Cal Football: How Center Mike Saffell Handles Frenzy of Staying in Shape and Remaining on Course to Graduate

Jake Curtis

I have this mental image of 290-pound Cal center Michael Saffell, intensity written on his face as he simulates a snap in the middle of his family’s southern California living room, firing out to block his 17-year-old sister, Shelby, who is playing the part of an onrushing defensive lineman.

“I am trying to get my little sister to emulate a Pac-12 pass rush,” Saffell said recently, “but her arms may be a little short.”

Such is the creative way football players are trying to stay sharp during this unprecedented period of team inactivity. If the 2020 college football season is not delayed or canceled, Cal will open its season on August 29 at UNLV, and players like Saffell are trying to keep fit with independent workouts while taking classes remotely.

In a future story we will talk about the stressful situation within the Saffell household, with his father being the Gardena chief of police, his mother being a labor and delivery nurse and his older sister being an emergency room nurse in this time of social distancing during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“Obviously, it’s a scary time,” Saffell said.

For now, however, we turn to the mundane tasks of staying in football shape while remaining on schedule to graduate.

Saffell returned home less than a week after spring practice was canceled in mid-March. And the frenzy began. This semester he is taking four business classes, including an elective in sports managements, plus a sociology class. He wants to graduate in December.

Oh, and Saffell and fellow offensive lineman Henry Bazakas have taken over as the ambassadors for the Patrick Laird Summer Reading Challenge.

“It’s so crazy, you come home for a little bit and everyone was trying to figure out how this was going to work,” Saffell said. “We had spring break in there. The last two weeks we’re back full swing. I’ve got a Zoom meeting every hour of the day. Oh my gosh, how was I doing all this stuff? Almost nothing got scrapped. Projects and clubs I’m part of.”

If you know Mike Saffell, you know he likes to engage face-to-face, and this first experience with Zoom affected that.

“It’s different for a guy like me, who is personable in the classroom,” he said. “I derive a lot of my learning from that. A lot of those aspects go away when you go on Zoom. It is a little harder way to learn for my personality.

“The hardest part of doing this is that the Haas Business School focuses mainly on group projects. Obviously these become much harder to administer while working remotely."

Meanwhile he is staying sharp for football, despite the apparent shortcomings of the would-be female defensive end.

While some of his Cal teammates are filling coolers with water to use for curls, Saffell now thanks his father for a gift eight years after it was presented.

“When I was in eighth grade, my dad bought me a squat rack and bench rack and some dumbbells,” Saffell said. “All throughout high school, I never used it. I was always lifting at high school or with a trainer. [I was thinking], ‘Oh, this is a dumb purchase.’ Now I come home and, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I have this.’ My dad was a genius.”

He is also working with an offensive line mentor from high school to sharpen his football skills.

Saffell has had his share of injuries at Cal – a season-ending knee injury midway through the 2018 season and an ankle problem that kept him out of two games in 2019 – but he feels great now.

“This is the best I’ve ever felt since I’ve been at Cal,” he said.

With so many offensive starters returning and the addition of offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Cal is expected to make a quantum leap offensively after being the worst offensive team in the Pac-12 the past two seasons.

Having just four spring practices has not dampened Saffell’s optimism.

“Practices three and four you really saw it; the O-line really took off,” he said. “This offense has been clicking way faster. We had four days of spring practice and we had almost all of the offense installed. Coach Musgrave is a smart man.”

The biggest change for Saffell may be the fact that the new offense calls for more plays to start with the quarterback under center instead of in the shotgun.

And the reading program continues. He and Bazakas took over the program from Laird last May and about 2,500 kids signed up last year. The two linemen visited approximately 25 organizations and spoke to over 5,000 kids last summer to promote reading and combat summer learning loss. Kids who completed the challenge received four free tickets to Cal's 2019 season opener against UC Davis and a talk from Saffell after the game.

Even that program was affected by the pandemic.

“The reading challenge has moved online in order to engage with students and gain sign-ups for the upcoming season,” Saffell said.

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The football season – or at least the scheduled football season, which may or may not include fans in the stands – will be here soon. And what will Saffell do if the entire season is canceled. The 2020 season would be his final year of college eligibility, but fall athletes presumably would be granted an extra year of eligibility if no college football is played this fall. Saffell is scheduled to graduate in December and could have a pro football career. Would he return to Cal for another year or enter the 2021 NFL draft?

Such are questions left for future months in this era of uncertainty.

“Mostly this time home has grown my urgency for football, especially with it being my senior year,” Saffell said. “With the time constrictions coming on the season there is even more of a condensed time period for me to play my best football. My mind goes out to the community and those who are truly being affected by this virus. It is an important time especially in Berkeley to stand strong as a community.”

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