Back around the summer of 2000, Frank Bigelow took his son, Brendan, to Wild Water Adventure Park in Clovis, Calif., just a few miles away from their Fresno home. Anyone who has endured a summer day in San Joaquin Valley knows that time in the water isn't just refreshing, it's necessary. As Frank and Brendan entered the gates, Brendan decided he had waited long enough. The rides GhostSlider, Vortex and Vertigo were waiting, so Brendan quickly bolted toward the slides.
A track coach, football enthusiast and concerned parent, Frank was stunned. He figured he'd find Brendan soon enough, but he certainly couldn't chase him down.
"You know how kids are anxious just to get to the water, right?" Frank said. "So Brendan just throws off his shirt and shoes and he just took off. When he took off, I just paused and I said 'Wow.'"
Nearly 13 years after Frank watched Brendan jet toward the water, the younger Bigelow is one of the most explosive big-play threats in college football. Despite registering only 44 carries as a sophomore in 2012, Brendan ran for three touchdowns of 57 yards or longer, recorded the longest run in Ohio Stadium history by an opposing player (81 yards) and averaged 9.8 yards per carry. He finished with 431 rushing yards, just 359 fewer than the 3-9 Bears' leading rusher (C.J. Anderson) on 82 fewer carries.
During Cal's visit to Ohio State on Sept. 15, ESPN commentators Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman fawned over Bigelow's breakaway speed. How has the nation not seen more of this player? Where did Cal find a kid this fast?
The speed was always there. It was maintaining it that was difficult.
Frank enrolled Brendan in football at age nine, and soon Brendan was racing past kids on the field instead of at the water park. Brendan would drag Frank outside after long days at work to develop his agility and elusiveness. Frank instructed Brendan carefully: Line up 15 feet away, sprint at me and spin out of my grasp when I try to tackle you. Now 10 feet away. Now five. Now two. Use your hands to stay upright and do not go down.
"When we'd get to the end of the drill, he'd be right in front of me," Frank said. "And he has to make me miss him when I am reaching out to grab him. And I'm reaching out to grab him two feet away."
Speedier and more devoted than the average nine year old, Brendan overwhelmed defenders as he started growing. At Fresno Central High, his speed astounded a talent-rich high school football community.
But just as his stock was peaking, Brendan's body gave out. He first tore his ACL during a playoff game his junior year. Then, seven months later, he tore the ligament again on his first snap of a preseason scrimmage his senior year.
ACL tears are debilitating, often career-threatening injuries for speedsters like Bigelow. The rehab process is arduous, the pain is immense and the mental toll weighs on a teenager. Having that type of injury happen twice can do more than diminish a player's confidence -- it can scare off college recruiters. While some top Pac-12 schools remained interested (Bigelow originally committed to Washington in 2010 before flipping to Cal), Brendan was hesitant to even continue playing.
But he stuck with it. And Brendan remembers his journey back vividly: the difficulty of the squats, the exhausting workouts on the high stairs of nearby Ratcliffe Stadium. The first few rows of the Ratcliffe bleachers ascend modestly behind the track before jutting upward around midfield. Frank made sure that his son ran these steps, including the dreaded "triple step," again and again until his knee returned to full strength.
"When you first get injured, you don't want to push it too hard," Brendan said. "It is really sensitive to doing anything to it because it is hurt. It got tough at times. I've gotten through it and [my knee] has gotten a lot stronger."
Brendan went through full injury rehab twice. He missed spring practice in 2013 after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus, though he expects to be at full speed come fall. Since he's been at Cal, he's not only continued to strengthen his knee, but he's learned to become a more complete running back. Under the tutelage of former Cal running backs coach Ron Gould (now the head coach at U.C. Davis), Brendan learned toughness. Gould's stable of running backs reads like a collegiate all-star team: J.J. Arrington, Marshawn Lynch, Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Pictures of those backs -- as well as one of Lynch's Pro Bowl jerseys -- adorn the running backs meeting room inside Cal's team center.
"Coach Gould always told us that we need to bring our steel-toed boots when we came to practice," Brendan said. "This was work."
Now, he'll hone his skills under first-year Cal assistant Pierre Ingram, who helped produce 1,194-yard rusher Kenneth Dixon at Louisiana Tech last year before coming to Berkeley with head coach Sonny Dykes in December. Dixon averaged six yards per carry and scored 27 touchdowns in 2012.
Under Gould, Bigelow learned the importance of work. Under Ingram, he may learn a new approach to football. On each of Cal's running back's binders, there is a page that contains a quote from Ken Griffey Jr.: "I can't play being mad. I try to go out and have fun. It's a game and that is exactly how I am going to treat it."
When Brendan broke off one of the best runs last season, his 81-yard touchdown scamper at Ohio State, Frank was at work and listening on the radio. He returned later and watched a replay of the clip at home. Frank saw his son run left, dodge a diving tackler and spin out of the way. Then another defender charged at Brendan's legs and he spun again, planting his hand on the turf to stay upright. The knees looked strong, and the spins looked familiar. Brendan galloped for a score. He darted after the end zone as if GhostSlider, Vortex and Vertigo were there to greet him.
It was a flashback to the past, to all the potential that Brendan once displayed. If Brendan can stay healthy, it may also be an indication of what's to come in 2013.
"Yup, that's the drill we used to work on," Frank said. "Just like when he was young."