Hard-earned glory is the goal of every Cal and Stanford player entering Saturday's 113th Big Game at Memorial Stadium.
So what is it like to be the Big Game's Big Man? How great is the payoff for all the blood, sweat and tears shed in one of college football's greatest rivalry games?
Cal running back Shane Vereen will tell you. He's already gone on that inspiring journey.
He seized that envious role a year ago, at least offensively, with 42 carries, 193 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Cal's 34-28 upset over 14th-ranked Stanford.
"The second the game was over, there was an emotional rush through my body," Vereen said after Tuesday's practice, standing atop Memorial Stadium's west rim and overlooking what the locals call "Bear Territory."
That emotional rush wasn't all he remembered from last year's trip to Stanford. Good thing, too. Big Game memories should last a lifetime.
Want to live vicariously through Vereen's memories? Let's resume his tale, but not by retracing his steps on those career-high 42 carries as the Bears' understudy to an injured Jahvid Best. Instead, let's explore his visions of that comeback victory's aftermath.
As is Big Game protocol, thousands rush the field once time expires (or, on the rare occasion, when the band comes out with 0:04 remaining). Last fall, Cal rooters spilled out of Stanford's sold-out stadium, swarmed the enemy's field and chanted "We got the Axe! We got the
Wedged among them was the 5-foot-10 Vereen, apparently in a Cal hard hat instead of his blue helmet, according to Cal's student newspaper. He recalled that on-field scrum lasting "forever," but some 15 minutes later, he made it to the winning locker room.
The Stanford Axe made it there, too. Players held it and posed for pictures. Vereen did, too.
Outside the locker room, Vereen conducted media interviews. Tears welled in his eyes. The impact of this "best team win of my career" was glaring.
"The Axe is very important and stands for something," Vereen said Tuesday. "To be able to come back and beat a very good Stanford team, and with the combination of being tired, everything went out the window."
What was on the agenda once Vereen & Co. returned home across the Bay?
"We had a little celebration and what not."
Oh, college life. To paraphrase Las Vegas' motto, what happens in "what-not" land stays in "what-not" land.
Come Sunday morning, Vereen woke up "very slowly" and trudged to Cal's training room. "There's a reason I was feeling horrible. It was because (Stanford defenders) were hitting me."
Congratulatory phone calls and text messages soothed the pain. His predecessors in the Cal backfield, current NFLers Best and Justin Forsett, sent their approval: "Nice job. "... Hard work done."
Well, there was still that matter of fulfilling "student-athlete" obligations Monday. "Yeah, I went to class. Slowly," said Vereen, a media studies major who has viable designs on becoming a sports analyst.
He's returned this junior year to provide bright spots in a lackluster Cal season (5-5 overall, 3-4 in Pac-10). He is two yards shy of the 1,000-yard rushing milestone, and possibly two games away from ending his Cal career.
Vereen is considering skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft, where he could be among the top five or 10 running backs selected. He already has rushed for as many touchdowns (29) as Best and Marshawn Lynch did in their three-year Cal careers. Lynch also is in the NFL.
"Vereen has done a number on us the last two years," said Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who hasn't forgotten Vereen scoring the first touchdown of Cal's 37-16 home win in the 2008 Big Game.
As for the 2010 version, Vereen pegged quarterback Brock Mansion and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones as Cal's potential heroes this time. Smart move: Talk up the passing game, distract Stanford's defense from the run. But Vereen didn't forget about Cal's ready-to-step-up defense, and he rekindled memories of linebacker Mike Mohamed's game-clinching interception last year, acknowledging that big wins take more than one hero.
Odds favor Stanford producing the victorious heroes by Saturday's twilight. Then again, Cal beat the odds last year. Vereen can vouch for that.