Joe Igber does not hate football.
That's not the reason why he turned down invitations to NFL camps following successful a senior season in 2002 that saw him surpass the 1,000-yard mark and become the second-leading rusher in Golden Bear history.
That's also not the reason why on many home football Saturdays he was far more likely to be seen making his way to a library than to Memorial Stadium.
Quite simply, Joe Igber enjoys being a student at the University of California. This past spring, he received his degree in civil engineering and he'll be beginning his master's in structural engineering this fall.
"When I got here, football was so burdening that it was hard to spend as much studying as I would have liked - and I wasn't satisfied with a rushed effort. My senior year was the first of the four where I felt comfortable with academics, could study sufficiently and put in big blocks of time several days in a row, where I felt content witht the level that I'm at.
"I don't really miss football. It was hard to let go of friendships and to miss out on daily interactions. Football has helped me, but it's nice not having to struggle to balance football and school."
And while he'll speak fondly of his coaches, teammates, and moments on the field - he'll speak with equal enthusiasm about this past year - his first chance to become a full-time student. Ask him what his best memories of Cal are, and he'll recall a teammate's locker room speech, the 2002 Big Game...and studying for mid-terms right after a game.
For four years, the Honolulu native thrilled Bear fans with his darting runs, his ability to turn losses into how'd-he-do-that short gains, and making cuts that would leave defenders grasping for air and ultimately pretzeled on the ground. In his final game, he ran for a Big Game-record 226 yards, a victory that saw The Axe return to Berkeley for the first time since 1994 and put the exclamation point on a remarkable turnaround season that saw Cal go from 1-10 to 7-5.
Very quietly, he finished his career as Cal's 2nd all-time leading rusher, his total of 3,124 yards trailing only Russell White's 3,367. His 1,130 yards in 2002 was the third-highest in Cal history, trailing Chuck Muncie (1,460) and White (1,177). Although listed in the media guide at 5-8, Igber appears to be a couple of inches shorter - meaning that he was often running behind blockers that were up to a foot taller than he was.
Saving his best game for his final performance, he rushed for a Big Game record 226 yards in Cal's 30-7 triumph in 2002. Besides bringing The Axe back to Berkeley for the first time since 1994, the win also put an exclamation point on a remarkable season which saw the team bounce back from a 1-10 record to go 7-5. For his season, Igber was awarded the team's Most Valuable Back award, the Berkeley Breakfast Club Award which went to the outstanding player in the Big Game. In 2001, Igber received the team's Joe Roth Award, which was awarded to the player "best exemplifying the courage, sportsmanship, and attitude" of former Cal quarterback Joe Roth.
When Igber came to Cal from Honolulu's Iolani School, he came with a strong reputation and with a running style likened to Barry Sanders. While gaining 3,584 yards and scoring 48 touchdowns during his last two seasons, his ability to stop, start, and change direction drew comparisons to the former Detroit Lions great.
Igber has a much simpler response to what influenced his running style.
"Fear," Igber said. "I didn't want to get hit. I was never worried about what people thought about my running style or any comparisons they might make. I just had no interest in getting hit. And I never wanted to allow someone to get a really big shot at me."
Choosing Berkeley because of the strength of its architecture and engineering programs, Igber was recruited by Cal running back coach Ron Gould. When asked about Igber, Gould shakes his head and smiles broadly.
"Joe's a special guy. He's an exceptional person and very fun to coach" Gould said. " I think he gets that from his parents. His parents are terrific people, and his father thanked me profusely for taking care of his son."
"Not many people would turn down offers from the NFL so they could keep studying civil engineering."
Gould recalls an Igber who was a meticulous note-taker and was generally quiet in team meetings, "You know that commercial where when one guy talks and everyone else listens? That's Joe."
Whether recalling how Igber told him, "Coach, I got hit so hard my feet went numb" or how the running back would try to keep teammates loose before games, Gould is effusive.
"He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him for graduate school. I was honored to do so and wrote that he makes everyone around him happy and he makes everyone around him better," Gould said. "He genuinely cares about what he's doing. You watch him and you see how he responds, how eager he is to learn, and you see him give his everything."
Igber credits Gould with helping with his concentration, ""Coach Gould focused my efforts a lot more, and gave me a goal to get upfield more, but he didn't force me to adapt to a different style."
