Kevin Prince trots onto the field, ready to lead the UCLA offense down the field once more.
He knows this feeling. It’s a good one. The right one.
The bright lights of the Rose Bowl are shining down, and once more the Houston Cougars are to be taken down and handled ruthlessly.
Prince arrives in the huddle and looks up at the clock, to the scoreboard.
It’s already 30-6.
It is the fourth quarter, and he is just now entering the game.
For three years, when healthy – although given the number of nicks, bruises, fractures and concussions, was he ever healthy? – Kevin Prince was the starting quarterback for his childhood dream team, UCLA. He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in his Bruin career, and more than 20 touchdowns. He ranks in the top-10 in career passing yards, total offense and pass completions. If he were to trot back onto the field in the fourth quarter and look up, he would know that he was responsible for whatever those two numbers were, good or bad.
Now, he spends his games, three out of the first four, at least, on the sidelines.
Such is the life of a starter-turned-backup senior quarterback.
Former glory now boiled down to a single series at the end of a blowout.
It takes some getting used to.
“I don’t think I’ve fully adjusted,” Prince said. “I don’t know if I ever will.”
He may never adjust, but he has accepted his new role, and at some point, moved from acceptance to embracing it. He can’t pinpoint an exact moment where duty to team took over duty to self, but he knows it is there now.
He knows because he now celebrates the smallest improvement by a quarterback and also by young UCLA wide receivers, who he has taken under his wing while trying to explain the intricacies of the quarterback’s perspective.
That is where he derives pleasure now.
Those are his touchdowns.
“There is definitely satisfaction, and not even with the quarterbacks,” Prince said. “Just helping out the wide receivers, then seeing them on Saturdays. I coach them up on what we’re thinking – what we’re looking for in a blitz, talking them about what move we want them to make. Then seeing it translate into positive plays? There is definite satisfaction. It’s not the same as doing it yourself, it’s a different sort of satisfaction, but as a competitor, you want to help any way you can.”
He knows this because he’s seen it before.
When Ben Olson and Pat Cowan were sidelined with knee injuries in 2008, they offered their mentorship to Kevin Craft and a then true-freshman Prince. They celebrated Craft’s (relatively few) successes as their own.
When Prince took Kevin Craft’s starting role a year later, Craft did the same, expressing elation at Prince’s success, jumping for joy even when it was Prince throwing touchdowns, and perhaps more importantly to the impressionable redshirt freshman, staying prepared for when his name was called upon.
|T.J. Millweard (14), Brett Hundley (17) and Prince.|
“I’ve had great examples,” Prince said. “With Ben, when I was a freshman, I saw how he conducted himself. He had an injury-riddled career, but he had a family and to see him blossom into a man set an example for me. Obviously, Kevin Craft did it for me. Seeing guys like that helped mold me into the man I am. It has transformed me. You start in college and it’s all about you, and you get older and it’s about other people. I’m not used to being in this position. I’m seeing things from a different perspective. Being able to be a role model for Brett Hundley, even the younger quarterbacks like T.J. Millweard, Mike Fafaul, Devin Fuller, making sure they know what college football is about, being able to put time into them instead of myself on the field. It gave me an appreciation for what coaches do on a daily basis.”
When that happened, Prince said he does not know.
It’s something that comes with being a quarterback, and being a competitor.
If there is something to be done to further the goal, do it.
“Even back in Spring, when nobody told him he had to be a mentor, he did embrace it,” Millweard said. “He said, ‘Come to me, about life, school, football – come and ask.’ Whenever something comes up in my life, football, school, he’s one of the first I call. He really can help me.
“I would almost call it an older brother.”
Millweard corrects himself here, hilariously.
“Maybe an uncle.”
He corrects himself once again…
“Maybe a dad,” Millweard said, laughing. “I’m not a huge partier, neither is he. He’s given me good points about how to go out there to a party and be with the guys, but also be able to come home OK.”
Millweard saw it in the spring, but some already had a glimpse of the mentor Prince was to become.
Last season, Prince took Hundley under his wing, even as Rick Neuheisel was potentially grooming the young understudy to possibly take his position.
And who could blame him?
Neuheisel’s seat was hotter than the asphalt in Hades on a summer day; maybe giving the true freshman the keys to the car would keep it in Neuheisel’s driveway another year.
Instead, UCLA preserved Hundley’s redshirt, and when Richard Brehaut went down with a broken ankle against Washington State in Week 6, Prince was called upon. Entering the game to boos, he completed 8 of 13 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, with a quarterback rating of 208.7.
