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‘Just be great’: At the end of a long road, Randall West has one chapter left to write

Poise, perseverance and the pursuit of a dream

August 30, 2019

It’s been 19 years since Randall West Sr. was called into the principal’s office.

Proverbially, of course, child care centers like the Moorestown Children’s School in Moorestown, New Jersey, don’t really have “principals,” but that’s how it felt. West Sr.’s son, Randall Jr., was four years old, and the elder West figured his namesake was in trouble.

“The lady called me into the office, and when you get called into the office with a four-year-old you think ah, he must’ve bitten somebody,” West says, “or something went wrong.”

He sheepishly entered the room, ready to find out what his son had done, to prepare an apology for whatever poor faculty member had had to deal with it. It was surprising, though: Randall Jr. was well-liked, well-behaved. What happened?

“Hey, how are you doing?” West asked. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything’s fine,” the woman replied. “Let me ask you about something: your son is out back, and he has this basketball, and he’s shooting on the little basket out there. And it’s a full-size basketball.”

West, mostly just relieved at this point that his son hadn’t been causing trouble at the daycare, didn’t really follow. So, his son was playing with a basketball outside. Sure, the full-size basketball is a bit big for him, but that seems like regular four-year old behavior.

“I don’t think you understand,” she continued. “He makes them. He makes all of them. He doesn’t miss.”

West waited a beat before he replied.

“And I was like, ‘huh.’”

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It seemed like the gap had to open up at some point.

Andrew Brito had the arm, Michael Curtis had the poise and the legs, and Randall West — the younger one — was, well, Randall West.

Four seasons at UMass yielded just four appearances in garbage time over the years, and hell, Mark Whipple had only even let him throw the ball seven times. By the time the first training camp of the Walt Bell era rolled around, Randall West the walk-on basketball player had totaled twice as many attempts at UMass than his football counterpart down the road at McGuirk.

But the gap never appeared, and somehow, some way, West just kept making throws. The quarterback competition was supposed to be Brito and Curtis, with a cameo from Mike Fallon, but big No. 13 just wouldn’t go away.

Less than a week out from the season opener against Rutgers, Monday of game week, Walt Bell told the media that the decision had pretty much been made. The quarterbacks knew, the team had figured it out over the course of camp and knew what was coming.

The next day, with a little extra swagger in his step, West keeps doing what he’d been doing. At the start of 11-v-11s, he stays calm and collected in the pocket, never rushing nor dragging, running the hurry-up with style. Sadiq Palmer makes an inch of separation on a corner route and West makes the most of that inch, dropping a back-shoulder dime into a tight window for Palmer to haul in outside the numbers.

After a quick spike — the Minutemen are rolling at game speed — he takes the next snap and quickly rolls right, taking the defense’s attention with him, and floats a screen pass back across the line of scrimmage to Bilal Ally, who’s got nothing but green grass in front of him.

West rushes to the line of scrimmage, barking out the play call and takes the snap. It’s a three-step drop and West goes through his reads, looking off the safety and finding Kyle Horn running free down the seam for a touchdown.

After addressing the team, Bell strolls over to the assembled media at McGuirk, having promised the day before that he’d reveal his Friday night starter at the end of that Tuesday’s practice.

When prompted about the quarterback decision, Bell laughed and said, “don’t pretend like you don’t already know.”

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Of course, the news had broken early that afternoon: Randall West, he of self-proclaimed limited athletic talent — a ridiculous suggestion, but he suggests it — and of cult hero status among UMass hoops fans in particular, of seven career pass attempts and 45 total passing yards, at one point the third or fourth favorite for the job, would take the first snap of the Walt Bell era as QB1.

Even short of the news breaking, it wasn’t anything that anybody didn’t already know. If the team could tell so easily, so could onlookers. West is a more natural athlete than he gives himself credit for, the kind of guy who picked up a ball and knew what to do with it by the age of four.

“Since he was a kid, he always had a ball in his hands,”  according to Randall West Sr. “And I’m sure a lot of guys were like that, at this level, but there was something about that kid. I can’t put my finger on it.”

The younger West had the command of the huddle, the natural leadership qualities, but above all else, he made the throws. Day after day, throw after throw, he won the job.

“We’re proud he’s the guy, we’re proud to announce that he’s the guy,” Bell said. “We’ve got great confidence in Randall, and we want the whole world to know that we believe in Randall, and let’s go.”

West’s rapid improvement from the start of spring ball, a time that Bell constantly proclaims a mess for quarterbacks stepping into a new system — “None of the quarterbacks are great, because it’s the first month in the system in spring football,” Bell says — was staggering. Coming off the back of basketball season and getting into the spring late, he struggled at times and wasn’t quite in “football shape” according to Bell, but all West wanted to do was make Bell’s decision as tough as possible, and an excellent summer got it done.

