Few people find peace in the heart-pounding walk to the front of the room before a presentation. Cal football sophomore Braxten Croteau could not escape this one.
“Do you have your deck of cards on you?” asked Cal head coach Justin Wilcox.
Not long after, Croteau found himself standing in front of the entire Cal football program, not breaking down a play but performing magic tricks. Wilcox, after all, doesn’t want players who will crack under pressure.
“Hopefully, everyone was impressed. I think they liked it,” Croteau said. “I don’t really get nervous performing. If I trick ’em, I trick ’em, and if they’re not impressed, that’s all right. I tried my best.”
The outside linebacker keeps a deck of cards on him wherever he goes. In high school, he would perform for his team during camp, and once he got to UC Berkeley, he continued blowing minds across campus and in the locker room. The defensive line room, in particular, couldn’t get enough, leading to the creation of “Magic Mondays,” where Croteau would perform tricks every week.
One of his favorite illusions is one he often did in the dining halls: Croteau would take a cup of water and pour it into his cupped fist before proceeding to flash his hand, which, of course, was empty. As if that wasn’t enough, he would then refill the empty cup with water that had seemingly spawned out of thin air. According to Croteau, nothing beats seeing the reactions of his stumped friends and family.
“Oh, don’t even get me started. He’s crazy,” said Ryan Puskas, Cal inside linebacker and Croteau’s former high school teammate. “I used to video him to try and find where he would put the cards, and I still never found out. He has some crazy tricks, I’ll tell you what.”
Croteau’s favorite magician is David Blaine. The 47-year-old mastermind is widely considered to be one of the best illusionists and stunt artists on Earth, and he is notorious for his inimitable work ethic, as many of his extreme acts require extraordinary amounts of focus and preparation.
Blaine has invested tens of thousands of hours into mastering his craft, a work ethic Croteau hopes to replicate, whether it be in football, school or magic.
“I want to be known as the hardest working guy on the field. Always gave his all and 100% in practice. Played fast, chased after the ball,” Croteau said. “Really loved the game and loved everything that goes into it.”
Any Division 1 athlete could rightfully claim to be a hard worker, but Croteau’s actions speak louder than his words. In 2019, he finished as one of just three true freshmen to play in all 13 games and was also granted the team’s Stub Allison Award for his commitment to strength and conditioning.
“I would say my greatest strength is my strength,” Croteau said. “I feel great taking on blocks right now with my weight. You can anchor in there and set the edge without getting picked up and moved.”
That energy in the weight room helped turn Croteau into the 255-pound, 6’5” physical specimen he is today. But he didn’t always fit the mold of an outside linebacker.
From sixth to ninth grade, Croteau was the starting quarterback on all of his teams. It wasn’t until Mark Smith, Croteau’s head coach at Liberty High School, pulled him aside before his sophomore season that Croteau found out he would be playing defense.
“His balls weren’t the best … he wasn’t the best quarterback,” said a laughing Puskas, who was coincidentally a wide receiver for Croteau, until he, too, got moved to defense.
Croteau trusted Smith’s decision.
“He didn’t flinch, he didn’t think twice,” Croteau’s father, John, said. “He’s always been a team player. He’s always been for the good of everyone involved.”
Sitting at 6’3” and 160 pounds upon the conclusion of his freshman season, Croteau didn’t have the body to knock linemen around in the trenches. So, he got to work. Through relentless workouts and a revamped diet, the new defensive end gained nearly 25 pounds of muscle by the time his all-important junior season came around. That transformation laid the groundwork for Croteau’s devotion to the game.
“He’s just wired differently than most people,” said Kathleen, Croteau’s mother. “It’s not anything that we instilled in him. It’s something that we encouraged once we saw that light in him.”
As a player hoping to claim a starting spot on your high school’s varsity football team, meeting the head coach for the first time can be a bit intimidating.
That is, if your coach wasn’t right there in the hospital, gathered with your family on the day you were born. The friendship between the Smiths and Croteaus dates back decades, long before Smith was Croteau’s head coach or John Croteau was Braxten’s father.
Growing up, Croteau spent countless scorching Arizona afternoons on the lake boating and wakeboarding with Smith’s family. The two have always shared a bond that stretches far outside of sports. Ironically, the linebacker’s passion for magic was sparked in part by a longing to spite Smith.
“He’s horrified by magic. He doesn’t like it — he’ll leave,” Croteau’s father said. “He wants nothing to do with it.
So, naturally, Croteau kept learning more and more tricks to elicit animated reactions from his head coach. He was never one to let football consume his life in an unhealthy way, always making sure his priorities were aligned.
“‘I just want you to know that whether I play college football and get a scholarship or not is irrelevant,’” Smith remembers Croteau telling him. “‘That’s great if it happens, but I will get a scholarship to go to college because I’ll be a 4.0 student.’”
Croteau kept his word and graduated from Liberty High School with a 4.0 GPA, but an academic scholarship wouldn’t be necessary. By the time he was a junior, his dominant play as a defensive end, paired with his work ethic and physical traits, had college scouts quite intrigued.
“He’s probably the most coachable kid I’ve ever coached, almost to a fault. He only does what you tell him to do,” said Smith.
As his recruiting picked up, Croteau leaned on his head coach and his family to guide him through the process.
“It was really neat to watch a young man go through that,” John Croteau said. “He was perplexed at times because the recruiting game can be pretty tenacious. But he had a lot of avenues to turn to and talk about things.”
