Since his sophomore year of high school, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley has engaged in a symbolic ritual. Just before the first whistle of preseason football practices, he stows his trophies, awards and press clippings away from sight.
"I'd take a big box and throw them in there and put them in a closet," he said.
It's a gesture that reinforces for him an athletic truth. The past, however wonderful, means nothing in relation to the present moment and how that present prepares you for the future.
New among the baubles he will be hiding away this summer are 2014 NFL draft projections, most of which envisioned him not lasting terribly far into the first round. Unlike past trophies that just sit on a shelf looking shiny, the NFL draft would offer present impact that would keep on giving, something like, for example, the $5-million signing bonus former Florida State QB E.J. Manuel received as the No. 16 overall selection last year.
But Hundley opted to pass up the draft and return to UCLA for his redshirt junior year. By doing so, he's established the Bruins as a preseason top-10 team, a Pac-12 and national contender and himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.
So while fulfilling his NFL dream was tempting -- something he readily admits -- he has no regrets, even if he can barely walk after brutal winter conditioning drills this week.
"When you hear your name going in the top 10, these big-time draft statuses, it's hard to not think that you could possibly be in that, but I felt solid with my decision and knowing why I made the decision I made. I'm comfortable with it." he said. "[The money] sounds amazing, but I didn't want to make my decision specifically for the money. It would have been nice to be able to help my family, but for right now I think of longevity. The NFL is still going to be there next year, and then you'll be more ready. Then after that first contract maybe you can get a bigger and better second contract."
Not unlike Hundley, the UCLA program also has been receiving plenty of pats on the back of late. It's won 19 games in Jim Mora's first two seasons, and this fall's 10-3 campaign, which included a second consecutive win over arch-rival USC and a final No. 16 ranking, has inspired many early 2014 projections to rank the Bruins in the preseason top 10.
Hundley liked how the Bruins again beat the Trojans and finished with a strong performance in a Sun Bowl win over Virginia Tech, but his ultimate take on the season -- not unlike Mora's -- wouldn't be described as euphoric.
"It was a good season but it wasn't good enough," he said. "Our goals are so much higher than a 10-3 season and the Sun Bowl -- no disrespect to the Sun Bowl."
That last phrase about the Sun Bowl is meaningful. Hundley knows two years ago multiple USC players took shots at El Paso and the Sun Bowl and then turned in perhaps the worst bowl performance in program history. Bruins players were surely brought up to speed on that during their bowl preparations, and Hundley has retained that PR lesson even a month later.
Hundley is both media-aware and media-friendly. He's an engaged and engaging interview. And he pays attention to what he's saying. The reason all that is important is he's about to become the most famous football player in a quaint town called "Los Angeles." The spotlight will burn bright, particularly if the Bruins get off to a fast and winning start. A date with Texas in AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Sept. 13 looms large, an early marque nonconference game of national interest that could announce Hundley as a top Heisman candidate.
As for the potential upcoming media onslaught, Hundley seems both grateful for it and unmoved by it.
"It's such a blessing to hear that -- Heisman contender," he said. "But once the grind starts, it's not important. If I don't go out there and play the way I expect to play, it all means nothing."
Hundley passed for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns last year, with his 67 percent completion percentage ranking first in the Pac-12. He also rushed for 748 yards with 11 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per tote, despite getting sacked 36 times. He ranked second in the Pac-12 and seventh in the nation in ESPN Stats & Information's Total QBR.
At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, he's a physical specimen with A-list athletic ability. When asked where he most needs to improve, he starts with "everything" but moves on to the nuances of being a quarterback, dropping the names Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
"Those guys don't even need athletic ability," Hundley said. "It's about being able to dissect a defense."
As for his supporting cast next fall, Hundley gushes. Receiver Devin Lucien? "He's going to be a monster this year. I promise you that." And watch out for Eldridge Massington. Said Hundley, "I cannot forget about him. He's 6-3, fast as I don't know what, and a cat who can jump through the roof. He's going to be fun to throw to this season."
Yes, Hundley is goosed about the Bruins’ potential in 2014 and he doesn't mind showing it.
But in about six months all the trinkets and baubles and effervescent preseason media evaluations will be packed away in a dark closet. Because what you did last year and gushing preseason hype won't gain a team an inch on the football field.
"All that has no effect on us until we go out there and do it," Hundley said. "It's fun to hear we're preseason top 10. But at the end of the day it all doesn't matter unless you win games. That's what it comes down to. Our schedule is set up to really do something special, but we need to make it happen."