West sits against the fence that outlines McGuirk, a few yards away from the tackling dummies near which Bell fields questions and explains Brito and Curtis’ handling of the news with a Highlander reference — there can only be one, after all. Once the media’s finished with Bell, West rises, knowing full well he’s the man of the moment.

As he had all month, West stood and delivered. He was humble, grateful, eloquent, introspective, poised, mature — there’s a good reason that the news of West’s promotion was met with such an outpouring of support, from the teammates and friends over the years to scores of UMass fans that only knew him through quotes and interviews but love him all the same. Few people short of Cale Makar and Andy Isabella have had as high an approval rating around these parts as Randall West, and he pulled that off before he even made a start.

The first people to learn the news were Randall Sr. and Jaye West, sports parents of nearly two decades who have served as Randall Jr.’s primary support system since he first startled a daycare employee with his precocious shooting back in Moorestown.

“I was elated, and so was my wife,” the elder West says. “I don’t want to say we were blown away because he was telling us how he was doing, and he sounded very confident about his performance, but you never know. At the end of the day it’s the head coach who makes that selection, and it hasn’t gone his way in previous years. He’s pretty much had the same reports over the years, like ‘dad I’ve been killing it,’ and it’s been a different outcome. We kind of held our breath, because we wanted to hear him say it, and when we heard it, we were so elated.

“Elated, but so humbled and blessed at the same time.”

“My parents and I, with my football career, have been through a lot. Since my senior year of high school when I got hurt, there’s definitely been some ups and downs,” the younger West says. “So, the first two calls I made were to my mother and my father, and it was a special moment for all three of us.”

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They don’t really talk about the knee.

No one does, really. The only people who know for sure what the damage was are the Wests, some of the coaches at the Lawrenceville School and a handful of medical professionals that handled the MRI and saw what the scans showed.

On a beautiful fall day in New Jersey in November of 2013, Lawrenceville was taking on Blair Academy with a Mid-Atlantic Prep League title likely hanging in the balance. Under center was senior Randall West, having already thrown for nearly 2,000 yards along with 20 touchdown passes in just seven games, weeks away from being named the Star-Ledger’s Prep Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.

It all happened pretty quickly. A sack minutes into the first quarter, a young star quarterback writhing in pain, his devoted parents watching on from the stands in horror.

The attending physician called it the worst knee injury he’d ever seen. The full extent? Few know, but it wasn’t a simple ACL tear, which on its own could be disastrous. ACL, PCL, LCL, meniscus at the very least — if it held West’s knee together, it probably didn’t anymore.

An MRI Monday, a meeting with the surgeon Tuesday, major reconstructive surgery Wednesday — Randall West Sr. had flown to San Francisco for work early Monday, but was back on a plane to Philadelphia by Monday night after hearing the prognosis. The family met with Riley Williams III, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and the current Medical Director for the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Red Bulls.

Williams guided the Wests through the process and performed the surgery, taking stock of the damage inside Randall’s knee and doing what he could.

West Sr. wrote a testimonial about HSS some time later, and the family is endlessly appreciative of what Dr. Williams and HSS did for their son. It seems they were in as good of hands as they could’ve been — it didn’t mean things still weren’t bleak.

It’s been nearly six years since that night in Blairstown, and the younger West’s face still changes a bit when he talks about it. It took so much from him: his senior year, his early chances to impress at UMass, his peace of mind — how do you trust that knee again, even years after it virtually imploded?

“I haven’t really publicized exactly what happened with my knee, and I don’t know if I ever will, but we’ll just say it was extensive,” West says. “And it took a long time to recover from that.”

Physically, emotionally — it took time. The year 2014 was a lost cause, and he didn’t even start practicing until the 2015 season. He redshirted, and started again in the spring.

For Jaye and Randall Sr., it was nearly three years of worry. They spent the better part of 18 years watching their son compete week-in, week-out. Along with football, he played basketball growing up — a game he’d return to — but the elder West says that from a young age, baseball was really his son’s calling. Randall Jr. was a great little pitcher who could hit too, but eventually football won the day, and he later even picked up a varsity letter with the lacrosse team in high school. He was just one of those athletes, really.

The Wests just wanted to see their son take the field again, regardless of role or circumstance. They got their chance when the spring game rolled around in 2016, the younger West’s sophomore year. Just a spring game, no stakes or consequences, funny helmets and mesh pinnies over jerseys — it didn’t matter.

