I can see my house from here,” said Cal football defensive lineman Ben Hawk Schrider with a grin as he looked out over the East Bay from the box level of California Memorial Stadium. “My parents’ house, I mean.”
It was his first time taking in the view of the clustered gems of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley from seven stories above the field that he grew up watching his heroes play on, since only recruits are taken on stadium tours. Even though it was his first time gracing level seven, Ben Hawk Schrider is no stranger to Cal football or to the city of Berkeley — he’s been a part of both since before the press box was even built.
Born in Berkeley to a family with generations of Cal alums, blue and gold has coursed through Schrider’s veins for decades — his mother, stepfather, grandfather, grandmother and great-grandmother all attended UC Berkeley, and a healthy appreciation for Cal was instilled in Schrider at a very early age.
From one grandfather he was gifted the middle name Hawk — from the other he was given a deep love for Cal football.
“My dad was a huge Bears fan,” recalled Morgan Smith, Schrider’s stepfather. “He always had season tickets, so it was really a family thing.”
Schrider’s grandfather would bring his grandson along to games and the open practices that the team had at the time, kindling what would soon become Schrider’s burning passion for Cal football.
“Passion is really an understatement,” laughed Brad Berky, Schrider’s father. “He was just obsessed.”
Schrider’s fixation with Cal football manifested itself in many forms. He fell into ill repute with his second grade teacher for writing the memorized team roster down in his school notebook. Schrider used players’ numbers to learn his times tables and dressed up as Aaron Rodgers for Halloween “before he was Aaron Rodgers,” as Berky explained it. Schrider also formed deep connections and friendships with the players he so fervently supported on game days and at practice.
Cal football legends Geoff McArthur, Burl Toler III, Aaron Rodgers, Lorenzo Alexander, Marshawn Lynch and others all took to Schrider as much as he did to them, integrating him into the team so fully that he was almost a player himself.
“Ben wanted to invite the three or four guys he’d befriended to dinner,” Berky remembered. “I was just trying to temper his expectations, tell him that they’re really busy and not to get your hopes up. He was in the locker room after practice, which sometimes the players invited him to, and he comes out and says, ‘Dad, I gave Aaron Rodgers your phone number to make arrangements for dinner.’ We hadn’t even walked out of the stadium when I got a call saying that they wanted to talk dates.”
The generosity and friendliness of the Bears that Schrider came to idolize imbued in him that being a teammate is a trait that extends beyond the football field, a virtue he would never abandon.
“I remember just going to practice, and I think the hospitality of the players — giving me a high-five or giving me a glove — I instantly was like, ‘These guys are the coolest people ever,’” Schrider said. “That community connection that they had at that time really had me falling in love, and ever since, I’ve always wanted to be a Bear.”
And last Saturday, after years of being away, then chasing his dream and walking on to the Cal football team, Schrider had the chance to step onto the field of Memorial Stadium as just that — a Bear.
Schrider hadn’t played a day of football when he first set foot into St. Mary’s College High School as a freshman, but when he left that day, he was already on the path to leaving the school as a first team all-state linebacker and three year starter.
“He came to us when he wanted to play football — first day at St. Mary’s — he calls me at work and goes, ‘Mom, Mom, I want to join the football team!’ — which was just completely out of the question,” explained Tracy Schrider, Schrider’s mother. “Ben came with a yellow legal pad with 27 reasons why he should be playing football and that we should give him permission. We said, ‘OK, you can do it for one year.’ And now here we are.”
Although Cal football was not yet on the table, Schrider committed to the University of Richmond in Virginia out of high school, where he played nearly every game of his true freshman season. In the spring semester of his freshman year, he transferred to University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and spent the next three-and-a-half years there, earning 22 total sacks, ranking third on the team in most tackles his junior year, and becoming a two-time Academic All-Southern Conference winner. He never missed a Cal game, even if it meant watching on his phone on the bus ride back to campus.
