The old man knew it would soon be time to move on. He'd even called his bo-y-the one who had kept his heart beating all these years—to let him know.
Maurice Drew never said a peep about that phone call from his grandfather. Didn't tell his grandmother. Didn't tell his mom. He couldn't bear the thought of scaring them, of admitting that he was more than a little frightened himself. The baby-faced 20-year-old had never backed down from anything in his life, but now, as he prepared for UCLA's home opener against Rice, Drew couldn't stop thinking about that conversation, especially the way Pops told him he was feeling "okay." Not his customary "great" or even "good." No, the old man simply said, "Okay."
Maurice Jones had always been there for his namesake—every track meet, every football game. No way was Pops going to miss the Rice game. Sure enough, he was in his usual spot in Section 3 of the Rose Bowl, three hours before kickoff, just like the way he used to show up at 5 a.m. for a Pop Warner game that started at 8. As the man always said, "Better to be an hour early than a minute late."
Little Maurice has clearly learned the lesson about not wasting time. In UCLA's first game of the season, at San Diego State, the junior tailback from Antioch, Calif., raced 64 yards for a score on the Bruins' first play. Heck, before the second quarter was half gone, Drew had already scored three times, once on a 72-yard punt return.
It was hard not to look at Rice as just a tuneup for Oklahoma the following week. For months, Jones had talked about that Sooners showdown as the Bruins' turn-the-corner moment. But first, this Rice game was going to be Drew's best showing yet, Pops predicted. That's how he touted every game the two had ever shared.
And you can't really blame him. His grandson, a 5'8", 205-pound bundle of muscle and fast-twitch fibers, has blossomed into a legit Heisman contender while returning a punch-line program to national prominence. Usually, players of Drew's dimensions are more quick than fast, but Little Maurice is both. The kid is Barry Sanders with dreadlocks.
When Drew fields a Rice punt early in the second quarter, he breaks left, evades a tackler and explodes into fifth gear up the left sideline, his squat legs a golden blur as he blazes past the punter for a 66-yard score. Over in Section 3, the old man beams as he and his wife, Christina, celebrate Drew's third career punt return for a touchdown. The rout is on.
Midway through the third quarter, on third and one from the UCLA 35, Drew blasts downfield for a 42-yard gain. The Rose Bowl roars. So does Section 3. But when the cheering fades, panic sets in. Christina screams for an ambulance. Pops, gasping for air, is in cardiac arrest. Shortly after the paramedics rush Maurice Jones away in a stretcher, head coach Karl Dorrell approaches Maurice on the sideline and tells him that his grandfather has been taken to the hospital. Drew's mind races back to that phone conversation two days earlier. As he leaves the Rose Bowl in the fourth quarter, his own heart feels as if it will pound through his chest.
Hours after giving Pops one last highlight, Little Maurice is at Huntington Memorial Hospital, staring at his grandfather's lifeless body, grieving for the man he loves most. "I was thinking that couldn't be him," he'll say later. "He always had so much spirit. No, that just couldn't be him."
MAURICE DREW lived with his grandparents for most of his life. It was his choice, says his mother, Andrea. She and her then-husband, Dana, worked long hours at several jobs around the Bay Area, but Pops and Grammy were always there to step in and help out.
Jones was always a calming presence to his oldest grandson. But it wasn't until he suffered his first heart attack, in 1991, when the family didn't think he was going to pull through, that his bond with 6-year-old Maurice was cemented. "Maurice became so attached because he thought his grandfather was going to die," Drew's grandmother says. "He was terrified, and that's when the relationship really filled in.
They were dependent on each other to keep one another alive." For Jones, the scariest part of that heart attack wasn't dying; it was the thought of not being alive for his grandson.
Even before his first heart attack, Jones, a longtime probation officer, had vowed never to let that boy out of his sight. He knew all too well what could happen otherwise. On June 3, 1988, a 7-year-old named Amber Jean Swartz-Garcia disappeared. She was last seen jumping rope in her front yard, just two doors down from the Jones home. Later that night, Amber's mom came by hoping that Maurice had seen her daughter. The case has never been solved.
Pops made up his mind: he would be there for everything—even those ballet classes Little Maurice took three nights a week for almost five years. It was Christina's idea. Her husband, a former basketball player at Pacific, was none too keen on it, until she explained how dance had helped football players like Lynn Swann and White Shoes Johnson develop body control and balance. Clearly, the woman knew what she was doing.
"My husband kept praying that he would stay alive to see Maurice play youth football," Christina says. "Seeing him play in high school was more than a dream fulfilled."
Jones used sports to raise Drew as a gentleman. Through all the Pop Warner games and practices, he preached one theme: humility. Bad things start to happen when you let pride get into your head, he reminded his grandson. But that didn't mean the boy had to walk with his head down. "When you're smaller than everyone else," Pops told him, "you gotta be able to do everything-play receiver, pass block, run block. You gotta take things personal."
Drew, a head shorter than some of his peers, had an underdog's hunger. He relished people who doubted him. The coaches at De La Salle High realized that he was a perfect fit for their team. The Spartans hadn't lost a game since 1992 and prided themselves on beating teams that supposedly had more talent. Egos weren't tolerated. Says Oregon linebacker Chris Mulvanny, Drew's high school teammate, "De La Salle's motto is, `Enter to learn, leave to serve,' and Maurice was the perfect example of that. I think 100% of it comes from Pops. He taught him how to be a man."
