The last No. 42 at UCLA, Jelly Felix finds strength in number

Jelly Felix was among the top freshmen in the Pac-12, but she has been slowed by injuries since her sophomore season. Courtesy Don Liebig/UCLA

Just before high school, Jelly Felix and her family moved to the El Sereno neighborhood in Los Angeles, having bounced from place to place to place. Amid the instability, Felix found inspiration in nearby Dodger Stadium.

When she started playing softball as a kid, Felix was handed Jackie Robinson's No. 42. Call it irony or call it destiny, but she embraced the responsibility that came with it. She read books, she watched documentaries, and she saw movies about the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Racial and social backlash followed her wherever she moved, and the kid with Mexican roots started to identify with Robinson.

"Wearing that number helped develop me into a strong woman," she said.

A four-year player at Los Angeles' Lincoln High School, Felix hit .694 with 49 RBIs as a senior. But the number people noticed most was 5-foot-2 -- not exactly the prototypical height for a player hoping to play at 12-time NCAA champion UCLA.

"People didn't think I could get into UCLA or get recruited in the first place," Felix said. "I think I shocked a lot of people across the state when I actually did."

She arrived on the Bruins' campus in the fall of 2013 as a walk-on, and she didn't hesitate to select No. 42, which Robinson wore with the Dodgers but did not wear with his alma mater of UCLA.

After years of focusing on her education and softball instead of the negativity in her neighborhood, the utility player's UCLA career started on March 7, 2014. She homered in her second at-bat of her first start against Loyola Chicago. Later that year, she was named All-Pac-12 Freshman Honorable Mention, and she finished with a .318 batting average.

"Jackie Robinson did a great job of defying all odds that were against him," UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. "He did a great job of being able to break those barriers and provide opportunity for somebody, and I think Jelly is very similar. She took that stereotype of 'You're never going to be able to,' and she's been a pioneer from her area."

In November 2014, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero announced the retirement of No. 42 throughout all UCLA sports and said the three athletes who had the number would be the last to wear it. Felix is the lone remaining No. 42.

But Robinson's inspiration couldn't shield Felix from setback. She threw her arm out toward the end of her sophomore year and required surgery the next. The recovery redshirted her for 2017 and granted her an extra season of eligibility.

It's how she has responded to those challenges that has inspired those around her, including first-year volunteer assistant coach Rodney Davis.

"I came in the summer [2017] to assist with a camp, and she was catching the bus from home daily to make sure that her rehabilitation was staying on track," Davis said. "Her commitment impressed me right away. You could see she was determined, and she wanted to be a big part of the team's success, and the way that she goes about her training reflects that. She's a diamond that's been forged in challenge, and I'm confident that Jackie Robinson would be proud to see his number represented in such a special way by a young person from this community."

It goes beyond softball. Felix spends her time volunteering with the Natasha Watley Foundation. The former Bruin's nonprofit gives softball opportunities to underserved girls who otherwise might not have access to the sport.

"When I was younger, I always wanted someone to come to my area, even though it's poor or it's not the nicest area," Felix said. "I wanted someone, especially a collegiate athlete from UCLA, to come back and say something as simple as, 'You can do it. Don't give up.'"

The league, based in South Los Angeles, pairs players with mentors and coaches who can provide more than softball instruction.

"She relates with these kids the most because she comes from a similar background," Watley said. "She looks likes them, she talks like them, she can connect with them, and she can relate with them.

"The impact is really huge when we take the girls to watch games at UCLA and they see Jelly or another mentor in uniform because they are finally able to connect the dots and see that it is possible to play softball at a university like UCLA."

On Feb. 9, Felix made her long-awaited return to the diamond at Easton Stadium on opening day against Middle Tennessee State University. In the fifth inning, she was inserted as a defensive substitution at third base, a position she hadn't played at UCLA. It was a moment that not only marked her last first game but also validated her perseverance.

"I wanted to go to UCLA. I wanted to challenge myself, to push myself," Felix said. "I came over here, and I've worked my butt off. It shows that all my hard work and dedication, all the fight and effort I've put into this school and this program is paying off."

When the crowd at Easton Stadium saw No. 42 take the field for the first time this season, it was the beginning of the end of seeing someone wearing that transcendent number.

"No. 42 is the most important number here at UCLA," Felix said. "It's an amazing experience, especially with it being my last year."