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Friday, January 01, 2010

Arduous path leads Daly City kid to Pasadena

With sleight of hand, quarterback Jeremiah Masoli works Oregon's spread offense like a magician. He tucks the ball near his running back's chest, then pulls it out - either to throw a pass or run.

Almost as amazing has been how the Samoan kid from Daly City rose to today's Rose Bowl matchup against Ohio State.

"Look where I am now," Masoli says proudly.

It's no magic trick. He got to where he is thanks to hard work and the guidance of his parents, Kennedy and Linda.

"It's been so exciting, from watching him play at City College of San Francisco to making our first trip to Oregon, and now we're going to Pasadena," Kennedy said. "It's been a lot of fun."

From a high school career cut short at Serra to leading City College to the national junior-college championship to being fifth-string at Oregon, Jeremiah hasn't settled.

"He's such a competitor, and he's always done what it takes to win," Kennedy said. "From doing extra in the weight room to his mental preparation."

And anyone who saw the 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior run over Oregon State safety Lance Mitchell on 4th-and-3 in the 37-33 win knows how tough he is.

But did you know that as a junior at Serra, Masoli once broke his collarbone during a game and didn't come out?

Linda shakes her head at that one. She learned a while back to deal with her son sacrificing his body against bigger defensive players.

"I am used to it now," she said. "I pray for his safety beforehand so I can enjoy the game. He does whatever it takes."

Getting into the game

Kennedy moved to Daly City in 1976 and works in hospitality and sales. Linda has a prepaid legal-help business. They have four kids: Elijah, Jeremiah, Mariah and Zach.

Jeremiah began playing guard and nose tackle in Pop Warner, getting his shot at quarterback when the starter couldn't get a ride to a game. A fifth-grader playing against seventh-graders, the tough-nosed runt ran for a touchdown and threw for one.

His grandfather and uncles were big baseball fans, and that is the direction Masoli was headed until he didn't make his high school baseball team. At that point, he turned to football, basketball and track and field with extra vigor.

He ran the 100 and 200 and threw the shot put for his track team and was a first-team all-state guard in basketball his senior year of high school in Hawaii.

Jeremiah and his father moved to Hawaii after he was expelled from Serra. He was pulled over in a car with another student who had just stolen a wallet, and all the kids in the car were kicked out of school. To this day, Linda says, Serra coach Patrick Walsh hasn't discussed the incident with Jeremiah.

"It was a very devastating situation," Linda said. "Not only was his high school athletic career over, but more importantly, his reputation was tarnished by this one bad decision. Jeremiah and his dad moved temporarily to Hawaii so that he could have a fresh start and finish his high school education."

Jeremiah doesn't like talking about that period of his life, but said, "I leaned on God and my parents, and I was raised to persevere through anything."

Tale of the tapes

Masoli returned to San Francisco to play at City College in 2007, and Rams coach George Rush should get to eat free anywhere in Oregon for what he did next. He sent unsolicited game tapes of Masoli to several colleges.

"We were very surprised," Linda said. "I think the tapes were sent out just to get his name out there for the next season. But Oregon and the other schools said please come and visit now."

Masoli chose Oregon over Arizona and Arkansas, but arrived on campus as the fifth-string quarterback with a wrist still sore from recent surgery. Coach Chip Kelly went as far as to call him a "color-thrower - he was just guessing, looking for somebody wearing green."

Masoli picked up the complicated playbook quickly and was the starter by Week 4. He even overcame being booed by the home fans against Stanford, later winning that game with a 74-yard drive in the final two minutes.

Less than two years after a mysterious package arrived in the mail at the Oregon football offices, Masoli has a 16-5 record as a starter.

Masoli has 18 touchdowns (11 passing) against three interceptions in six games since coming back from a knee injury this season. Still knocked at times for his accuracy, Masoli threw a perfect 8-yard touchdown pass between defenders to Ed Dickson to set up overtime in a 44-41 win at Arizona on Nov. 21.

"I'm really confident in our offense, the way we're moving, the pace of things," Masoli said.

He says he's ready for all the lights that will be on him today - with his proud family in the stands.

"Jeremiah's always said, 'Nothing's easy,' and he's worked very hard to fulfill his dream," Linda said.

E-mail Vittorio Tafur at vtafur@sfchronicle.com.

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