core player for the then-rebuilding Bishop Dunne high school team.

“He started since he was a freshman; he was just that talented in the secondary,” Williams said.

Under Williams’ wing, Drayden helped Bishop Dunne’s program do a complete 180, going from a little-known football force to a state contender in just two years.

But his athleticism had its slights — Drayden’s biggest passion off the gridiron was on the basketball court, where he played competitive AAU basketball into high school. Already able to dunk by the summer after his freshman year, Drayden was perfecting his slams when a freak accident led to a broken leg and a looming question mark over his eligibility for the upcoming football and basketball seasons. It became alarmingly clear that the overlap between sports might be risky, and he had to make a choice: go all-in on football or pursue a future on the court.

“My freshman year, I started getting letters and stuff like that. And I always loved football,” Drayden said about the decision. “So I had to let (basketball) go.”

“That made him kind of who he is because he had to come back,” Jalen Drayden said of his older brother’s injury. “He had to step back into the role that he wanted to be in.”

Aided by his family and community, Drayden rebounded quickly enough to play part of his sophomore season. The next year, Drayden led the charge to a 12-1 season and a state championship title, following it up with another state appearance his senior year.

“He was an honor roll student every year of high school, 4.0 his senior year, all-state in football, no trouble,” his brother said. “On the field, he’s a savage — he’s relentless. Off the field, he’s more humble, but on the field, he turns up the intensity. He shows you what he’s been through.”

The payoff was prodigious: Offers poured in as Wisconsin, Northwestern and Illinois vied for his talent, but Drayden kept his options open, waiting for the right place.

“It was about seventh grade, he said, ‘I’m going to college in California,’ ” his father recalled. “Me and my wife looked at each other, and we go, ‘Guy, you’ve never been to California. What are you talking about? How do you know you even like California?’ ”

An opportunity soon arose for Drayden to see the Golden State for the first time. He and his family decided to drive from Las Vegas to Southern California to spend a few days taking on the West Coast. With all of what they saw on their trip — a Clippers game, a college basketball game, the academic monuments of USC and UCLA — Drayden was just elated to finally see California in all its splendor.

“As he was matriculating through the recruiting process, Cal was the first California school to make an offer,” his father said. “He was also getting looks from Stanford.”

He decided to take his son to California once again, this time to Northern California to tour UC Berkeley and participate in a football camp for the Cardinal.

“We never made it to Stanford,” his father conceded.

“The weather was perfect. Like the campus — they must’ve just mowed the lawn on the campus, cleaned the Campanile — everything was perfect for that weekend,” Drayden said. “If I’m going to be somewhere for four years, I might as well do it in a place where I get the best education in a place that’s as beautiful as Berkeley and a place that’s up-and-coming in football. I wanted to be a part of that.”

For the first time but certainly not the last, Drayden found himself in the right place at the right time. He committed the day after receiving Cal’s offer.

In lockstep with USC wide receiver Deontay Burnett, Drayden extended his arms, putting his hands squarely in the way of Sam Darnold’s deep ball for his first pick as a Bear.

Just as at Bishop Dunne, Drayden started as a freshman at Cal, immediately adding value on the field. In his first two seasons, Drayden squared up against now-pro players such as John Ross and DK Metcalf, the latter of whom has become an NFL sensation. As a freshman, Drayden racked up a career-high 28 tackles and established himself as a key cog in the Bears’ secondary.

“He’s very smart,” Williams said. “When it comes to the game of football, he understands route combinations, he understands splits, he understands leverage. He’s a student of the game.”

For all of Drayden’s personal success, however, the Bears posted 5-7 records in both 2016 and 2017 and struggled mightily against conference opponents. After the cornerback’s freshman year, Cal’s coaching staff got a makeover, with Justin Wilcox replacing Sonny Dykes as head coach. Drayden wanted to remain a staunch part of the defense, but having fresh faces in the program meant having to prove himself all over again.

Despite collecting the 14th-most tackles on the team as a freshman, Drayden didn’t start a game his sophomore year.

“One thing that we taught him around sports: Never be too high from a win, and never get too low from a loss,” his father said. “There’ll always be ebbs and flows, and if you ride the middle, so to speak, you’re going to be a more stable person and should come out with a stable delivery.”

Drayden trailed the receiver, but was a shred of a second too late to break up the play. Gardner Minshew took the snap, casually looked downfield and threw a laser of a pass to Washington State receiver Dezmon Patmon for a first down. A minute later, Patmon notched an over-the-shoulder completion to move the sticks again, Drayden’s coverage not enough.

“It was probably the worst game I’ve ever had at Cal. It wasn’t like I was missing calls — their quarterback plays in the NFL now. It was just one of those games,” Drayden said of the 2018 matchup.

The Cougars, ranked No. 10, went on to win 19-13, putting the Bears in the precarious position to miss a bowl game for the first time in three years and in Drayden’s time at Cal.

