The De La Salle five: Overwhelming promise, tragic circumstance

Never before had a group of teammates from the same high school been so hyped, and not before or since has a circle of friends playing at the University of Oregon faced more adversity.

In 2004, four friends playing football at De La Salle High School all decided to come play at the University of Oregon, with a fifth coming a year later in 2005. De La Salle was a powerhouse in the San Francisco bay-area of California, considered one of the top programs in the country. Every year they pumped out collegiate athletes, many of which went on to play in the NFL. It was a factory of football excellence, and the University of Oregon had swooped in to snatch up a full hand of De La Salle Spartans, some of the top-rated blue chip athletes in the country.

It was national press when Oregon signed the group, including the highest-touted recruit Cameron Colvin committing to be a Duck live on ESPN, back before live commitment ceremonies became common-place.  So stunned was the football world that little up-and-comer Oregon could snatch away talent from the traditional powers that be, that immediately after Colvin donned an Oregon hat while still on TV his phone started ringing…the Michigan Wolverines coaching staff was calling asking for a logical explanation for why he had chosen Oregon of all places to play instead of mighty Michigan?

The expectations were through the roof when cornerback Willie Glasper, cornerback Jackie Bates, wide receiver Cameron Colvin, and linebacker Terrance Kelly all decided to be Oregon Ducks. A year later cornerback TJ Ward would follow his friends to Eugene, the only one of the group off the radar, after missing most of his senior year with a severe knee injury he received no scholarship offers and chose to walk-on at Oregon to join his friends.

Cameron Colvin (left) and Terrance Kelly (right) were superstars at De La Salle High School, at the time considered the top high school program in the country.

 

Oregon did have a little bit of an edge though in recruiting these superstars of the prep ranks in Joe Aliotti, brother of longtime Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. Now the offensive coach and Dean of Students at De La Salle High School, Joe Aiotti kept close tabs on the local athletes growing up in the bay area and attending De La Salle, providing a direct link of information and contact back to the Oregon program. Even with the Aliotti family connection though, it was still very surprising that Oregon could snatch some of the top high school talent in the country away from the bay area with the California schools heavily recruiting them.

It was not the first time Oregon had been the beneficiary of De la Salle’s rich talent pool, as wide receiver Demetrius Williams was a superstar with the Ducks while the group of five were being recruited.

“When we were freshmen and sophomores we watched a lot of college football,” recalls Cameron Colvin, the highest rated of the De La Salle five in the national recruiting rankings, a 5-star blue chip recruit considered the 5th best wide receiver in the country. “We saw all those great teams with Joey Harrington and Keenan Howry. Oregon hadn’t really been on the map, growing up I’d always wanted to go to UNC or Florida State. But when Demetrius went there we didn’t pay too much mind until they started making noise with all the marketing. Maurice Jones-Drew was on our team too, and we’d all talk about how cool Oregon was (Jones-Drew eventually chose UCLA).”

De La Salle graduate Demetrius Williams was already a big star for the Ducks when the 2004 recruiting class formed.

 

Colvin had been raised in a middle-class home in Pittsburgh, CA, but dealt with tragedy from an early age.  His father died when he was six, his mother passed when Colvin was 15, leaving him and his sisters to raise each other. Colvin had to grow up fast, and the positive person that he is he never let adversity keep him down.  But with all the promise, he would come to face as much adversity as anyone who has ever come through the University of Oregon Ducks program.

Among the group of close friends though one was the clear ringleader, Terrance Kelly. Kelly was a superstar running back and linebacker for De La Salle, a young man who had consciously avoided all the pitfalls of gangs and crime that infested his Richmond neighborhood, an area known as “the iron triangle” where murder and serious crime was an almost daily event. Terrance Kelly had been raised largely by his grandmother. In a place where it is often expected to enter gang life, Kelly had stayed on the straight path to success, a model citizen and role model for his peers. A 4-star recruit capable of playing multiple positions on the field who was named team MVP, initially Kelly was interested in another school as the De La Salle superstars weighed their options of college scholarship offers.

