BERKELEY -- He still remembers the play. He remembers the call. He remembers the initial collision. California safety Avery Sebastian can remember everything, up until his right shoulder made contact with tailback Jeffrey Coprich’s sternum.
“It was pretty much a blur,” Sebastian says. “I was pretty much a blur.”
Just over one week ago, in the first scrimmage of the Golden Bears’ fall camp, Sebastian and Coprich collided in what has become a trademark by one-rattling hit by the junior defender. Just over one week ago, every breath of air was sucked out of California Memorial Stadium in a stomach-turning rarefaction.
“I remember lining up weak side and them running the zone option, and coming in for the tackle,” Sebastian says. “We both kind of came down awkwardly, and I think my head hit on somebody’s knee.”
Sebastian’s helmet popped off, and within an instant, coaches, doctors and trainers sprinted out from both sidelines. Coprich, rattled, picked himself up to one knee. The rest of the team dropped to theirs.
Beyond the north end zone, tailback Daniel Lasco was nigh inconsolable, tears streaming down his face. On the west sideline, defensive end Chris McCain lay prone, burying his face in the turf. Safety Jason Gibson stood at midfield, but his eyes betrayed the fact that he was much further away.
McCain slowly hoisted himself up and found defensive backs coach Randy Stewart. The 6-foot-6 defender draped his left arm around the wizened sage of the secondary. Stewart wrapped his right arm around McCain’s waist. The 90-year old edifice itself seemed to hold its breath.
In the stands, some fans wept. Others sat, stunned, hands clasped around their mouths. Clear across the country, Yvonne Sebastian began to receive texts and calls. Her baby boy was in trouble, and all she knew was that an ambulance was being called.
When Sebastian opened his eyes, concerned faces nearly blotted out the painfully azure sky. He doesn’t remember how long he was out, but the more than 15 minutes he lay, supine, on the floor of the stadium felt like a lifetime to his teammates, who sat, huddled, eyes transfixed on the 30-yard line, in the northeast corner of the field.
“I didn’t feel any pain. I was just laying there,” Sebastian says. “[There was] a lot of ‘not to move,’ but I could move my hands and my fingers and I could look around, so they were just telling me to relax. That was a big thing, to make sure I wasn’t doing anything.”
The Longest Miles
It’s just under seven miles from Memorial Stadium to Highland Hospital in Oakland, but the nearly 2,500 miles between Yvonne and her son may as well have been one million. Former Cal running back Mike Manuel made the one of the first calls to Yvonne.
Chakay McDonald -- mother of linebacker Michael Barton -- was the first to contact Yvonne within seconds after the hit.
McDonald stayed on the phone with Yvonne till she reached the hospital.
"[She] was that presence any family needed in a time of crisis," Yvonne said. "She has continued to do daily personal checks on Avery during my absence. This was so important as we as a program began to increase out of state players to the team. Most parents want to just know that their son will be alright. I just want to personally acknowledge her and her efforts. She is the hero to me and certainly helped me get through the first 48 hours of his injury."
Her son was in good hands.
Soon after Sebastian arrived at the hospital, players flooded the waiting room. One of the first on the scene was Sebastian’s roommate – longsnapper Cary Kriegsman -- who found out about the collision mere moments after it happened. Kriegsman’s phone was glued to his ear, as he called friends and family and coordinated the stream of visitors.
Kriegsman and Sebastian couldn’t be more different. One is a devoutly Christian African-American from the Deep South, a U.S. Army All-American and an entrenched starter. The other is a Jewish kid from southern California who has yet to see a single game snap, and was not among the four specialists invited to camp. That hasn’t stopped them from being as close as kin.
“They’ve been great, Cary and his family,” Sebastian says. “They were actually going to fly [up], once they heard about it, but they’ve been so key and influential in my life. They’re just great people, and they keep me on track, along with the coaches.”
As soon as the post-scrimmage press conference concluded, visibly shaken head coach Sonny Dykes and his wife Kate got into their car and sped to the hospital. They were among the first to arrive. Kate mothered Sebastian’s assembled teammates, consoling them and providing a shoulder upon which to cry.
Just a day before, the offense and the defense were at one another’s throats, with two separate brawls erupting on the sidelines.
Dykes told the team after those dust-ups that they had done too much over the past seven months to throw it all away. As soon as the last echo of Sebastian’s shoulder pads meeting Coprich’s hit the Bears’ ears, though, all of that animosity vanished like smoke. This punch to the gut erased every single shove, every last eye gouge, all the fist-first assaults on helmets. At the very moment that the lionhearted soul of the defense fell to the ground, every single young man on that field was a Bear. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“That’s the thing I came to Cal for,” Sebastian says. “We’re a great, close family at Cal. Everybody supports everybody and everybody loves everybody here. It was great to have my teammates there, supporting me.”
“It was just impressive how many players that we had there,” Dykes said. “I thought it was a real credit to how close we are as a football team. We had guys that went straight from the practice field to the hospital. I was just impressed that they were there. Everybody handled it well. It’s not something that you enjoy, obviously, and it was tough, but I thought our players kept their emotions in check, and let the people do their work. I thought our team doctors and emergency people did an incredible job. I thought they handled it as well as they could possibly handle it.”
At about 8 p.m. that night, Sebastian was allowed to have visitors, but not before he called his mom.
“I got to talk to her that night in the hospital,” he says. “I gave her a call, just wanted to let her know that I was doing fine. Coach Dykes called her, as well, and I had a lot of family members and a lot of the team moms and parents were also giving her calls.”
Thanks to the network of players and parents, as well as Manuel and Kriegsman, by the time the two spoke, she was as calm as a mother in that kind of hell could be expected to be.