“We usually don’t stick around after the game, but we wanted to say hello, and it was getting close to midnight, and Kevin was the last guy out of the locker room – Neuheisel was the second-to-last guy,” said Stephen Prince, Kevin’s father. “Rick came over to me and just congratulated me on Kevin, and keep in mind, Kevin had lost the starting job. But Rick told me Kevin has been so helpful trying to get Brett prepared. Kevin was trying to prepare Brett to do it even as he was starting, and I think he probably realized that last year.”
With a new coaching staff, though, Prince had the opportunity to show what he could offer. A bum shoulder curtailed his best shot at claiming the starting role, but he made a quick impression.
“I’m going to preface this that I’m not going to soften anything because Kevin has a very competitive side and I’m not saying anything to just make him feel good about himself – but the guy is unbelievable,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “I have two sons myself, and if they can conduct themselves like Kevin, I’d be the happiest guy in the world. I know it hurts him not to be on the field, and I would not blink an eye for a second for him to be on the field, but he’s done a great job being a sounding board. In practice, he’s always upbeat, he studies every game plan. He has not one second shown anything but he’s in it all the way.”
Mazzone’s job as offensive coordinator was thought to have been made easiesr by the talent that UCLA returned on offense in 2012.
But what has made his job with Hundley even simpler is the effect that Prince and Brehaut have on the redshirt freshman quarterback.
“All those experiences, not only physically, but emotionally – going through what he has when he’s thrown an interception or a touchdown – he’s been through them,” Mazzone said. “I haven’t. It’s been 30 years since I have, at least. He has first-hand knowledge. He relates better than I can. He’s been there when you’re getting knocked around in the pocket. And Richard does the same thing.
“I’ll come up to Brett after an interception, and Kevin will be kneeling in front of him already talking to him.”
So often, the discussions will not be about the pass Hundley has just thrown, good or bad, or the scoreboard, good or bad, or the reaction of the crowd, good or bad.
They are not only about how to read an incoming safety, but about how to accept failure.
They are not only about how to check down to the fourth receiver, but how to stay even-keeled.
They are not only about what went wrong or what went right, but about not having regrets on the field of play.
“I’ve been asked that a lot, what would I want to change?” Prince said. “Nothing. I truly don’t have any regrets. Being completely honest, I have none. I don’t have any second thoughts, I wish I would’ve done this or that. I truly believe with 100 percent conviction that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan for me, for everybody, and with that, everything that has happened in my career has been for a reason. Maybe it helped me grow as a football player or as a brother or a teammate or a man. I don’t look back and regret anything.”
No, there was one time.
Six plays into his senior season at Crespi, Prince tore his ACL, ending what promised to be a highlight-filled senior year. It tore him to pieces. He was, he says now, “destroyed,” to have his senior year taken away from him in his first game. It was the one time he thought, “Why me?”
He didn’t show it, though.
“When he was at Crespi and he tore his ACL, we took him to the doctor and it was a Monday or a Tuesday, and he got the bad news,” Stephen Prince said. “He was done. His initial thing was, isn’t there some way he could play with a brace? No. So he took a deep breath, we got in the car and sat, and he turned to me and said, ‘Drive me to Crespi, we have practice.’ He limped on the field with the crutches, right to Brian Bennett, who was a sophomore with no experience – I think he played linebacker as a freshman -- and he said, ‘I'm here to turn you into a QB.’”
Added Prince: “I found a lot of strength in that. A lot of other things in my life I needed to face at that time. It helped me get ready for college, and get ready to face even more adversity in college. See, I see weakness in regret. I see weakness in that. I see weakness in feeling sorry for yourself. I’ve never had that attitude, with any of the struggles.”
|Prince coming off the field with an injury in 2011.|
And there have been a lot.
The knee injury that cost him his senior season in high school.
The broken jaw he suffered in an upset win at Tennessee in Week 2 of 2009 and the concussion later in the year against Washington.
The oblique injury that ruined his fall camp before what was looking to be a standout redshirt sophomore season.
The microfracture procedure that ultimately ended his redshirt sophomore year.
The concussion that sidelined him in the season-opener at Houston in 2011.
“It was tough for me to watch,” Prince’s mother, Meredith, said. “It was hard for me to watch him get pummeled all the time. I love football. I am a football fan and I always have been, and I would go all the time and watch Kevin practice in high school, without him knowing. I know it’s a rough sport and lots of moms don’t want them to get hurt, but I think that’s what makes them a man. When they have to rise above their trials.
“And Kevin has had plenty."
In some cases, Prince can pinpoint what he gained from a setback, what positive he could find from yet another trial.
He recalls some of the toughest moments of his career, and if you think they were tough on fans, and if Rick Neuheisel thinks they were tough on him, talk to Prince and you really understand how difficult his past has been. You can just hear him shake his head as he harkens a setback, then regain himself and nod when he remembers what came of it.