The coaches at De La Salle told Drew that he was too small to play D1-A college football. Even Grammy was skeptical, right up until the day of De La Salle's celebrated No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup against Southern California powerhouse Long Beach Poly during Drew's junior season, a game that featured a dozen major-college prospects. Christina heard about how big and fast Poly's players were and, like almost everyone else, didn't think her "little big guy" had a chance.
"Grammy, we're gonna whip Poly," Maurice told her as she gave him his usual pregame back rub.
"Did you see those guys they have?" she said.
"Yeah," Maurice answered, "and Grammy, we're still gonna whip 'em."
Drew scored all four of De La Salle's touchdowns in a 29-15 victory, a performance that so amazed the Colorado staff that they decided to offer a scholarship as they watched the game tape. Other college coaches, however, still weren't convinced. Bob Toledo, then the head coach at UCLA, didn't think Drew was big enough. USC was interested, but wanted him to play on defense; they were already bringing in LenDale White and Reggie Bush. (You can bet Drew savored beating Bush in the 100 at the state track meet later that spring.) It wasn't until Dorrell replaced Toledo and hired former Colorado assistant Eric Bieniemy that Drew believed he had found his college.
Through the entire recruiting process, Pops served as Drew's conscience. He asked all the right questions. Were they going to let Maurice do more than just carry the ball? Would he be allowed to return punts? What were his chances of playing right away? Both Pops and Little Maurice liked that everyone at UCLA would have to learn a new offense, not just the freshmen. In Dorrell's eyes, Drew was the ideal centerpiece for his first recruiting class. He was a winner and, just as important, a class act.
Of course, UCLA wasn't De La Salle. Drew had never lost a high school game; as a freshman at UCLA in 2003, he was part of five straight defeats. Worse still, Drew felt teammates just gave up. At the time, he didn't think it was his place to say anything. Now he wishes he had, he says, because standing idly by hurts more than the actual losing. That's why he could stomach a five-point loss to USC last season: how can you get upset when guys are diving, trying to strip ballcarriers?
Drew ran for 1,007 yards as a sophomore and was voted team MVP. (Wouldn't you know, his mom didn't learn about it until another Bruins mom called to congratulate her.) But Drew barely registered as a blip on the national radar. Playing for a 6—6 team didn't help. Neither did playing in the area code next to Southern California and Bush. "We see it as this society where USC are these rich people and we're the poorest of the poor, where people just walk right past us," Drew says. "When we see people flying in from other countries wearing SC stuff, it shows us how hard we have to work. It motivates me when I hear Reggie Bush say he and Matt Leinart are the kings of LA."
Even before this season started, UCLA had begun to shed its second-class status. Drew was among a new crop of leaders who'd taken over the program. He was proud to report back to Pops that the Bruins had 100% participation in the offseason workout program. That was a big change from the previous summer. "If a guy doesn't come," Drew says, "I'm going at him. 'Why didn't you show up? You're messing up this team that we're trying to build.' "
Pops loved what his boy had grown up to become. In fact, everything for his family had turned out so sweet. Andrea was getting remarried, and Maurice's baby sister, Taylor, was a cheerleader for De La Salle. And then there were those Saturdays when Pops watched his pride and joy.
Things couldn't get much better.
IT IS only natural for Drew to ask, "Why now?" Death comes just as life is getting really good. He scores a touchdown and then his grandfather has a fatal heart attack right in the stadium. Is that how fate is supposed to work? But Pops had always told him everything happens for a reason. So when the doctor explained that his grandfather didn't suffer, it was comforting for Little Maurice to think that Pops passed away doing what he loved most in this world.
The next day, before his family drove the six hours back to the Bay Area, he told his mom that he wanted to go by his legal name, Maurice Jones-Drew. He had never bothered to inform anyone at UCLA of his full name; he didn't want to make a fuss. Maurice Drew would do. But now, he felt like he owed it to Pops.
The family arranged funeral services for Sept. 21, four days after the Oklahoma game. This game had meant so much to Pops, and now here was Maurice leading the Bruins onto the field carrying the UCLA flag. But once the action began, he struggled to find running room. The tailback who had worked so hard to become more patient looked downright pensive, struggling while everything else was clicking for the Bruins. With his team ahead 34-24 in the fourth quarter, Drew finally broke free on a 38-yard scamper. "It felt like Pops was right there next to me when I was running," he says. After he reached the end zone on a nine-yard, gameclinching score, he pointed to the heavens.
The whole game, and the next three weeks, seemed surreal. For the first time in Drew's life, football wasn't fun. Beating Oklahoma wasn't fun. Neither was playing Washington, a team he'd run over for 322 yards and five touchdowns last season. Seeing his grandfather's casket at the funeral hit him harder than he expected. "I don't think it had set in before," he says. "But it ain't no joke. There's no coming back."
As the days pass since the funeral, Maurice Jones-Drew is learning that he does need to let go, that life has to go on. Before UCLA's pivotal matchup against Cal on Oct. 8, he reminded himself to do something for his grandfather: just have fun, like the old man would've wanted. So he went out and enjoyed every one of his 299 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in a 47-40 win.
Now UCLA is undefeated, and Maurice Jones-Drew is second to no running back anywhere, not even those guys across town. He has stopped searching for explanations about Pops' death. And maybe he doesn't need one. "He didn't fight it," Little Maurice says, "but I betcha if any of us would've needed something, he would've made it through until everything was okay."
Or even better than okay. Maybe even great.