Sept. 23, 2004
By Joe Davidson -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
This wasn't easy, not at all like nailing down the worst Rocky movie or the best Richard Nixon denial speech.
Ask the football folks at UC Davis and Sacramento State to list the top 10 skill players in school history - passers, runners and receivers - and you receive an Orange County-sized phone book of possibilities. With the 51st Causeway Classic looming Saturday, what better time to debate a who's who?
Both programs have been blessed by game-breakers with cannon arms or athletes who could buckle opponents with cut-back and sprint ability. Their efforts in the Causeway Classic didn't necessarily ensure inclusion on these lists, but most happened to have big outings against their chief rival.
The all-time greats stick, etched in the memory banks, for better or worse.
"You remember the sequences and the players because they were so impressive," said UCD coach Bob Biggs, who made the list from his quarterbacking days of the early 1970s. "I can't remember some of the scores of games, even from two or three years ago, but the players and plays? You never forget."
No current athletes made the list; it's not their time yet. But someday, Sac State quarterback Ryan Leadingham and wide receiver Fred Amey could make it. Or perhaps UCD quarterback Jon Grant, or a host of others.
UCD has long been known as a quarterback factory, and Sac State has produced elite runners, so it's no surprise Ken O'Brien heads the Aggies' list and Charles Roberts leads the Hornets' stars.
O'Brien might have been an all-time Hornet. He was recruited to Sac State by Bob Mattos out of Jesuit High School and started as a freshman in 1978, when the Hornets were about as bad as they've ever been, finishing 1-9. O'Brien ran for his life - and eventually fled Sac State.
He transferred to UCD, where he settled in as what then-coach Jim Sochor called "the ultimate Aggie." O'Brien could throw any type of pass, went 3-0 against Sac State and remains the only player from either school to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft (in 1983 by the New York Jets).
Now living in Redondo Beach, where he is a mortgage lender and assistant football coach at Loyola-Los Angeles High, O'Brien said he cherishes his Aggies experience.
"Going to UCD turned out to be a terrific move for me," O'Brien said. "I just wasn't suited for the veer or option (at Sac State)."
Anytime while making a list of this caliber, there's going to be a little smack involved. One of O'Brien's UCD offensive linemen was Dan Gazzaniga, now in his 12th season as an Aggies line coach. He pleaded for O'Brien to be omitted, sighting running as a necessary skill.
"That should ratchet him right off the list because he scared only us when he ran," Gazzaniga said.
Roberts frightened the Aggies, too, when he ran. At 5-foot-6, 165 pounds, Roberts was overlooked by most college recruiters. But for the Hornets, he was golden, rushing for 2,260, 2,082 and 1,624 yards in consecutive seasons and scoring 57 career touchdowns. Record crowds attended Hornet Stadium to be entertained by the ultimate skill guy with whom fans could relate because he wasn't any bigger than they.
"A great weapon, and his records are amazing," former Hornets coach John Volek said. "And he was tough. He took people on."
Roberts is still juking north of the border, where the Winnipeg Blue Bomber is second in the Canadian Football League in rushing with 1,099 yards in 218 carries, a 5.0-yard average. He also leads the CFL in scoring with 12 touchdowns (seven rushing, five receiving).
Roberts, known as "Blink," takes handoffs from another Top 10 Aggie, Khari Jones.
Arguably the greatest UCD runner is Preston Jackson, a Valley High product with power and burst. His finest hour came against the Hornets in the 1993 Causeway Classic, when he ran for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-32 victory. After the game, he embraced his father, Bobby, and reminded the former Hornets linebacker which was the better school. Today, Jackson is the Aggies' running-backs coach.
In terms of perfect timing, it's hard to beat wide receiver Mark Young. A flyer out of Cordova High, Mattos specifically recruited him to beat the Aggies. In the 1988 Causeway, Young amassed 253 all-purpose yards and scored the game-winner on a 53-yard reception with 1:26 remaining for a 31-28 victory. That halted UCD's 18-year winning streak over the Hornets.
Young's two touchdowns beat UCD in a playoff game 35-14 that same season.
"I've been waiting for a chance to show the shake and bake all year," he said later.
Troy Mills, nicknamed the "Bounty Hunter," was the focal point for the Hornets in 1990-91. He was a classic out-of-nowhere player, barely 105 pounds as a high school senior in the Bay Area. After a stint in the Army, he emerged a man. He rushed for 318 yards in two Causeway victories. Now 38, he is in his 11th CFL season, helping the Edmonton Eskimos win the Grey Cup last season.
Some all-timers dazzled until their bodies couldn't take any more. Consider Tay Thompson of UCD. His 56-yard touchdown reception from Biggs in the 1971 Causeway was the difference in the Aggies' 24-17 victory.
