The people’s player: Cal running back Marcel Dancy’s journey from renegade to role model

photo of Marcel Dancy
Eliana Marcu/Senior Staff

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here’s a fairly well-known saying around the world: Americans do things differently. Whether it’s the United States’ confusing imperial system, the invention of spray cheese or the excessive obsession with college sports, the States seem to unite behind a handful of customs that no one follows anywhere else.

For example, while the rest of the globe indulges in cricket and rugby, Americans are adamantly enjoying a sport that no other country plays: football.

Yes, baseball is the nation’s pastime, and basketball is the country’s pickup sport. Yet, it is hard to gloss over the sport that controls many lives here in the United States — the sport that has its own day of the week, time of the season and celebration of the year. Football is a sport anticipated so highly that parents and children alike can be seen inhaling Thanksgiving dinner just so they don’t miss kickoff.

Football is a game that unites both players and viewers: It’s a game that can function as background noise during a celebration or a contentious subject at a family dinner. However, there is one player to whom football is everything — his start and his finish; his hobby and his passion; and his present and his future.

For Cal running back Marcel Dancy, football is his life.

Sometimes it seems as though professional athletes were born professional. With no training or practice necessary, Megan Rapinoe came into the world clutching a soccer ball, and Michael Phelps was born wearing goggles.

While “football” was not Dancy’s first word, the game did become a part of his life as soon as he was old enough to understand it.

“The first time I truly started touching a football was at 3 years old,” Dancy said.

Dancy and football have always had a strong relationship. Playing football was the goal, and the ambition was ever-present as the eventual Cal running back prepared for his rise into the world of collegiate athletics.

During his sophomore year of high school, Dancy, a self-proclaimed “Bay Area kid,” took the trek from Tracy to Cal as he graced the field for his first shot in the big leagues.

“(During) contact camp, I was put on a renegade team,” Dancy said. “Most high schools brought out their whole teams, and then you had the renegade players who just came by themselves.”

That camp was the first spark, the opportunity for the running back to show up and show out, make himself memorable — and he did.

“I did my thing. I made enough noise. I made a name for myself,” Dancy said.

Although the lone wolf who arrived at the camp — a “renegade,” as he was called — had created enough chatter to step himself up in the ranks, Division I football was just not in the cards at that time. Right out of high school, boasting the grades as well as the accolades, Dancy was the perfect player on paper and on the pitch. Yet, as he recalls, he “just slipped through the cracks.”

Clutching his high school diploma, Dancy journeyed to community college. While attending Laney College in Oakland, the running back kept honing his craft.

“I went to junior college, and I took the long route. It paid off because I stayed consistent and persistent,” Dancy said.

While the time taken to get to his desired DI football position was not ideal, Dancy never lost sight of his eventual goal: Cal. The Oakland kid and Bay Area local idealized playing football for the blue and gold. Nothing allowed him to lose sight of his dream, even when his football career took unexpected turns and Cal seemed out of reach. The strong support system that he found in his family never wavered.

“I can’t imagine myself being here without (my family) at all. They’ve always kept my head on straight, kept my mind clear and gave me the things I needed to overcome obstacles,” Dancy said. “Having them in my corner, I feel like I could go up against anything.”

As a kid, the running back watched the Bears play football in awe. Seeing players graduate and go directly into the NFL, Dancy knew that was something he wanted to be a part of.

“I knew if I was going to do it, I was going to do it at Cal,” Dancy said. “As soon as I got a call from Cal, it didn’t matter who else called.”

Being a DI athlete comes with its own set of specific challenges: There’s the daily schedule of practices and training, classes to attend and various academic pursuits to keep up with. The picture of typing and tattering late into the night after an early evening practice is not a pretty one.

The tiring daily schedule leaves practically no room to do anything else. Even if it did, one would simply not have the energy to add extra to their plate — unless you are Dancy.

Starting two businesses, working to create a nonprofit organization, taking classes at the nation’s No. 1 public university and running back and forth across the gridiron is a process Dancy has locked down.

The football player and entrepreneur had always wanted to be his own boss. Combining the world of technology and sports by drawing inspiration from classes related to sports technology at Cal, Dancy pioneered his own startup. And he did so quite successfully.

Future business owners were not the only ones looking up to Dancy. He channeled his love of his sport into business proposals and upcoming generations of athletes.

The athlete also found time to coach Pop Warner games, supporting and teaching the Oakland Dynamos for more than six years. Dancy became a role model for young football players that wished to achieve all that he has one day.

“I play a small part in their life, and to even play a small part is a blessing to me,” Dancy said. “Whenever they see me, you can see them light up; they always come up to me and tell me that they look up to me. They look at every move that I make and everything that I do. It makes me be better.”

Additionally, the athlete is working to create the Dancy Foundation, which he hopes will be focused on giving opportunities to the Bay Area youth. Seeing himself in the kids he mentors, Dancy aims to help provide resources to underprivileged children.

“A lot of people don’t see these kids on an everyday basis, but they’re all special — just how many, many special kids are out there will blow people’s minds,” Dancy said. “They don’t have every resource, but imagine if they did. That’s always on my mind. I want to see them blossom.”

Dancy continues to work on and off the field, supporting his community and his “kids,” as he calls them. Striving to provide every resource he can for them, the running back has become a role model to his teammates as well as the Bay Area at large.

Sometimes a player’s love for a sport is tethered to every win or loss. Perhaps an athlete has their fair share of conditional love for their game. Maybe they wince every time they remember a strikeout or a bad play. Even with the ups and downs as well as wins and losses, there is no mistaking the immense love Dancy holds for his sport.

“When I was little, my Pops showed me a tape of old school running backs from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Gale Sayers and Erick Dickerson — the blueprint — and I fell in love,” Dancy said.

Many describe watching sports as a tense time: clenching fists and gritting teeth as a batsman comes up to bat or as a striker comes up to take a penalty kick. Such is not the case for Dancy.

“Peace. I love football because no matter what I am doing, I always know that I can find total peace while playing those few seconds in that play,” Dancy said. “That’s just one of those things in my life that I find total peace.”

While peace was something Dancy found in his game, the competitiveness of football was also something that attracted him to the sport.

To him, progress is vital. In order to reach the position he desired, Dancy needed to practice to perfect his play; mediocrity was not an option.

“Every day, you have to put in work because somebody else somewhere is working harder or just as hard as you to be better every day,” Dancy said. “I never want to take (my position) for granted because I know it can get taken. This game has done things for me that I never even imagined, and I can only imagine what it is going to do for me in the future.”

In contemplating his future, there is no question whether or not the NFL is something Dancy strives to be a part of. It has been the goal and always will be. As he continues to prepare to grace the grandest of gridirons, Dancy remembers the words of his role models.

“My parents tell me, ‘Once you start something, you always finish it regardless of what you may go up against.’ So I’m just going to keep running and keep rolling,” Dancy said.

He started his journey in football at the young age of 3 and aims to finish it by taking his place in the big leagues.

While this role model plans to take the NFL stage, it is promised that he will never forget his renegade roots. His ever-growing journey and never-failing devotion to his sport assure one certainty: Football is his ambition, and he will always play it with immense love in his heart and tremendous passion in his game.

Maria Khan covers football. Contact her at [email protected].