One of the more unusual aspects of Igber's career is that he went through Cal wearing a different uniform number each year - something he also did during his three years of high school.
"Numbers are numbers. It was never important for me to be associated with a certain number. When I wore #30, it was because of Roy Jackson. I chose #29 and #6 because of teammates who inspired me. I hoped to wear #20 during my senior year, because that's the number I wore when I was a freshman in high school. James Bethea had the number at the time. We talked a little bit and it turned out that he wanted a single-digit number, so he ended up with #3 and I was able to wear #20. I was very grateful for that."
As a freshman, Igber ran for 694 yards although not starting until the middle of the season. Although he ran for three consecutive 100-yard games, including a valiant 35-carry, 182-yard effort in a 31-27 loss to Washington, his best remembrance of his Cal football career came later that season.
"My fondest memory came that year when we were playing Oregon at home. We were trailing 24-0 at halftime, and Deltha O'Neal stood up and said a few words that really inspired me and really pumped people up. Soon people were yelling and everybody really became fired up and we couldn't wait to get out there and play. Although we were down, we fought and fought and fought. We came up short at the end - but that moment really stayed with me."
In 2000, California football appeared to be on the verge of a turnaround. While the team finished 3-8, they had four close losses to Top 20 teams, defeated #13 UCLA, beat USC on the road, and lost the Big Game in overtime. Igber gained 901 yards that season, including a 181-yard effort against Arizona State and a two-touchdown game against Stanford. Whatever hopes that 2001 would be a breakthrough season quickly dissipated with the team's opening 44-17 loss to Illinois.
"When we were 1-10, I learned a lot about myself and what's necessary to succeed in life," said Igber, who missed the final four games of the season with a shoulder injury. "It was tough getting ridiculed on campus. You'd be walking down the street and people would drive by and yell things that were not pleasant. It was discouraging because they don't understand that we're practicing almost year-round. We were not sleeping in. We were working out everyday at 6 in the morning."
Soon after the 2001 season, Jeff Tedford was named Cal head coach.
"There was definitely a change in the air with Coach Tedford. He allowed us to play and make mistakes. The previous year, we felt we weren't worthy of playing in the Pac-10. We were hearing that we'd lose to De La Salle. But with Coach Tedford, it was positive, we had the chance to be a team and see the fruits of our labor," Igber said. "In previous years, the atmosphere was deteriorating. Teammates wouldn't even say hi to each other. One of the first things that changed was that teammates had to help each other, we had to practice hard, and we learned to enjoy the company of our fellow teammates. My senior year was what I thought college football was about."
Whatever doubts there might have been about Cal's new head coach were quickly lifted with an opening day 70-22 win over Baylor. Wins over nationally-ranked Michigan State and Washington chased the pallor that had loomed over Memorial Stadium. When a post-season appeal fell short, Cal entered the 2002 Big Game without a chance for a bowl game, but with the chance to record its first winning season since 1993.
Igber played the game of his life, scoring a 42-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-1 play in the second quarter to put Cal up 23-7. His 226 yards eclipsed Tyrone Edwards' Big Game record of 205 yards set in 1994 - which also marked the last time the Bears had won a Big Game. As the clock wound down on a 30-7 victory and a 7-5 season, fans poured onto the field in an outpouring of joy that had been rare in Berkeley.
"I have a lot of good memories of the 2002 Big Game. That was a tribute to everyone who believed in Cal football and believed in me."
More than a year removed from his final game, Igber wanted to make a few acknowledgements, "I really want to thank the band. I've listened to all the Pac-10 bands, and the Cal band is the most outstanding band in the conference. I also want to thank the fans. They came out there when no one had to come, and they still supported us."
While expectations for the 2004 Cal football team are the highest they've been in years, Igber's happy about that, but he's also excited to be beginning graduate school; the mark of a man who will gratefully acknowledge his past but at the same time is unwilling to be trapped by it.
He'll follow the team from a distance and like last season will be spending most of his Saturdays making his way to a library. All Saturdays, except one that is -- November 20th.
"Oh, I'll be there," Igber said about this fall's Big Game. "Having gone through it as a player, I'm very curious to see what it's like from the other side."
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