Take the oblique injury that sidelined him for much of training camp in 2010, suffered just two days in, after he spent the summer becoming what some considered the most promising quarterback prospect the Bruins had in some time. Then, it was former strength and conditioning coach Mike Linn, who explained to Kevin the importance of watching closely the tempo and speed of practice, from how guys hustled to the difference between how eager starters are to participate versus scout team members. Through Linn, Prince learned the value of team morale.
Take Prince’s benching after a three-interception first quarter in a loss to Texas in 2011, and the ensuing reclamation of the position against Washington State after Brehaut suffered a broken lower left leg. That is when Prince learned the value of staying prepared, as he has this season, in case he’s called upon.
Take right now, as he spends his Saturdays on the sidelines, and not in that familiar huddle.
“Every time, there is something new to learn,” Prince said. “That is the challenge. Every time you are faced with something you’re not used to, you have to find and embrace the challenge in it.”
It is that willingness to learn that attracted Norm Chow to Prince in the first place.
Like he’s done with so many of his quarterbacks, the former UCLA offensive coordinator encouraged Prince to expand his view of the world, assigning Prince book reports and discussing life off the field as much as on it. The fact that they share the same faith – both are involved in the Church of Latter-Day Saints – played a major factor. The fact that they share a passion for knowledge played a bigger role.
“He assigned me a book called, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis,’” said Prince of the first book that Chow gave him, which Chow had also given Ben Olson the season before. “It was a book on tennis, and I couldn’t believe he assigned me a book on tennis. It was like his Phil Jackson ‘Zen’ moment. I read it. I dunno, I just trusted him. It was all about being mentally tough, being able to use visualization. I was able to translate that to football. Then he gave me ‘The Right to Lead’ by John C. Maxwell, and I read that, too. Maybe six or eight books, total.”
|Norm Chow and Prince.|
They continue the relationship, Prince says, communicating every so often, though both of their football responsibilities – Chow was named the head coach at Hawaii last offseason, his first head-coaching gig – limits their time.
“After the Utah game last year, Norm called me just to see how Kevin was doing,” Stephen Prince said. “He was really racked up after that game. The relationship was really a football relationship – mutual admiration in a way. Norm thought a healthy Kevin would be a really good quarterback. I would talk to Norm occasionally, and Norm was always impressed that Kevin was serious about learning. It’s the work ethic Norm admired.
“Norm made an interesting comment when I talked to him – he said, “‘Rick never put Kevin in a position to succeed.’”
The validity of the Pistol offense has been up for debate for a long time. It does not need to be rehashed here.
One thing for certain, though, Prince was definitely put in a position to get waylaid.
And it has taken its toll.
“There is a lot of pain, a lot of discomfort,” Stephen Prince said. “One of the things that has changed his outlook on the situation is, if he doesn’t end up playing football, that’s fine he says; ‘I want to preserve my body for my wife. It’s important for us to have a good life together and not be crippled by this.’ It’s a more mature outlook. He has someone else to be concerned about.”
He’ll be much more concerned come mid-April.
This is not going to devolve into some mushy tale about a guy realigning his priorities, but suffice it to say, it’s a good bet that Prince was not texting his mom about flowers before he got engaged.
But these are the things on his mind now, or were, until the season started.
Football and flowers.
Pigskin and petunias.
I-formations and invitations and tackles and tea cups and hungry, frothing, fat, bearded defensive tackles and honeymoons.
“Oh, he texts me all the time,” Meredith Prince said. “I can only think now of him asking me to ask someone about flowers. So (the coming wedding) definitely has redirected his focus a little bit. He was very involved in the planning until football started. That’s why they tried to speed up some of the plans, she wanted him involved and he wanted to be involved. Now football has started, not too much wedding cake tasting.”
Prince’s engagement to UCLA gymnast Tauny Frattone caught his parents off guard, but they trust him. He’s earned it, with both his actions and his attitude.
“Frankly, he surprised us by getting engaged,” Meredith Prince said. “I didn’t think he’d want to marry this soon. But he’s responsible about it and understands what kinds of changes that means. As long as he’s aware of that, it’s helped him look at things in life a lot differently for sure. You become a philosopher – you begin to see it is important to look at the importance of everything. He’s very serious about this.”
Pause for a moment.
Would you like to know how serious?
This is serious: He’s put down the Xbox controller. We’re talking serious as a mortician, here.
“All of a sudden, things get real. Real fast,” Prince said. “Wow, I’ve got to get money. We’ve got to get a place to live. Before, you’re just enjoying college. You’re playing video games. That was my sophomore year, my junior year. Now my worry is what are we going to eat at our wedding; then it was what team am I going to be in Madden.”
