Excellence and determination: Cal linebacker Marqez Bimage’s triumph

Photo of Cal football player Marqez Bimage
Vanessa Lim/Senior Staff

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Ms. Lauryn Hill once sang that “deep in my heart, the answer, it was in me/ And I made up my mind to define my own destiny” in her hit album and song, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Perhaps it was only right that 23 years after its release, and almost 23 years after Marqez Bimage was born, these words came to life again as Bimage and his girlfriend, Erin, drove from Austin, Texas, to Berkeley, California. After all, Hill is their favorite artist.

Bimage’s journey from Texas to the Bay was of course not motivated by her words, although they couldn’t have hurt. After four years on a football scholarship at the University of Texas at Austin, Bimage was traveling to do something he’d never done before: He was going to just be a student.

That was the plan, at least.

Bimage, currently a master’s student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, only applied to one program after graduating from Texas.

“I’m not sure what I would have done if I didn’t get accepted,” said a sheepish but confident Bimage.

To many people (and especially to any seniors currently in the grad school application process), applying to one school is madness and sure to spawn unparalleled anxiety. But to Bimage’s brother, Darian, this decision was just the same old Marqez he’d always known.

“It was a summer’s worth of decisions,” the elder Bimage said. “I didn’t even think about it. I told him, ‘Hey, go put all your energy there and just go do it.’ ”

But there was one caveat: Bimage would just be a student when he arrived at UC Berkeley. For the most part, he was OK with this change of pace and found his peace with it.

But sometimes plans change.

Bimage reached out to the team, officially entering the transfer portal in his search for an opportunity to play for Cal. With 34 career games under his belt at one of the premier programs in the nation, Bimage was excited to get his start in a new environment.

“All the stars had to align just for me to be on the team,” Bimage said, noting that Cal has seven super seniors in their sixth or seventh year of eligibility. Roster spots were few and far between, making it no walk in the park for even the most appealing grad transfers.

He was allowed to join the team and begin preparing for the 2021 season with the Bears, but there was just one reality that he needed to face: He was not going to be offered a scholarship.

“I came from the University of Texas, where I was a four-year scholarship student-athlete,” Bimage said. “And then coming here, and they told me I couldn’t have a scholarship, it was a hard pill to swallow.”

Bimage was going to have to walk on.

Walking on anywhere, let alone a Power Five school, can be an endless nightmare — scout teams, early morning weights and earning every single snap you take in practice can be almost too much to handle. And, at the end of the day, you still have to pay tuition as well. Bimage never thought he’d find himself in that position.

But he was not about to let that stop him.

“I had guys that were confused,” Bimage said. “They thought I was on scholarship.”

It makes sense why they may have thought that. Bimage had a whole heap of scholarship offers coming out of high school (and, funnily enough, one of them was from Cal). Bimage also took care to note that after he had gotten into Cal as a student, he got one more phone call with an offer: This time, it was USC.

“I said no — I didn’t want to do it,” he said with a smile. “I’d rather walk on at UC Berkeley.”

It’s that can-do attitude that translates so well to the field and to his connections at Cal both inside and outside the locker room. That attitude also helped propel him through a walk-on process that is seldom ideal. But for Bimage, it was just the first step in the right direction.

“That’s a position that I am very grateful of, just to go through that process,” Bimage said. “I feel like I’ve seen two perspectives of being a student-athlete.”

“I don’t know if there’s necessarily a chip on my shoulder,” the star outside linebacker continued, “but I definitely felt like I had something to prove to myself as a person, and to the coaches to earn that scholarship.”

To his brother, Bimage’s attitude was hardly a surprise.

“He’s always had that drive, that passion for whatever it was he put his mind to. What you see now, he’s always been like that since a young age,” his brother said. “We talk about it all the time: excellence with determination. You can’t have excellence without determination.”

It wouldn’t be long at all until Bimage’s determination would pay dividends. The day before fall classes began, he was placed on a full scholarship.

“I’ll remember that feeling until I die,” he laughed.

In just a few short months, the Texas transfer had already started to make his mark on the program.

There is a level of consistency from Bimage that is rarely found and even more rarely matched, but that is what makes special people, well, special. For him, however, it’s about more than “just” football.

Growing up in Texas, about 45 minutes away from Texas A&M, Bimage was well aware of the kind of pressure that was placed on his shoulders. Bimage started playing football at age 5, and almost immediately after he started, his father started putting him in the age group above his own, sensing that he had sized out of playing football with kids his own age.

“I remember when we were younger — I’m 26, and he’s what, barely 23, and he’s always been bigger than me,” his brother laughed. “I just remember over the years he just accelerated, and he was always bigger.”

Bigger and stronger, for sure, but Bimage’s brother might have some issues with “faster” — he himself was a talented football player for a while too.

“Growing up and playing football in Texas, it was a big deal,” Bimage said. “I’ve definitely seen it be the main focus.”

But to Bimage, it doesn’t have to be this way.

“You don’t have to play this sport to be successful in your life,” he said. “I feel like that’s a driven destiny by the adults in those kids’ lives, to put all your eggs into this sport, but that’s just not the case.”

Bimage has witnessed firsthand how the sports-centric worldview can rob people of their self-worth and direction.

“Seeing it in high school, seeing it in college, there are guys who do not live up to their ‘potential’ in college, and then they’re like, ‘Oh no, what do I do?’ ” he said. “Their eggs are all in that basket, and it’s OK, but no one’s telling them that they don’t have to do this, and you can do other things in life, and it’s going to be OK.”

Bimage knows exactly what he’d be doing if he wasn’t playing football.

“If I wasn’t playing football, I would definitely be a graduate student here at UC Berkeley,” he said.

Seeing as how he got to Cal without football, there’s no reason to believe otherwise. Now, Bimage is on his way to his future, studying the intersection of sports and education at the No. 1 school in the nation.

“If you have someone that’s close and you know their potential, then all you have to do is treat them like a car: just fill them up,” Bimage’s brother said. “Just to be able to try to keep that person above empty — you can get close to the empty, but as long as you can get them to the next station to make it home, then you’re good.”

And so, when Bimage drove his way to Berkeley, he had a few people buoying him up. His brother, his girlfriend and Ms. Lauryn Hill kept him going.

He’s determined to finish that drive and determined to be excellent.

Jesse Stewart covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @jessedstew.