“Terrance really liked ASU, he went down to visit. But we were all homebodies, we were family guys, and we wanted to feel like a family,” said Cameron Colvin. “Cal was a little too close to home, but we wanted to be kinda close. Guys looked at other schools, but everything pinpointed us to Oregon, Coach (Nick) Aliotti especially since his brother coached at De La Salle. I grew up playing baseball with Aliotti’s extended family, so that family connection to Oregon was strong with all of us.”

It wasn’t a decision for them to all go to school together per se, but lucky for Oregon it just happened to come together that way.

Jackie Bates was the first of the De La Salle players to commit to Oregon for the 2004 recruiting class.

“TJ (Ward) tore up his knee senior year in high school so he wasn’t recruited heavily. We all started weighing our options, but when it came down to it Oregon had the best family atmosphere we were all used to and we noticed how they always took care of Demetrius (Williams), he was always so happy there,” Colvin recalls.

Jackie Bates was the first to decide on Oregon, a 4-star cornerback and backup RB behind Maurice Jones-Drew who earned 2nd team All-State Underclass honors. Bates had torn a ligament in his foot before the start of his senior year which limited his recruiting somewhat, but Oregon never backed off.

“All the coaches were really supportive, but Oregon was the most. They were by my side the whole time and knew what I was capable of since my sophomore season,” said Jackie Bates in a 2003 interview with Chris Fetters of the Scout Network. (reference: http://recruiting.scout.com/2/207881.html)

Willie Glasper and Terrance Kelly also chose Oregon in mid-January , Glasper a 4-star cornerback projected as one of the top defensive backs in California, selecting Oregon over offers from Arizona State, Washington, and Cal; and Kelly selecting Oregon over offers from the same schools as Glasper.

Willie Glasper was a top-rated cornerback at De La Salle High School.

“When I went on all my trips, I just really liked their campus, their surroundings,” said Willie Glasper in a 2004 interview with Chris Fetters of Scout.com (reference: http://recruiting.scout.com/2/226744.html). “It’s a place I could see myself spending the next four or five years of my life at. I liked the facilities, I liked the coaching staff. I just had a feeling about Oregon. I just knew that was the place I was going to go to school at.”

The Oregon Ducks had now successfully recruited three of the top players from California, with TJ Ward also clamoring to be a preferred walk-on at Oregon to join his high school teammates. The real prize as far as recruiting rankings went was Cameron Colvin, who two weeks later made his decision live on ESPN…and selected Oregon, as jaws dropped nationwide at university athletic offices touting their traditions and national prominence.

“When I committed to Oregon, family members were confused…Oregon? Really?” said Colvin. “Coaches started calling, Michigan called while I was still on TV moments after committing, they were stunned I didn’t automatically go there because of their tradition. It came down to the family atmosphere at Oregon, just being most comfortable there with the team, the coaches, and all my friends.”

If Oregon had made national news with flashy uniforms, 21st century marketing, giant billboards, and recent Fiesta Bowl championship finishing #2 in the country; now those efforts were paying off as Oregon was starting to making huge waves in recruiting too. It was becoming clear to the rest of the country that Oregon wasn’t a flash in the pan, and they weren’t going away any time soon. The 2004 class was considered far and away on paper the best recruiting class Oregon had ever reeled in, and fans in particular were so excited to see what this group from De La Salle would do once they got out onto the Autzen turf.

“We all went to be together, help set a new standard of work ethic and winning attitude,” Cameron Colvin remembers. “We were taught in such a different way, a lot of guys weren’t blessed with the opportunity we had at De La Salle. We were so excited to pass that knowledge on and take Oregon’s recent success to the next level.”

Some of the incoming Duck players attended summer workouts in Eugene, among them Terrance Kelly, who then returned home briefly before fall camp started to say goodbye to family and friends.

Then the night of August 12th, 2004, everything changed. Terrance Kelly was making his last goodbyes with family and friends in Richmond preparing to leave for Eugene to start his freshman year. Everybody knew Kelly would be a success, and had the talent to be a great NFL player someday. Kelly drove to a friend’s house and waited outside for him to come down. When he did, he found Kelly shot and killed in the driver’s seat, the victim of a senseless murder that was later revealed to have been done by a 15-year old kid, out for vengeance for losing a basketball game to Kelly a few months earlier (reference: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=1858618). When hearing this news, the grandmother that had helped raise him suffered a heart attack and died two months later. Everyone’s lives were shattered.