The last thing to take out of this is this: Even through it all, through the broken jaw and the oblique injury and the sore back and the shoulder that is now comprised of silly string, spaghetti, playdough and hope that it won’t fall off – there is no doubt that Kevin Prince would play as Kevin Prince in a video game.
He has little – scratch that, no – doubt that virtual Prince will make a play, just like he never lacked for confidence as a starter and just like he’ll continue the rest of his life.
“If people don’t believe in me, I could care less,” Prince said. “I’ve learned – that’s one of the things I’ve learned and appreciate from college – that it really is just about believing in yourself. If you think you can do it, that’s what matters. You don’t have to have the approval of anyone. That’s what Coach Chow taught me. He quotes Bill Cosby, ‘I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.’ I learned that as a redshirt freshman.”
It is a lesson that bears repeating, because it has been repeated so often, even now.
In the closing minutes of the Bruins’ 37-6 win over Houston, Prince replaced Brett Hundley, drawing a decent number of cheers, but a loud smattering of boos.
“Sh*t, I thought they were booing me!” Mazzone said, guffawing. “I will say this about Kevin – I don’t think it has changed him as a person. I wasn’t here, I don’t know most of it. I don’t know what he’s been through, but I’ve been through that with other quarterbacks, and he carries himself with a ton of confidence, like I would like my son to carry himself. If he has any feelings like that, I’ve never seen them, any bitterness to how things worked out. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and in my short time of knowing him – and again, I’m not saying this to make him feel better – I’ve developed a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
Mercifully, his parents did not hear the callousness of the fans who for some reason decided that interceptions thrown with a sore shoulder, in an ill-fitting offense, on passes to wide receivers who were not trying hard, behind an offensive line that can best be described as patchwork – those interceptions were worthy of boos. Thankfully, there were some sane fans out there.
“I was afraid when they put Kevin out on the field two weeks ago, just to do the mop-up work,” Meredith Prince said. “I was pleasantly surprised that there were some people actual cheering. Audibly. You could hear it, and it made me feel like everything was going to be OK.”
That, ultimately, was a good moment. Jeers turning into cheers, like they did on that day against Washington State. Only in both cases, Prince did not hear a thing.
It is a lesson he learned the hard way – to be able to tune out the noise – and not just from UCLA fans who understandably have grown restless and weary about the quarterback play. If it were only from the fans, that’d be understandable.
“I don’t know how any young man can rise above this,” Meredith Prince said. “Rise above someone who screams at you on the sidelines, who belittles you behind closed doors. He has. He says it makes him stronger. I would go to bed crying because of the crap he had to put up with. It’s not an easy subject for me. I’ve had to watch him deal with it. He continues to tell me, ‘Mom, I’m OK,’ but I would always worry about his psyche. And he would always reassure me that it would make him stronger. He knew he was better than that. I seriously don’t know where that comes from. I don’t think you can teach a kid that as a parent. I can try to be an example, I can try to lead him in the right direction. But ultimately I don’t know how a kid pulls up from his bootstraps and says, ‘I’m better than what this person is telling me I am.’”
It’s a lesson he has shared with Hundley and Millweard and the rest of the young quarterbacks.
“In high school, you get a little bit of that,” Millweard said. “But nothing to the college level. They can turn on you, and you’re the bad guy. It’s not like he sat us down, but you get his take on it, and he really has helped us out by showing you have to believe in yourself, show through your work ethic and your team will follow.”
That is what Prince hopes to convey to NFL scouts who in all likelihood have forgotten his name.
If they can duct tape his shoulder to the point that it will withstand scrutiny, Prince will attempt to shine at Senior Day. It could be his last opportunity. And he knows it.
“I’m giving it one last go, and it’s changed my approach to the game, now wanting to get better because I want to give the NFL a shot,” Prince said. “I hope I’m being able to portray to the coaches that I understand what is going on in the game of football, and maybe that will help me without having the senior year tape. That’s why I’ve been trying to pick up everything I can from Coach Mazzone and Coach (Jim) Mora.”
It might not happen, he concedes. It probably won’t happen, he allows. Some people think he has no shot, he admits.
In professional football, that is.
Because those close to him have no doubt about life.
Life, Kevin Prince has figured out.
Life, that’s something he knows a little about.
About being kicked down, and having to drag himself up. About being disappointed, but having to show resolve. About accepting circumstances and then embracing them. About being a good teammate and a good husband and a good father and a good son.
“I’ve got no doubt about him whatsoever,” Stephen Prince said. “Absolutely. He is solid. He is solid. Whatever he does, he will work hard and he will do it. He is very devoted. I am betting you, that he's never showed up late for a practice or a meeting.
“He is always there and he will always be there.”