“I remember how hurt I was — just mad, upset and all that stuff. After that game, or really after that season, I don’t know what happened, but my whole mindset changed — like, I can’t worry about the past,” Drayden said. “In a game, once a play happens, it happens. You got to keep going, because the feeling I had after that game and just throughout that game, I don’t ever want to have that feeling again.”

That next-play mentality made way for a defining period of growth in Drayden’s life, both between and outside the painted lines. Not only did he accept the accountability that accompanies his role in the secondary, but he also learned to revel in the moment, celebrating the opportunity to play football with his teammates and coaches instead of letting mistakes leach the joy out of the sport.

“That was huge for my football career,” Drayden said.

He was right. As a junior, Drayden played a career-high 13 games, had a 54-yard pick six against Oregon State and recorded his second-most tackles with 18. In an almost poetic manner, he tied his career-best six tackles, two of them for loss, against Washington State as a senior.

Just as Drayden was hitting his stride again, the coronavirus pandemic pummeled the United States, throwing his redshirt year into an uncertain fog unlike anything he had experienced before. Summer 2020 marked an unparalleled contemporary social justice movement in the nation, rightfully questioning the status quo and pushing Drayden and his teammates to new absolutes.

A younger Joshua Drayden may have allowed it to overwhelm him as he slipped silently into listlessness. But the hardened Golden Bear didn’t even let the thought cross his mind: Even given the hard times, he was still in the right place to completely turn the tides of the unfolding scenario, an art he perfected on the field.

At the height of the racial justice movement over the summer, Drayden and his teammates Valentino Daltoso, Jake Curhan and Kuony Deng, uncomfortable with the conference’s stance on the pandemic and demonstrations, knew they couldn’t be the only ones feeling apprehension. Together, they contrived a plan and reached out to other Pac-12 athletes, forming a coalition of student-athletes who wanted to see meaningful change.

“We just felt like we can either set the example or we can just sit there and watch by,” Drayden said.

Not long after, the coalition was named the #WeAreUnited movement. It published its list of demands, and players threatened to opt out if the demands were not met, marking an unparalleled collaboration of athletes within the conference and beyond.

“After we released the first big statement, I remember I was just shaking, like, ‘Oh snap, my name’s on it. I did it,’ ” Drayden recalled. “It’s not only my last name that I carry with me, but it’s a lot of different stuff — being a young African American, especially during a time like this, being a good brother, a good role model, being from Dallas — it’s a lot more than Joshua Drayden.”

#WeAreUnited set off a chain reaction across the country. The Big Ten conference launched a similar movement, and players from the ACC and Mountain West raised their voices to speak out against the NCAA’s protocols.

“My dad, he always told me to be a leader, not a follower,” Drayden said. “I just knew that somebody has to say something, and somebody has to at least make other people feel comfortable to say something because nobody wants to walk a narrow path by themselves.”

The Pac-12 complied, implementing strict health and safety protocols, securing daily testing and honoring scholarships for players who elected not to play. The redshirt senior knew all the while that he would be accountable for the movement’s success or failure and that it could impact his life in unforeseen ways, but he took the stand regardless.

“It’s a proud moment, it really is. It brings joy to the heart,” Williams said of the movement’s success.

The season Drayden and his teammates worked tirelessly to secure has unfolded unexpectedly, to say the least. Despite abrupt cancellations, unexpected schedule changes, weighty injuries and the unavailability of players — many of them starters — due to COVID-19 contact tracing, Drayden wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“I haven’t seen my locker since March. We’ve been changing on the football field, lifting weights outside, all that different stuff. We do all of that, and we don’t complain about it,” Drayden said.
“During this season, the opponent itself doesn’t trump playing and just being out there with your guys.”

Not only has Drayden shown exemplary zeal during a year that has battered everyone, but he has also made sure that every player — from the freshman he has mentored and relies on for uplifting jokes to the players who have been with him every step of the way such as Camryn Bynum — feels protected.

“When you look at a role model, that’s what you’d be like. That’s what you tell a little kid: ‘That’s Joshua Drayden. Be like Joshua,’ ” Drayden’s brother said.

To Drayden, his infectious enthusiasm is nothing short of a duty — it’s part of being accountable.

“How you do anything is how you do everything. You can’t slack off in practice and expect to do great in the game, just like you can’t not go to class and expect to pass the test, or you can’t treat people wrong and expect them to treat you right,” Drayden said.

By that logic, it makes perfect sense that Drayden thrives as a leader, a brother, a teammate and a Cal student. His brightness is tempered with striking intelligence and genuine empathy, arming him well for whatever or whomever he tackles next.

For as much as this year has been defined by poor timing, without Drayden, it’s unlikely that the season would have even happened, a testament to his exceptional talent for being right where he needs to be.

If how he approaches football is how he approaches everything, there’s no questioning that his leadership when the Bears have needed him most, both on the field and off, is nothing short of auspiciously perfect timing.

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