“Because of his injury, I was just delighted to see him run out of the tunnel at his first spring game,” the elder West said. “I wanted to be there to see that. And then I wanted to see him run out of the tunnel at Gillette, just to see him do that. Just to see him warm up, I was just so excited about that.”

They’d seen him run out of the tunnel at McGuirk and Gillette and it meant the world, even if he wasn’t really competing. For that, they needed a different avenue — a different sport, a different coach, and a little detour.

The 2017-18 UMass basketball team was one of the most undermanned in recent memory — a flurry of transfers after a coaching change, a rash of injuries and eligibility issues, and suddenly, coach Matt McCall was short on bodies. He needed walk-ons willing to compete, to give their all for the team without much reward or promise of playing time.

Enter, Randall West.

“Both years were different,” McCall said. “The first year was almost like desperation with the numbers we got down to, and to have walk-on tryouts in mid-February on a Tuesday, and on Thursday he’s playing in a game against GW — that’s impressive. We didn’t play well, but late in that year, we had George Mason on the road at their place, kind of a wacky, crazy play at the end of the game and we ended up losing, but he’s playing in that game, he’s playing in a tight game at home against VCU, he’s playing in the conference tournament, it was so impressive.”

Working as an undersized big man, he saw real floor time down the stretch, averaging double-figure minutes in eight games with the basketball team. With the Minutemen backed up against the wall and fighting for their lives in the second round of the A-10 Tournament, West took all the backup center minutes and played his tail off.

Is a final line of two points and three rebounds going to see his jersey raised to the Mullins rafters? Unlikely. But there isn’t a UMass basketball fan who followed that team that doesn’t adore him. They’ll never forget the plucky, committed backup quarterback running the floor in the conference tournament against George Mason, taking a pass on the fast break and gliding to the rim, the number 41 on his back, the only jersey without a last name stitched across it, finishing with the finger roll in the biggest game of the season.

Collegian File Photo

He didn’t see as much time in year two as McCall was able to bring in enough guys to fill out a roster, but West was a key cog in a different sense. McCall brought in some new guys, but were they the right guys?

“Our team battled some different things throughout the year, and he just brought this unbelievable leadership, and a voice, trying to keep our team connected,” said McCall. “He was able to open my eyes to a lot of things that may have been going on in the locker room from his leadership standpoint, to help us get things going in the direction that people wanted to. For me, for us, that was huge, and he’s just got these leadership qualities about him that, he’s going to be successful. Whether it’s in football or in life, once his playing career’s done, whatever he decides to do, he’s going to be successful.”

West did have some impact on the floor last season; McCall will go as far as to credit his favorite walk-on for a December win against Fairleigh Dickinson, when the Minutemen came out flat at home and needed a boost. West gave them that boost, gave them that energy, pulling down four rebounds and hitting a pair of free throws in the 10 minutes he played, enough to bring some life back into the team and spark a UMass comeback and a one-point win.

“All the basketball stuff — I think playing for the basketball team and playing for coach McCall might’ve been one of the best things that ever happened to me at UMass,” West says. “I love that guy to death, he’s had my back from day one. Going over there, it feels the same as over here. It feels like a family atmosphere. And just seeing the passion that he attacks every day with, it bleeds into you, and it makes you want to attack all the stuff over here, and then you’ve got coach Bell matching the same intensity, same fire. It makes you want to play for guys like that.”

Wrong sport, makeshift team, no name on the jersey; the Wests didn’t care. Their son was competing again.

“The basketball thing kind of kicked in a little bit, and I was just so excited for him,” the elder West says. “Not that coach Whipple didn’t believe him, but coach McCall really believed in Randall, and that gave me energy as a father, and my wife also. You’d have to ask Randall, but I believe that gave him some confidence and energy moving forward.”

After that A-10 Tournament game against George Mason, the younger West returned to spring football practice the very next day — McCall likes to joke about pick-and-rolls one day, post routes the next — and weeks later, he threw four touchdowns in the annual spring game. Maybe his father had a point.

Collegian File Photo

It seems a bit poetic that Randall West’s first collegiate start will come at Rutgers, in his home state of New Jersey, in the stadium where he watched his first college football game — and most importantly, at his father’s alma mater.

The elder West is a Rutgers alum — “A frustrated one,” he says — and you could wonder if there might be a question of allegiances. There is not.

West Sr. says he “won’t even be wearing his Scarlet Knight underwear” — he swears there’s a backstory there, he’s not crazy — and he’ll be decked out in UMass gear. Hat, shirt, socks, 100 percent UMass.

“Are you kidding me, man? I have died and went to heaven,” he says. You can hear the pride in his voice. “I’m only an hour from New Brunswick, everybody’s going to be there!”