“That was really great to have her calm,” Sebastian smiles.
Steady as a Rock
Sebastian has been called the rock of the defense by many in the program, the “heart and soul” of the unit by one parent, in particular.
Recruited by Tosh Lupoi out of McDonough (Ga.) Eagle’s Landing Christian, Sebastian was steadfast in the midst of a storm of change in January of 2012, as the man who brought him across the country to Berkeley left the only program he’d ever known for Washington. Soon, Shaq Thompson and Ellis McCarthy decommitted. Others – including Barton -- began to slip. Sebastian was there to catch him before he fell.
"I was really close to Avery when I committed, and he was actually the first guy to talk to me when I committed to Cal, back in May," Barton said at the time. "The things he says about the program just solidified me. We talked football, and how comfortable I feel there, and the academics, that once you get your degree, you can't replace that with any other school in the Pac-12. I think, just talking to him, has really helped me out."
Lupoi wasn’t the only coach who left. Wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau followed Lupoi’s path to Seattle, leaving Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper in the lurch. With Barton back in the boat, the pair of defenders worked on the rest of the class.
"Easily, it's been Avery. Avery has really been helping everybody," Barton said shortly before signing day. "He was the first guy who talked to me after [Lupoi left], and kind of kept the class together. We got closer as a Cal family, so Avery really did a good job keeping the class together."
Fittingly enough, it was Barton's mother who returned the favor, and helped keep Yvonne together, within seconds of the hit just over one week ago.
Less than a year after Lupoi left, head coach Jeff Tedford was fired. In two years, Sebastian had seen everything he knew about the program change. As he’d done with the 2012 class, he helped keep the 2013 group together.
Sebastian kept in close touch with cornerback Cameron Walker throughout the coaching transition, and it was largely due to Sebastian’s efforts that Walker committed to the Bears without a coaching staff in place.
Sebastian’s strength – both physical and emotional – and his selflessness draw people to him. His charisma and spirit made him a leader when most of his snaps still came on special teams. With Sebastian, it’s always been God, family, team, community and, several pages down the list of priorities, self. As he lay in his hospital bed two Monday nights ago, that fidelity and constancy was repaid, tenfold. He was enveloped in love. For once, he didn’t take the world on his back. His world, instead, shouldered him.
“It’s great,” Sebastian says. “There are a lot of great people around this program, and I’m really looking forward to this season. We’re going to have a lot of great things happen for this program, and I couldn’t be happier.
“Every day, it’s been so much love, from my teammates and people outside the community. They’ve been reaching out and getting in contact with me and my family and my friends, sending over prayers and get-well’s.”
True to form, one of the first things Sebastian asked about was Coprich.
“I’m glad Jeff’s doing good,” Sebastian says. “We both came down awkwardly.”
The diagnosis came in: Severe concussion. Sebastian doesn’t know what particular grade it was, but despite growing up playing ice hockey (a defenseman, naturally) and a lifetime of football, this was his first bell ringing.
True to form, Sebastian told some of his visitors that he’d be back at practice the next day.
“Man, I don’t remember if I said that,” he laughs. “But, it was great. I got a lot of people to come by the hospital, coming to see me. I’m really appreciative of everyone that came by and said some prayers for me.”
The next morning, Sebastian was discharged, and made his way to Memorial Stadium, to spend the day around the facility and his teammates, and to watch a bit of practice.
He hasn’t missed a minute since.
“I’m in all the meetings. I’m out there coaching -- any little thing I can do,” he says. “I won’t fully be on the field right now, with them, but I can be on the side, watching. I may catch something that they didn’t, so I’m trying to be that extra eye for them.”
How soon Sebastian returns to the field is still up in the air.
“He looks great. He’s starting to feel better, I think, and more comfortable,” Dykes says. “What we’re going to do is just make sure we do it the right way and we handle it carefully. Anytime that somebody has an injury like he did, you want to bring him back slowly, so as he feels better, we’ll allow him to start doing more and more work.”
On Monday, Sebastian was all smiles. He was articulate and engaged. Though there is still some residual neck pain, he was in high spirits.
He’s still as dogged as ever, and after watching the play over again, he’s not the least bit shy about maintaining his hard-hitting, physical style of play.
“I’m not really changing a thing,” he says. “When you go back and look on film, at the play, it was a clean hit. It was great form. It was just unfortunate that I came down on somebody’s knee and popped my helmet off and hit the ground. Other than that, it’s a dangerous game, but we have precautionary reasons and these coaches teach us great technique for tackling and playing it safe, so I’ll just continue to use those practices.”
Despite the paucity of defensive backs in camp, there is no rush to bring Sebastian back. A diligent student with a clear and bright future beyond the football field, there is no reason to risk cognitive impairment.
“I’m going through tests, calming my symptoms right now, getting a lot of rest. I’d love to play whenever, but I just want to make sure I’m fully healthy and can get on the field safely,” Sebastian says. “[The medical staff] said it’s going pretty good. They said, really, it’s just on me and on my symptoms and how I’m feeling and how I react to everything. It could be whenever, but really, it’s up to the doctors. I want to make sure I can come in, fully healthy, because I don’t want to risk anything by coming back too early.”
While for three years, Sebastian has been the unshakable foundation upon which the Cal football family has stood, the source of the team motto, ‘We all we got, we all we need,’ this past week has shown that, the more faith one puts in others, the more that faith is rewarded.
“I just want to thank all the fans and family for sending out all their prayers and making me feel better,” he says. “It’s been greatly appreciated. We have a great medical staff here at Cal, and they’ve been treating me great, with care and support, and I couldn’t be happier.”