Canzano: Catching up with that chip on the shoulder
College football is about college football players.
Cameron Worrell was just a kid when I covered him in college. He played safety at Fresno State a couple of decades ago and I was a young sports columnist working at The Fresno Bee.
Worrell is 42 now. He’s married, has two daughters, and recently got his MBA. He works in sales for a general contractor, co-owns a consulting business, and does some local radio sideline reporting during Bulldogs’ football games.
We spoke on Tuesday for the first time in more than 20 years. Hearing Worrell’s voice got me thinking about all the memorable college players I’ve seen come and go over the years.
More on that in a moment.
First, understand, the Fresno State teams of that era were coached by Pat Hill. He wore a crusty baseball cap, had an unforgettable mustache, and kept a live piranha in his office. The fish was a gift from a donor and was treated like a state secret inside the athletic department.
Hill saw me walking past his office one afternoon and waved me in. He was standing by the tank, wide-eyed. He dropped a small piece of raw meat in and waited for the ensuing feeding frenzy. On my way out, Hill had second thoughts, and said: “You know, Johnny, probably best not to write about the piranha.”
Those Fresno State teams vowed to play “anyone… anywhere… anytime.” They often won those games, too. In a three-week span in 2001, the Bulldogs beat Colorado, No. 10-ranked Oregon State, and No. 23 Wisconsin in succession. The win over the Badgers came in front of 78,506 at Camp Randall Stadium.
Said Worrell, “The fans there were in shock.”
After a couple of years, I left to be the NFL columnist for The San Jose Mercury News. Not long after, Worrell, a safety, landed with the Bears, and later, the Dolphins, where he’d find himself running down the field trying to defend Randy Moss. The receiver was 6-foot-4 and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds.
“People don’t understand,” Worrell said. “He was like 225 or 230 pounds. He was a huge person, as good as I ever saw… there are plays that I did every single thing right possible. I knew exactly where the ball was going to go. I timed everything correctly and I still lost the rep because Randy Moss was just that much better.”
Worrell grew up 40 miles from Fresno, in a small town called Chowchilla. It’s best known for being the site of a couple of prisons and the hometown of one of the screen writers of the Star Trek series. All Cam Worrell ever wanted was to be a football player.
“Everybody grows up dreaming of playing at USC and UCLA,” he said. “When you don’t get those opportunities and you have to come to Fresno State, you have that chip on your shoulder.”
I’ve seen that chip up close. Players such as Bernard Berrian, David Carr and his little brother, Derek, had it. When Oregon State travels to Fresno this Saturday, they’ll get a first-hand look, too. Because some of the Bulldogs players won’t just try to win the game, they’ll be trying to punish the Pac-12 for overlooking them.
“If you want to have success in the Central Valley, you have to bust your butt,” Worrell said on Tuesday. “It’s not easy. There’s no tech world. You can’t show up in a suit and tie most of the time. You get your hands dirty. You work hard. It’s hot. Nobody really wants to be here. The air is bad.”
“There’s not a lot of facilities. There’s no uniform combinations. You come here because you’re going to get pushed and play hard.”
Worrell and I spoke for 20 minutes on Tuesday. It was nice to hear him, all grown up, and doing well. He’s made a life for himself and his family. I asked him what he expected in the Oregon State vs. Fresno State game.
“A fistfight,” he said.
I’ve worked for six daily newspapers. I covered Indiana basketball as a beat reporter when Bob Knight was coach. I also covered Purdue and Notre Dame football and, later, had the adventure of covering basketball legend (and NIL pioneer) Jerry Tarkanian. When I talk with college or high school students they always ask “Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed?”
It’s not the famous people I think about first.
I think about guys like Worrell, who most fans probably don’t remember. I think about a sit down I had once with Oregon State linebacker, Andy Darkins, who was working as a columnist for the OSU campus newspaper, The Daily Barometer. And I think about Nick Cody, an Oregon offensive lineman from a decade ago, who now works for Amazon and is dabbling with a side hustle as a stand-up comedian.
The football ends.
Former Beavers’ quarterback Derek Anderson retired from the NFL and is now working in sales for a golf company. Ex-Oregon running back LaMichael James went from the NFL to being an entrepreneur. He owns and operates a handful of Killer Burger restaurants. I sometimes eat there, just because I want to support the guy.
James once told me of his abbreviated NFL experience, “It was probably one of the worst, darkest times of my life.”
The NFL Draft feels like a big deal. But only 1.2 percent of college players ever get drafted. The ones that do face making a roster and an unrelenting daily fight to stick in the league. Then, at some point, the football goes away.
In the last few months, we’ve seen the Big Ten land a $1.23 billion television deal and college football announce it’s expanding the playoff. Conference expansion rocked the landscape. FOX and ESPN are jockeying for control of the playoff. The game feels like it’s off the rails. So it’s sure refreshing to catch up with a player like Cam Worrell, who reminds you that college football is always about college football players.
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Dammit, John, I am already late and should be heading out the door, and then I see your name in my email and I have to stop. So I guess I am just going to be even later, because I can't leave now. Another of your great efforts. Nicely done.
Most of my life was spent in Oregon, until tiring of the rain. Your column with the Oregonian was usually the first thing I read. I’ve lived in Arizona for 10 years and will always be a fan of our Oregon college sports, as well as our Blazers.
Each morning I eagerly look forward to your updates. You provide us, the readers, with the back stories and provide so many heartwarming elements. Thank you, John!