“TK’s death hurt the whole city of Richmond,” Mayor Irma Anderson said. “Here was a young man who did everything right and still lost his life through no fault of his own. His family did everything they could to protect Terrance Kelly, and he still lost his life. It’s just tragic.”

“I basically had nothing to live for after Terrance was killed,” said Landrin Kelly, 37. “I was a senior in high school when he was born; raising him was like my full-time job. I always worked at jobs that allowed me to be free to help coach his teams. He’s my only child, and it was my job — my mission — to take care of him until he went off to college.” (reference: http://articles.sfgate.com/2006-08-03/news/17308967_1_bob-ladouceur-terrance-kelly-kelly-s-death)

Kelly’s death put a dark shadow over not just the Richmond community, but that of Eugene as well. Oregon fans may not have had the chance to see Kelly play, but he was still one of their own, a Duck.

While Kelly’s death was tragic, it wasn’t the only problem with the De la Salle group of teammates, as Willie Glasper had academic clearance issues, and TJ Ward was still looking to walk-on with Oregon while recovering from his major knee injury.

“We went to be together, but it never came together. Terrance died, Willie was late getting in, and things just spiraled from there,” Colvin recalls. “It was a whirlwind of emotion after Terrance had passed, and TJ wasn’t there, Willie couldn’t practice. Really it was just Jackie and me, and losing Terrance stuck on us because we’re trying to play football and focus but that Terrance situation messed us up emotionally, not knowing the whole situation and at 18 trying to make a transformation in your life and just be hit all of a sudden with so many other things. We wanted to play for Terrance, but every interview wasn’t about football, it was about Terrance. I had a hard time focusing on what was happening on the field because of all that was happening off of it.”

The whole Eugene community mourned along side the touted freshmen now on campus practicing. Kelly’s funeral was the same day as Oregon’s first practice of fall camp, so after morning practice coaches and his former teammates flew down to attend the ceremony. Coaches placed an Oregon Ducks ‘Kelly’ jersey in his casket, buried forever a Duck.

The Oregon team had a bye week 1, re-scheduled so that the Ducks could play at Oklahoma a couple weeks later, so the Ducks were the last team in the country to start playing. This added time before starting to play only gave more time to dwell on the Kelly tragedy, and when the first game against lowly Indiana came around it was clear the whole team was still affected by the tragic death in the family.

The Ducks turned the ball over four times in the first half and did everything possible to lose it, which they did 30-24 in a fluke game to one of the worst teams in the country. It was the first out-of-conference loss at Autzen Stadium under Coach Mike Bellotti’s tenure, first overall since 1992 (to Hawaii 24-21). For the remainder of Coach Bellotti’s career (1995-2008) they would only ever lose one more out-of-conference home game, to Boise State in 2008.

The season spiraled downward from there. A series of fluke losses, bad luck, and heavy hearts led to a 5-6 record, the only losing season under Bellotti and the first time since 1996 that Oregon wasn’t invited to a bowl game.

Amidst that, the incoming freshmen with so much promise were not making the highlight plays that people were expecting, the immediate game-changing impact yet to be seen.

“I was learning on the go,” said Cameron Colvin, who played as a true freshman in 2004, including a two touchdown game against Washington but otherwise didn’t find the ball thrown his way much. “I was getting acclimated, and it took some time to learn the system. For that Washington game, Demetrius got hurt, so I got my chance. I had been out there, but the ball hadn’t been coming my way. As a wide receiver, if you’re not touching the ball then you’re invisible to fans. We had so many talented receivers, and only one ball to go around.”

Colvin continued, “With all the hype I had coming out of high school I had a marker on my back, other teams knew who I was. People started saying ‘oh he’s a bust, he’s not getting the ball. I only dropped the ball four times in my entire college career, so I was making the most of my opportunities. But Demetrius was the main focus of the offense, and I had no problem with that. I’m not the greedy type, I want to win games, and we had so many guys I’m fine with doing my part. I’m here, I’m talented, I’m a team guy, so I’m going to do what I can to help the team win.”

Through this the De La Salle newcomers were struggling to adjust to life in Eugene as a college student. Colvin was more isolated from the rest of the group as the only offensive player of the bunch, while Glasper, Ward, and Bates could lean on each other through defensive meetings.