Thompson pulled in an acrobatic touchdown pass in the 1972 Causeway from Biggs, although he broke his collarbone after landing. He didn't play as a senior, electing to go to medical school. He is now the director of pulmonary medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Mike Carter is viewed by many within the Hornets' circle as the greatest athlete in Sac State football history. He was 6-2, 215, strong and explosive - "he was big-time, an awesome talent," former Sac State player and coach Mike Clemons recalled.
Carter's 199 receiving yards in a 1969 game, a ton during that run-dominant era, stood as a Hornets record for 20 years. He was a sixth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 1970.
Mike Moroski, currently the Aggies' offensive coordinator, threw for three touchdowns in the 1978 Causeway, a 39-0 UCD victory, but his greatest pass is a record that will not be broken - a 99-yard touchdown connection with Calvin Ellison against Puget Sound that season.
"They were coming after us, so we decided to protect the ball," Sochor joked of the big pass. "Mike hit Ellison, and he was on his way. I see it in my mind very clearly."
He also sees Rolf Benirschke, UCD's kicker in the mid-1970s. Before shrieking "a kicker?" in defense of every overlooked tailback or quarterback, consider Benirschke's tale. He intimidated teams by blasting field goals off scoreboards in warm-ups, and he denied many a return with his kickoffs. And the Hornets will not argue after what happened in the 1974 Causeway Classic.
After Benirschke scored a goal in a Santa Barbara soccer tournament earlier in the day, he boarded a plane owned by a team doctor and rushed back to Sacramento. Wolfing down a sandwich and changing into his football gear, Benirschke arrived at Hornet Stadium just before kickoff and had to talk his way onto the field. He then kicked three field goals in a 22-17 Aggies victory.
"There's no stretch at all putting a kicker on the list," Sochor insisted. "He's an offensive player, and he was a great one."
The rankings and why The Bee's Joe Davidson foolhardily compiled a list of the greatest skill players (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, kickers) in UC Davis and Sacramento State history.
1. Ken O'Brien, QB, 1980-82 - Called the ultimate Aggie by his coaches and peers; went 3-0 vs. Sac State; only UCD or Sac State player drafted in the NFL's first round.
2. Preston Jackson, RB, 1991-93 - Set career rushing records; tore apart Sac State in Causeway Classic for a record 243 yards, then needled his dad, a former Hornet.
3. J.T. O'Sullivan, QB, 1998-2001 - Holds most major UCD passing marks, including 96 touchdowns; could run and throw darts; started eight playoff games.
4. Dick Carriere, QB, 1960-63 - Started four Causeway Classics, including the '63 victory in which he threw for a touchdown and kicked a field goal.
5. Khari Jones, QB, 1991-93 -Was there a more spectacular passer in school history, with the gold shoes and ability to improvise and win?
6. Tay Thompson, WR, 1970-72 - Not very fast but spectacular from the start; impacted three years before getting hurt in '72 Causeway.
7. Mike Moroski, QB, 1975-78 - Cannon arm, incredible athlete, cerebral, and his 99-yard touchdown pass tied a collegiate record.
8. Kevin Daft, QB, 1995-98 - Set school records and feasted on Hornets, tossing four touchdowns against UCD; has Division II-record 482 playoff yards.
9. Bob Biggs, QB, 1969-72 - Won first championship in current string of 34 consecutive winning seasons; spontaneous, forever known for Hayward "Miracle Game."
10. Rolf Benirschke, K, 1974-76 - A kicker? Absolutely, say Aggies coaches, because he won games and could intimidate opponents by booming field goals over scoreboards.
1. Charles Roberts, RB, 1997-2000 - Prolific rusher whose 6,553 career yards were a Division I-AA record; once ran for 406 yards in a game.
2. Troy Mills, RB, 1990-91 - Had 316 all-purpose yards once vs. UCD. Helped beat Aggies twice.
3. Mark Young, WR, 1986-88 - Key player in ending the 18-year losing skid to UCD; dazzled on handoffs, receptions and returns.
4. John Farley, RB, 1980-83 - Had 3,862 career yards and was a key player for Hornets revival teams after years of misery; Bengals fourth-round pick.
5. Mike Carter, WR, 1968-69 - His 14 TDs as a senior were a ton for that era; some regard him as greatest athlete in Hornets football history.
6. Ricky Ray, QB, 1999-2000 - Keyed Hornets' best seasons in I-AA; could also run; split in Causeway, throwing four TDs in double-overtime loss.
7. Dan Chamberlain, WR, 1956-58 - Dominant in his day; had two big Causeway Classics, then played briefly in the NFL.
8. Donald Hair, RB, 1985-88 - Turned down UCD to become first scholarship player in Hornets history; a four-year starter who was Roberts before Roberts.
9. Rob Harrison, RB, 1984-86 - Set rushing records that were broken by Mills and Roberts, except his 88-yard touchdown run that remains a standard.
10. Mike Sullivan, QB, 1981-83 - Helped thrust Hornets back to respectability; creative, durable, three-year starter with 5,085 career passing yards.