(Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics)

When people ask why Cal, the answer is easy. 

It's a program on the rise. It's in the Bay Area, where my mom's side of the family is from. And to top it all off, it's the best public school in the entire country. Everything about the school was going to be a perfect fit for me.

There was just the small detail of convincing Cal I was the perfect fit for them.

As I worked out during the offseason before my junior year, I decided not to tell any of my teammates what I was doing in the morning. I kept it a secret, and when it came time for my first varsity game, I had what people back in Southern California called a "glow up." It's the term we use when someone randomly gets good out of nowhere. Of course for me it wasn't random, and it didn't come out of nowhere. I knew the work I had put in.

I earned a spot on the varsity team for my junior year, and even got the interest of Cal's coaching staff at the time.

We made it to the playoffs, and that's when I heard the news that one of Cal's coaches was going to be at the game, and if I balled out that night, I was going to have a scholarship offer waiting for me. My high school coaches relayed that message to me, and in the midst of all that pressure I didn't play my best game. I had an interception, but I also gave up a touchdown, and when the game was over, the offer was no longer on the table.

But I kept working at it, and going into my senior season, things finally started to turn the corner. Our school hosted a college showcase, where recruiters would watch us run drills similar to Pro Day for colleges, when NFL scouts come to our campus and watch us do workouts. I performed well enough at the showcase that I got more offers, but still none from Cal.

I was still on their radar at that point, but as more colleges started to take an interest, their staff began to realize that the window was closing on signing me. And when I went to take a visit to Stanford, our big rival, and posted a photo on Instagram of me at Stanford's campus, that was all it took for Cal. Within a few hours of me posting that photo, Cal’s staff was on the phone with me offering me a scholarship.

I had the offer I wanted and would sign a national letter-of-intent with Cal, but that was only half the battle. I still had to actually play well once I got here.

 
 

In case there was any temptation to be complacent with just getting a roster spot, I picked #24 for my jersey number, after Kobe Bryant. He's my all-time favorite athlete, not just because he won five championships, but also because of the work he put in to make that happen. If you're a basketball fan, you've probably heard of Kobe's Mamba Mentality. It's simple - outwork everyone (and be the best version of yourself you can be). 

I was too young to watch the three straight titles from 2000-02, but I can definitely remember sitting at my house watching the back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. When I think of Kobe, however, I don't just think of the NBA titles. I think of what he did to get there.

In 2009, before they ever won the championship, the Lakers were up 2-0 against the Magic in the NBA Finals. At the post-game press conference he was asked why he wasn't happy, and as he simply put it, "job's not finished." That was more than a decade ago, and I still remember that.

Kobe once said "I can't relate to lazy people. We don't speak the same language. I don't understand you." For me, I never wanted any of my teammates or coaches to question why I didn't give it my all. And just like in high school, the hard work paid off once again.

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Thomas Hager