Cal Football: Center Michael Saffell Medically Retires from Football

Back injury responsible for ending the football career of Golden Bears' three-year starter on the offensive line
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Cal center Michael Saffell, who has made 23 starts in his Golden Bears career, announced Friday that he has medically retired from football due to injury.

Saffell, who was expected to be a cornerstone for the Bears' offensive line in 2021 in his fifth season on the team, said in an interview later Friday that it was a back injury that led him to end his football career at Cal. He also said there is no chance he might try to play professionally at a later date.

Saffell has had a number of injuries that caused him to miss playing time at Cal, including ankle and knee problems, but it was the risk of possible debilitating injury because of his back condition that caused him to call it quits.

"In 2020 I had a back injury and I had to get surgery on it just to play in 2020," Saffell said in the video above, "and as you might imagine, I rushed it back, fought to get back."

His back seemed OK after the 2020 season and he went into spring ball healthy, but he later suffered another setback, this one more serious.

Saffell was reluctant to specify the problem with his back, nor did he give details on the potential dangers to his health if he continued to play football, initially saying, "There was a high cost to come back on this one."

Asked to elaborate, Saffell said, "I'll keep it at 'high risk.' As you know, in the NFL, a lot of careers get ended by this one."

Saffell said he exhausted every avenue for medical advice on his situation. "I even went international," he said.

But it just was not in the cards, and said he was fortunate that his problem was caught in time.

Saffell earned his bachelor's degree from Cal's Haas School of Business in three and a half years in December of 2020 and had a 3.62 undergraduate grade-point average. He was accepted into the university's Master of Information and Data Science program, which he began in January of 2021.

He will continue his schooling at Cal, but will not be with the team for fall camp.

Saffell is not sure what his next step will be, but added, "Thank god, I went to Cal."

 Saffll had earlier released a statement about his decision to retire from football:

"Being a football student-athlete at Cal has been more than I could have dreamed of," Saffell said in the statement. "I've had so many opportunities to excel on the field, as well as in the classroom and the community. There are many people to thank including my Cal football teammates, coaches and staff, as well as the University's professors, our fans and so many more. This was a difficult decision but the right one for me. Although I will miss competing and the camaraderie with my teammates, I will always be a part of the Cal family and knowing that helps ease the disappointment that my football playing career has come to an end. I'm excited for my next challenge."

"Mike has been an absolute pleasure to coach and be around the last four years," Cal head coach Justin Wilcox said in a statement. "He embodies everything a collegiate student-athlete should be. Not only has Mike been a tremendous player on the field, but just as importantly, he has been a leader among his teammates, as well as in the classroom and the community. His medical retirement is a difficult reality for all of us and we will miss him greatly, but we fully support his decision and know that he will be hugely successful in the next chapter of his life."

Saffell announced last December that he planned to return to Cal for another season after the NCAA ruled that the 2020 season did not count against players' college eligibility.

Saffell noted two reasons he planned to return:

“I haven’t really had a full, healthy season. That’s really what I’m striving for with this team,” said Saffell in December after earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. “And then just some unfinished business left on the table. We want to win the Pac-12 — that’s our goal.”

He started two games as a true freshman and has been a regular starter each of the past three seasons.

The absence of Saffell leads a sizable void in Cal's offensive line for 2021.

Matt Cindric has played center when Saffell was sidelined in 2019, and Brian Driscoll recorded some plays at the center position in 2020. Ben Coleman played some center this past spring.

Saffell earned his bachelor's degree from Cal's Haas School of Business in three and a half years in December of 2020 and had a 3.62 undergraduate grade-point average. He was accepted into the university's Master of Information and Data Science program, which he began in January of 2021.

Below are notes on Saffell:

OL, 6-2, 295, Huntington Beach, CA (Edison HS)

Cal Career: 2017-20

2021 Honors – Allstate AFCA Good Works Team Nominee®wo reed t; Players To Watch (Athlon); Preseason All-California Region First Team (SportsPac-12); Preseason All-Pac-12 First Team (Lindy's, Pro Football Focus), Third Team (Athlon), Fourth Team (Phil Steele); Rimington Award Watch List

– Played in 28 games with 23 starts over four seasons from 2017-20 including 15 of 17 Cal contests at center over the past two campaigns as a 2019 junior and 2020 senior following his first eight starts at right guard including the first six as a 2018 sophomore before suffering a season-ending lower-body injury and two as a 2017 freshman

– Did not record any statistics other than participation

– Selected as the Pac-12 Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year as a senior, while he was also named second-team (Pro Football Focus), third-team (SportsPac-12) and honorable mention (Pac-12 Coaches) All-Pac-12 after starting all four games and serving as a team season captain

– Picked up second-team All-Pac-12 honors from Pro Football Focus as a junior

– Honored with the Pac-12's annual academic recognition each of his last three seasons as a first-team Pac-12 All-Academic selection as a sophomore and a member of the league's Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll that replaced its Pac-12 All-Academic teams as a junior and senior

– Took over from Patrick Laird as the lead ambassador for the Cal Athletics Summer Reading Challenge and visited approximately 25 organizations and spoke to over 5000 kids in the summer of 2019 to promote reading and combat summer learning loss

– Graduated from Cal with a bachelor's degree in business administration from the prestigious Haas School of Business in three-and-a-half years in December of 2020

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Cover photo of Michael Saffell by Darren Yamashita, USA TODAY Sports

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