One of those avenues was Puskas, who played as a safety for the Liberty Lions with Croteau. If scouts were coming to watch Croteau, Smith would also tell them to keep an eye on Puskas, and vice versa if scouts came for Puskas.
Puskas described playing alongside Croteau in high school as a “cheat code,” as opponents were forced to choose one of the duo to block. Even before their days as roommates in the Clark Kerr Campus dorms, the two found fast friends in each other.
“We are kinda the same. We both want success, but we don’t talk much. We kind of stay quiet, and lead by example,” Puskas said.
Heading north without expectations, the two took a visit to Cal at the same time and immediately fell in love with the school and the football program. In April 2018, Croteau made his commitment, and Puskas followed suit the very next day.
With the 2020 spring camp coming to a halt amid Berkeley’s stay-at-home order, Croteau made his way back home to Peoria, Arizona, to quarantine.
He enjoyed being reunited with his parents and siblings and especially relished the return of home-cooked comfort food from his mother. Keeping up with Croteau’s dietary needs, though, was a challenge in itself.
The average person tends to eat three meals a day. But Croteau? He ends his day with “first, second and third dinners.”
“It’s definitely a different pace of cooking and a different frequency of going to the grocery store when Braxten is home versus when he’s not,” Kathleen Croteau said.
With him around, food simply seemed to vanish. It wasn’t until Croteau left for UC Berkeley that the Croteau household had its first gallon of milk spoil in the fridge. His ravenousness, which entailed eating every two hours, was largely fruitful, as he put on 20 pounds heading into his sophomore season for the Bears.
Due to the Pac-12’s initial cancellation of the season, Croteau didn’t even have a timetable to pace the progress of his nutrition and lifting regimen. His only viable solution was to stay ready as best he could with the cards he was dealt.
“No matter when the season comes, it’s going to come some time,” Croteau explained. “I never stopped working. I knew it was going to come at some point, and I would have to be ready and respond quickly.”
According to his father, Croteau worked out “like a crazy guy,” figuring out how to get in training wherever he could, even amid COVID-19 shutdowns. In addition to his physical training, Croteau studied the playbook harder than ever, knowing that there was potential for him to take a leap this season.
Eventually, a season did come. Wilcox released the initial depth chart, which listed Croteau as a starting outside linebacker for the Bears.
“It was awesome. I was ready to go,” Croteau said. “There were no nerves — that kind of all went away after my freshman season.”
The first few weeks of the schedule did not go as planned. Croteau’s five total tackles in the season opener against UCLA proved irrelevant, as Cal was pounced 10-34 in a matchup that was scheduled just two days before kickoff. Then, things managed to get even worse for Croteau.
Through contact tracing by Berkeley health officials, it was determined that Croteau had potentially come into contact with a Cal player who had tested positive. Despite testing negative several times, protocols meant that the sophomore linebacker was forced to enter a 14-day quarantine, stripping him from the lineup for the Bears’ following two games against Oregon State and Stanford.
While it was devastating to Croteau, he continued working as much as he could — running through the streets, doing squats and pushups at home and joining in on team meetings via Zoom.
When he was finally cleared to return, Cal unexpectedly sat at 0-3 and was playing host to then-No. 23 Oregon, which boasted the most potent offense in the Pac-12.
With just under 13 minutes left in the game and the Bears ahead by four, the Ducks were driving down the field and had entered Cal’s red zone. A few stops set up a 4th and 1, which, on paper, favored an Oregon team that was nearly unstoppable running the ball in 2020.
Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough indeed handed off the ball, and Croteau knifed his way past the offensive tackle into the backfield, snagging star running back CJ Verdell, who was unable to escape the grip that Croteau had been strengthening since his sophomore year of high school. The stop was key in the Bears’ upset victory, a game that would end up being Cal’s last of the season.
“I was definitely hyped after, jumping around with everybody,” Croteau said. “I was in the right spot at the right time, and I was able to make the play. I’m grateful for that.”
For Croteau, that type of celebration isn’t common. He is normally one to go to work, get it done and head home without saying much. He has no rowdy pep talks or flashy pregame routines. In fact, his only superstition is listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on the drive from the team hotel to the stadium.
“He’s stoic in that way,” Smith said. “He goes about his business and does his thing.”
Such moments of visible emotion from Croteau were few and far between in high school, but one instance in particular comes to the forefront of Smith’s memory.
Liberty had been defeated by its rival, Sunrise Mountain, in Croteau’s sophomore and junior seasons. The two matchups were lost in heartbreaking fashion, with the Lions falling short by a combined five points.
In his senior season, the defensive end got one last shot. It was a blistering hot evening, with temperatures near 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and players were dropping like flies due to cramps and exhaustion.
The game went back-and-forth, but Liberty was able to squeak out a 49-43 win. In his final year, Croteau’s Lions finally took their rival down.
“After the game, the guys were down on their knees, and I remember Brax was right in front of me, and he had tears coming out,” Smith said. “It showed how much it meant to him. He put so much into it. I had never seen that type of emotion out of him before.”
His devotion to the game is what keeps him moving forward and will ultimately define his legacy as a football player.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost that motivation. That’s what keeps me going and lights the fire inside of me,” Croteau said. “There’s tons of people with more talent than me. They’re faster than me — they were just born that way. But I try not to let anyone outwork me because that’s something I can control. I love that stuff. I love getting up early when other people are sleeping.”
Croteau will never reveal his magic tricks — don’t even bother asking. But if one thing is for certain, it’s that there are no secrets to his success on the field.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].