“I remember Coach Aliotti used to come apologize to me for not seeing me much after he had recruited me, because offense and defense would be separated except at practice,” Cameron Colvin stated. “But the team was one big family, they called us the amigos, the De La boys. You learn to build those different relationships. We De La Salle guys stuck together, but we all made sure to introduce each other to different people, we made sure that we didn’t stay isolated, we benefited from each other. Families branch out.”

The one who did see extensive playing time their freshman year was Jackie Bates, who had worked his way into being the nickel corner, and to many fans the brightest up-and-coming star of the incoming players. Bates was the best lock-down corner Oregon had even as a freshman, repeatedly making great plays when teams tried to pick on him seeing a true freshman on the field.

Following the disappointing 2004 season, a major change happened at Oregon, scrapping the pro set offense that had brought so much success to Oregon for decades and implementing a spread offense.

With the change to the spread offense, it meant more receivers on the field, and more opportunities for Colvin. Bates was playing consistently, while Glasper started making an impact on special teams, and TJ Ward had finally arrived at Oregon as a walk-on and redshirted while turning heads in practice. Yet outside of Bates, for all the hype that had been created for the incoming group from De La Salle, there were murmurs about them being busts because the expected production was not there.

“I felt pressure like I had to go out and perform because I wasn’t getting the ball, so I was pressing it trying to do more,” said Colvin. “People don’t realize that when you’re in college you are representing beyond just yourself, you’re representing everything. That’s what the job entails, you are a student-athlete and all the life adjustments that come along with it, people sometimes forget that we’re still human and we’re going to make some mistakes.”

Colvin caught 22 passes for 322 yards and 3 TDs, plus a rushing touchdown, in the revamped spread system. While he wasn’t the primary target, he was starting to make an impact. The team overachieved greatly that year, finishing 2nd in the Pac-10 only losing to a USC team that later had to vacate their victory due to NCAA violations, and losing in the Holiday Bowl in tragic but thrilling fashion to Oklahoma 17-14 on a last-second interception near the goal line.

2006 would have its own setbacks, now juniors there was an added expectation for all the hype to finally turn them into the superstars they were expected to be. Yet once again, unfortunate circumstance set things back for the De La Boys.

In the second week of the season against Fresno State, Jackie Bates (now a full-time starter at cornerback) broke his leg ending his season. Two weeks later TJ Ward saw his first playing time as a Duck, coming in vs. ASU and getting an interception in the endzone on his first play, then tore up his knee again ending his year as well.

Willie Glasper was playing some corner, but was mainly buried on the depth chart making his contributions as a heat-seeking missile on kick/punt coverage.

At the end of the season while rehabbing his leg, Jackie Bates decided to transfer out of Oregon, eventually ending up at Hampton. What had been a group of five was now down to three, and there were questions as to if TJ Ward would ever be able to play again because of his multiple knee injuries causing chronic issues, requiring it to be drained of fluids every couple of weeks.

Senior year in 2007 brought yet another offensive coordinator and new system for Cameron Colvin to learn, the third of his career with the arrival of Chip Kelly. The 2007 team was stacked with talent, and while Colvin was in the rotation there were so many talented receivers he still wasn’t getting thrown the ball much. Glasper too still wasn’t a starting cornerback but a beast on special teams, and Ward had overcome the odds on his bad knee to return and earn playing time, now as a safety rather than a cornerback.

As the 2007 season progressed though, the Oregon Ducks became cursed with a string of injuries. The Ducks shocked the world with their dominant trouncing of Michigan in the big house, and Oregon quickly ascended the rankings. But guys were getting hurt, and the attrition at wide receiver gave Cameron Colvin an opportunity he had not received during his entire career to date, a chance to be THE guy.

“Chip Kelly wanted to give me the ball in 2007,” Colvin remembers. “Coach Kelly has a knack for those things, he finds guys and sees what you’re good at. I remember sitting in a meeting with Coach (Gary) Crowton in 2006 and he told me he didn’t know what I was good at yet. Coach Kelly saw what I could do, it’s great when you have a coach who recognizes what you’re good at. CK found out what everyone was good at. To this day he finds what his guys are good at, and he’s not afraid to throw the ball to 10 different guys. He saw that I had talent, I had my best camp that year, I was healthy, mentally focused, I hadn’t missed a practice with injuries, and stars were aligning, everything was clicking.”