In addition to the talented opponents that honed Schrider’s football skills, his time in the South granted him an intimate view of the disparities of wealth distribution and privilege among races and classes, which he has been well aware of since he was a child. The diversity of Berkeley, his high school and his close friend group raised Schrider to see no differences between people based on appearance, only the clear inequities that some faced more than others.
“He realizes his privilege,” Smith said of his son. “He has a lot of sophisticated experiences that make it so that he can move between cultures, and he appreciates the qualities of all his different teammates.”
Upon graduating from Chattanooga with a bachelor’s in social work, Cal presented itself as a potential option for graduate school. Once he was accepted into the Masters of Public Health program at Berkeley, as Bears do, Schrider rolled on home.
While his acceptance into Cal alone was enough to overjoy the Schrider family, Ben overachieved — he successfully walked on to the football team, was named a second team linebacker, and was placed on scholarship by the program on the last day of fall camp.
“He would’ve worked just as hard if that (scholarship) wasn’t there, but it was just such a wonderful confirmation that he belonged and that they expected him to contribute to the team and not just be this cute story of a kid who comes back,” Berky said.
“It’s surreal. I still can’t believe it that I’m here, getting to play and be on the field,” Schrider said. “I got this opportunity and kind of took a little bit of a risk — I turned down other scholarships to come here, and the fact that it paid off — there’s no feeling like that.”
Schrider saw his first minutes during the UC Davis game and got significant time on the field during Cal’s upset of Washington, even scooping up Evan Weaver’s forced fumble in the second quarter. Even as a proficient asset for an already unshakable defense, Schrider has become an integral part of the team’s comradery, earning the respect and love of players and coaches alike for his focus, kindness and overwhelming inclusivity in no time at all.
“I went to his first practice, and I just was sobbing. I was in tears just seeing him in a Cal helmet,” Berky said. “I knew how much it meant to him to be able to do that.”
Schrider has even had the fortuity of crossing paths once again with his childhood exemplar Burl Toler III, who is now Cal’s wide receivers coach. “It’s great to get one of our own back home,” Toler grinned. “It’s those kind of people that are from here — that have been around Cal football, that know the culture, that know the history — that help build this program from the ground up and help build the foundation. I love having him around.”
Although Schrider’s emotional homecoming has undoubtedly been augmented by his opportunity to play football at his dream school, he recognizes that even more important work lies beyond his final season. Schrider aims to open a nonprofit in the Bay Area upon obtaining his degree to help at-risk youth obtain the resources and education they need that they might not be able to access elsewhere.
“I think what his dream is in life is to give back to society and lift people up,” Smith said of Schrider’s ambitions to bring attention and aid to underrepresented communities. “He sees athletics as a vehicle for doing that.”
The village that raised Schrider continues to pour out their love and support for him — hoards of family members and friends can be seen at the stadium on any given Saturday wearing T-shirts with ‘Schrider 98’ on the back. The players and staff members that he knew as a child stay in touch with him and have never given up their role as mentors and friends to Schrider.
“He’s just the ultimate teammate, the ultimate friend. He’s one of those people who’s always going to give his all for the whole of the unit,” Cal inside linebacker Kuony Deng said of Schrider. “He’s one of the hardest workers on the team, and he plays extremely physical.”
For Schrider, the opportunity to give back to those who gave him so much is the core of both his person and his football career, and it’s not hard to tell — just look for him giving a high-five or glove to the kids outside the stadium after a game, or watch him volunteer at the local hospital and homeless shelter, or see how he battles his teammates from every walk of life in friendly matches of Spades. He strives to set the edge, both on and off the gridiron.
Brad Berky recalled he and Ben’s practice routine — “sneak” past Cal superfan-turned-security guard Bud Turner, watch the players do reps, then engage in then-head coach Jeff Tedford’s playful post-practice routine of asking him for permission to come onto the field to see the players.
“It was at the end of the season before the bowl game, and Tedford was going off, and Ben asked, ‘Can we come back next year and attend practices?’ And Tedford said, ‘You can come back every year until you’re ready to play for me.’ He was just beaming — and at 6 years old, it was like signing a letter of intent.”
Looks like Ben Hawk Schrider followed through.