The elder West’s college roommate is coming up from Florida, friends are coming up from DC, the entire immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends; he jokes that 55,000 — a bit over the capacity of SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey — of his family and friends will be there to fill the place up, to see the Wests’ pride and joy.

And that pride is very real. It swells in West Sr.’s voice every time he speaks, like he almost can’t believe how proud he is of his son. He has a particular way of speaking — any compliment he gives his son or anyone else comes with a clarification, recognition of others and their struggles, their accomplishments.

“I’m just so happy for him,” West Sr. says. “I’ll tell you, not that the other guys don’t work, I know they do, but his path has been crooked, and he’s had a lot of hills to climb. I’ve seen what he’s done to sacrifice, what he’s done to put himself in a position to be successful, and I really admire him for that. He’s worked hard, and not that the other guys haven’t, I’m not saying that, but I know that he’s worked. He’s worked on his body, trying to carry two sports, and keep your grades up, and stay in the good graces in the football building as well as the basketball building, it’s not an easy thing. It’s a lot of work he’s put in, and I’m just happy for him.”

The thought that SHI Stadium will really be 55,000 people backing Randall West seems unlikely, but nearly six years after he graduated from high school, he still keeps enough relationships to draw a crowd of his own.

Moorestown, Lawrenceville, doesn’t really matter. The elder West will come home from work when his son is home for the summer and ask what he’s been up to, and it’s often the same.

“[West Jr.] says, ‘Oh, I went over to the middle school to see the assistant principal, or I drove to Lawrenceville to check on the trainer,’” West Sr. says. “He always visits back, and I think he’s very humble that way. I know that it’s going to be the same at UMass, he’s going to be going back there, trying to catch up with old friends and old instructors, because the place has played a very important role in his life.

“But I’ll tell you, I know a lot of the guys he graduated with at Lawrenceville, a lot of the kids he grew up with here in Moorestown. Not just his generation, but teachers, coaches, mentors — he’s been impacted by a lot of different people.”

Moorestown and Lawrenceville are separated by a 40-minute drive up I-295, a trip the younger West will happily make to see some of the people that got him where he is now.

West Sr. almost can’t believe the man he sees now, one bigger than him — he lets out a hearty laugh as he jokes that “[West Jr.] is big Randall now, I’m small Randall these days.” — and as humble and poised as a parent could dream.

“I don’t know if you listen to his interviews, he sounds like a 35-year-old man,” the elder West says of his son. “I see them and I’m like, ‘who is that guy? Is that my son?’ That’s how I feel. It’s like an out of body experience for me.

“To me he’s done everything right. Economics major, sports management major, he’s in graduate school now, he graduated with a 3.2 GPA, he’s built a home up there in Massachusetts with a lot of friends, and they believe in him. He’s earned what he’s got.”

All the support following the younger West’s promotion to the starting quarterback role felt like validation of everything the family has been through. The light at the end of the tunnel.

“We are just bowled over with positive emotion, and you know what? I have shed a few tears, man,” West Sr. says. “I’ve shed a few tears. When I’ve looked at some of the things people are saying about him, it’s just very humbling. He’s going to go up there, and he’s starting, after all he’s been through, with his whole story, and he’s going to try and beat my school. He’s got nothing to lose. Just go up there and cut it loose, and let the cards fall where they may. We’re all just so proud, so humbled.

“The older I get, the more I cry, so I’m sure that when I see him come running through that tunnel, I’m sure that I’ll be full of emotion.”

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Randall West Sr. has always told his children one thing: be great.

Since Randall Jr. was three or four, his father has told him that. Be great. His father would go to work every day, and before he left, he’d tell him to be great.

Is that still the message? Of course. But there’s an addition.

“Lately I’ve been telling him, keep writing your story son,” the elder West says. “Keep writing your story. What he’s been through — and I know other people have been through these things — his path was crooked. That knee injury was something else. He doesn’t really want to talk about it, and I don’t like talking about it either. But he’s got more to write.

“But we just love him. We love him dearly.”

West Sr. always prays for his son, prays he comes out of these things healthy, prays, though his son may not be fast, that he runs faster than the other guys, just fast enough to get away. It’s been a long road for the Wests, but they know their son was born for this.

On Friday night, Randall West Jr. will lead the Minutemen out of the tunnel, under the lights at Rutgers, the birthplace of football, his father’s alma mater, the stadium he grew up in.

Nineteen years and 60 miles from the Moorestown Children’s School where his story began, six years and 50 miles from the Blairstown football field where fate penned his most difficult passages, he’ll have a chance, finally, to be the author of his own story.

Randall West has one more chapter to write. Under the lights at Rutgers, the work begins.

Amin Touri can be reached at [email protected], and followed @Amin_Touri.

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