Against Stanford in the fourth game of the year, Colvin got his chance. On the first play of the game Dennis Dixon hit Colvin in stride for a 71 yard touchdown. One bay area kid throwing to another bay area kid, performing in front of friends and family, the play seemed greater than just a career long touchdown. After waiting so long, the fans being in Colvin’s corner for so long awaiting his arrival, the play signified his final arrival showcasing all the promise that had been hyped up for years. He had 8 catches that day for 136 yards, all career highs. The joy felt by Duck fans wasn’t just for a big victory, but relief and pride in Cameron Colvin’s performance, knowing the pressure that had been on Colvin to excel and his on and off-field struggles.

“We all really meshed well as a unit that night at Stanford, it was a reflection of what we’d been practicing, what we’d been working on for so long. They threw me 10 that night, I caught 8. Coach Kelly called me the next day and wanted to see where my head was, he knew all I had been through. I told him that it wasn’t something I was going to have an ego about, I did my job and had been waiting to have the opportunity to do so.  I was glad to help the team win, very thankful for the opportunity.”

The following week ESPN College Gameday was in Eugene for Cal vs. Oregon. The two teams were ranked in the top 5, and the game lived up to the hype. Ward played extensively, Glasper had an impact on special teams, and Colvin made some key plays including a long touchdown catch that momentarily put Oregon in the lead 17-10.

But Cal would score again three times and Oregon once making it 31-24, and with Oregon driving the field and only seconds remaining it was Colvin who got the ball asked to make a play. Near the goal line, Dennis Dixon threw a pass to Colvin in the flat causing a race to the pylon between Colvin and a Cal defender. As Colvin reached for the pylon, the ball was knocked out of his hands inches from scoring and went out of the endzone for a touchback as time expired, Cal ball. Autzen Stadium fell silent as the play was reviewed, nobody left, nobody spoke. Amidst 60,000 fans, a pin drop would have been deafening. The play was upheld on review, Cal victory.

The game of the week lived up to the hype and more in 2007, as Cal preserved their win by forcing Cam Colvin to fumble at the goal line as time expired.

 

Shocked, stunned, bewildered is an understatement to describe the setting, and at the center of it all was Colvin, the hero the previous week was again the goat. Nobody could blame Colvin for trying to win the game making a play, but it seemed oddly fitting that the curse that hung over the De La Boys would strike again just when things started getting better.

 

It would get worse…
The next week Washington State came to town, and with wide receiver Brian Paysinger out for the season with a knee injury Colvin found himself starting again and being thrown the ball. Unfortunately early in the game Colvin’s ankle was rolled up on by a WSU defender, shattering his ankle. It was an odd day, Oregon dominated WSU, but to many it felt like a pyric victory with season-ending injuries to Cameron Colvin and runningback Jeremiah Johnson, an odd mood hung over the stadium all day.

“It was crazy, for that WSU game,” said Colvin. “It was an odd feeling in the locker room, I walked in excited for the game. It was a big week for me, I felt like I needed to redeem myself after the Cal loss. But something was odd, I had suited up and in the locker room I stopped Coach Bellotti and thanked him for giving me the opportunity to play for him. I told him thank you, like I was saying goodbye. I had just talked to my godfather earlier that week about how lucky I had been to not have major injuries. And then bang, I felt that pop on the field. I had cursed myself.”

Colvin continued, “I first thought maybe it was just a twist, but then I looked at it, and naw it wasn’t a twist…Bellotti walked up and said “please tell me that it’s just a twist,’ and I told him ‘no coach it’s serious.’ He felt worse than I did, I could see it on his face, and the other coaches and trainers, that told me how much they cared. Chief (head medical trainer) looked at it, and told me it was broken. My heart dropped out, I couldn’t believe it, why…why now?  I could feel the mood from the crowd…that let me know, all 60,000 saw it, they were telling me what the hell was going on. I could feel the somber mood, Chief put a towel over my head and they carted me off, and that was it. My days as a Duck were done.”

