McAthur, Cal undergo attitude adjustments

California receiver Geoff McArthur wanted to smack the mouthy Washington defensive back. Who the hell did he think he was talking all sorts of trash?

McArthur was only a wide-eyed freshman in 2000, but this jerk was telling him that the Huskies were going to whip Cal -- no matter that it was midway through the fourth quarter and the Bears were up by 11.

"He was telling me, 'You're not going to win. You're Cal!' I was like, 'What is he thinking?'" McArthur recalled. "But he was right. We lost. Again."

Dispiriting defeats often leave emotional scars on young athletes, just as they slash a program saddled with an enduring culture of losing. Such wounds either fester with infection or regenerate with hardier tissue.

McArthur and Cal are simultaneously experiencing the latter. He's now a senior All-America candidate for one of the nation's best reclamation projects -- see a preseason No. 15 ranking just three years removed from a 1-10 debacle.

But there's always a price to be paid and McArthur has the scars to prove it.

Consider the half-moon -- he prefers not to call it "a smile" -- stretching about four inches around his right elbow and up his triceps. He got that one after he smashed the elbow through a dorm room window, evidently intending to place an exclamation point on his boiling frustration after the Bears' preseason optimism fizzled following a 44-17 home defeat against Illinois to open 2001.

The blow lacerated his triceps, effectively ending his sophomore campaign. The wound required 17 external and 24 internal stitches. It also left many fans and reporters in stitches, as his boneheaded self-inflicted injury earned him mocking mention in media reports across the country.

McArthur, who teams with Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers to form one of the nation's most dynamic pass-catch combinations, atypically doesn't adopt the trusty "it's in the past" technique in order to avoid talking about the embarrassing incident. He admits immaturity and problems with anger created a perfect storm inside him that evening.

"I was out of control," he said of his reaction, which was spurred on by an argument with a teammate. "I wasn't myself. It was a big mistake. That was a tough time. I lost the respect of my teammates and coaches. ... It sent me into a depression."

He owns another scar on that right arm, this one stretching six inches from his wrist to mid-forearm. Tracing it with his finger, it doesn't conjure a horrible memory as much as its counterpart, but it reminds McArthur how fragile success can be.

During a practice before last year's Insight Bowl vs. Virginia Tech, McArthur banged his forearm against his own knee while reaching for a pass and fractured his ulna. The freakish, non-contact injury required surgery, and he prematurely ended the year with 85 receptions for 1,504 yards, just 16 yards shy of the Pac-10's single-season record.

The distance on his arm between those two scars is small, but the difference in their meaning as they mark points in his career is vast. In the days and months between the two, there was healing as well as growth, a process that McArthur believes is ongoing.

McArthur grew up in inner-city Los Angeles -- Watts and South Central -- but he was bused to upscale Palisades High School, where he became one of the nation's top prep receivers after catching 91 passes for 1,779 yards his senior year.

At Palisades, he saw what the good life looked like, and he wanted a piece for himself. Only he thought it would come easy. It didn't, and when Jeff Tedford took over the program in 2002, he told McArthur why. Over and over and over again.

"I felt he was not by any means reaching his potential because of his work ethic," Tedford said. "I let him know about that and I followed him around practice and pushed him.

"There's a saying: 'A coach makes you do what you don't want to do so you can become what you want to be.'"

These were not Stuart Smalley daily affirmations. These on- and off-field tete-a-tetes often had some bite and volume. Tedford frequently called out McArthur in front of the team.

"It was embarrassing," McArthur admitted.

And effective -- witness Herculean performances like his 16 receptions for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the Big Game win over Stanford.

By the end of this season, McArthur, a buff 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, figures to own every Cal receiving record, though duplicating last year's numbers doesn't figure to happen because of improved depth and skill at wideout, particularly with the return of a healthy Jonathan Makonnen, the leading receiver in 2002 who sat out last year with a foot injury.

Cal, the only team to beat USC over the past 22 months, is no longer the woeful crew of McArthur's freshman season, and the program aspires to push through the Pac-10's muddled middle toward the stratosphere occupied exclusively by the top-ranked Trojans.

Inspirational sayings pinned all over the locker room -- "Winning is an attitude," "Excellence is not an act but a habit" -- remind the Bears and McArthur of how they emerged and what they will have to do to continue their upward trajectory.

And, of course, he's got the scars to remind him also.

"We earned every ounce of respect we have now and we know how we got it," he said. "So we're going to work twice as hard this year."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.