Cameron Colvin is helped off the field after suffering a season-ending injury in 2007.

 

After the tragedy of Colvin’s career ending ankle injury, it appeared that one of the other De La Boys would FINALLY get his chance. Injuries also suffered at the cornerback position meant that after long last Willie Glasper would be thrust into the starting role. However, as was the theme that season, Glasper just when he finally got his opportunity had fate deal him a cruel blow as he tore up his knee, ending his season.  Glasper would redshirt, and return for 2008 and 2009, and again suffer an injury that would prematurely end his season, this time ending his collegiate career.

“I wasn’t even able to be around the team because I was getting treatment after my injury, I was at home with my foot kicked up,” said Colvin. “I wasn’t able to help those guys, I missed a lot of valuable time around the team, maybe that’s my only regret is following the injury I had to focus on graduating and getting ready for the next step and it was tough not being able to be around the team all the time.”

At the end of the season before the Civil War game, the seniors were introduced.  Colvin came out of the tunnel onto the field on crutches, Jackie Bates was at another school, TJ Ward was a redshirt sophomore safety, Glasper was rehabbing an injury again setting him back from being able to crack the starting lineup, and the Kelly family was invited up for the game for a short ceremony where Terrance Kelly was included with his classmates as an honorary graduating senior.

Landrin Kelly walks out at Autzen on senior day in 2007 carrying a Terrance Kelly #32 jersey honoring his son.

 

None of the De La Boys would be drafted that year. It is easy to look at the group as a huge disappointment. The brightest star’s light extinguished before he ever arrived, Colvin and Glasper never quite getting a shot to contribute consistently, Bates transferring, and Ward suffering multiple knee injuries. Ward would be injured again in the first game of his senior year in 2009 and miss half the season.

But there would be some redemption, as in 2008 and 2009 TJ Ward in spite of the bad knee became a primary contributor for the Ducks, and was drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Browns. Ward remains with Cleveland to this day as a starting free safety, from walk-on with chronic knee issues to the lone member of the De La Boys still in the NFL.

TJ Ward went from walk-on with chronic knee problems to one of the most punishing safeties in the history of University of Oregon Ducks football.

 

Jackie Bates made a roster with the Kansas City Chiefs after completing his career at Hampton University, but was cut prior to the start of the 2011 season. Cameron Colvin, after extensive rehab for his severe ankle injury, played for the San Francisco 49ers, and is currently in the UFL with the Las Vegas Locomotives alongside fellow former Oregon Ducks wide receiver Samie Parker. Willie Glasper also continued pursuing professional football, playing in the UFL and arena league.

“As a group we all battled something tough that made us who we are today,” said Colvin. “Everything that happened made us grow and mature, we all learned the hard way that any play can be your last, any day can be your last. It taught us how to be professionals, how to handle things. And we passed that on to the younger guys. Our legacy to me is that learning process being able to pass it along to others.”

Colvin continued, “I never threw my hands up, just go with life with the best of what you can do, be a good person and there will be something for you coming for you down the road. I still put in my work everyday to take me to that place. I don’t believe in what-ifs or regrets. You take your lumps as you go. Some aren’t highlighted, unfortunately every one of my lumps was highlighted and very public. But there’s no regret, I learned and I always look forward, to see what I can do next. I can take those lumps, learn from them, and show the world that what happened only makes me stronger. I’m so blessed to have families around me who kept me humble. They came to my aide when we lost Terrance and my mother. I was still so proud that I was a Duck, that I had the chance to play for that program…and to see guys who came after, like Jeff Maehl who would come ask me questions every day wanting to learn. I was excited for Jeff and everyone who got to come after that I helped teach them how to be a better player.”

It seems odd to say, but with every member of the De La Boys having played some form of professional football, the group of five with so many expectations as a collective group ended up having a greater impact in professional football leagues than the collegiate ranks. Yet their impact at Oregon is undeniable, a group of five close friends reduced to four then three that despite all the setbacks carried on and redeemed themselves, carrying the Oregon mantle with them into their professional careers.  Their final stat lines may not have been all that people expected when the 2004 recruiting class was announced, but the impact of the friends from De La Salle extends beyond on-field performance, their positive impact through more adversity than most will ever face  will be felt by the Oregon program for years to come.

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