When we envision star athletes, we often think of those who were studs in high school and college, those whose skill sets came so naturally to them.
Just like those standouts, Cal’s starting quarterback Fernando Mendoza aspires to be great — to be a star with a 10-plus year career in the NFL.
That is, despite starting out his football career buried on the depth chart.
“I was the fifth-string quarterback, third-string tight end, third-string defensive end when I first started playing youth football. And I was just miserable. Every position, everything I did, the only reason I would get in is because there was, like, a requirement: Every kid needs to play at least five plays per game,” Mendoza said.
This storyline may seem familiar — and that’s because it is. Mendoza started out this season as the third-string quarterback. Unlike the four or five-star players who were heir apparent to the starting spot — because of their innate athleticism or some other pedigree — Mendoza has always flown under the radar.
But five weeks ago against Oregon State, Cal head coach Justin Wilcox took a chance on the backup. And there it was, a golden opportunity — Mendoza’s chance to shine under the lights as opposed to just on the practice field. Far beyond his years of five-play game days, Mendoza flourished in his first start and has kept the starting job ever since.
His parents, Elsa and Fernando Mendoza — yes, Fernando is a junior — explained that things never really came easy to their son. And often, people believe that not being naturally good at something means they’ll never be great.
For Mendoza, the struggle has always been a welcome challenge.
“He was a very determined child,” his mother Elsa laughed. “When he would put his mind to something, that’s what he wanted. And that’s what he would do, he would work hard and he didn’t give up — it didn’t matter what it was.”
And perhaps that’s what set Mendoza apart from the other Cal quarterbacks this season: a fierce determination to accomplish whatever he sets his mind to. From wanting to learn the playbook the quickest to dedicating almost every waking hour of his day to the craft, Mendoza lives and breathes the sport.
Mendoza’s work ethic is apparent, and his friends and teammates would say the same. Ask Michael Luckhurst, Mendoza’s roommate and one of his best friends. His answer was immediate — a gut reaction.
“He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever met. And from the moment that he stepped on campus, I knew that he was going to be a star quarterback here — and further than here as well. I have all the belief in the world that he’s going to be a star on Sundays,” Luckhurst said.
Luckhurst recounted that Mendoza studied the playbook every night when the two first arrived in Berkeley a couple summers ago. Even though Mendoza wasn’t going to play as a true freshman, he was determined to be the person who knew everything. And he followed through — he was the quarterback who knew what was going to happen at practice before it even took place, who dedicated himself to being the best.
But his unyielding determination and focus is not only reserved for football — it is woven into his scholastic and creative endeavors. From his early days of producing mini action movies with one of his younger brothers, Alberto Mendoza, to the straight As he has achieved since coming to Cal, Mendoza is unwavering in his commitment to consistency.
Admittedly, Mendoza says that his ability to balance school and football needed readjustment after he was named the starting quarterback. What used to be time allotted for homework has become hours in the film room, watching tape and studying the intricacies of the next defensive matchup. It’s work that takes fervent dedication — and he’s got it.
“Before I was named starter, (I had) all As. My entire Berkeley career, only As — no Bs, not a B plus. Like all those like math classes, all those econ classes, all As,” Mendoza said. “It’s definitely been a struggle to balance it. (But) I believe it’s cool to, in a sense, look at it the positive way where you’re able to stretch yourself out so you’re able to adapt to higher situations. Like I would never (have been) able to do this last year.”
The starting job is not the only new role Mendoza has learned how to balance. Mendoza’s recent acceptance to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business makes for a tricky juggling act — a prestigious business program that only accepted 15 percent of its applicants this year.
However, Mendoza’s inclination for a business degree is not out of left field; he has always had a knack for entrepreneurship. Though, most novice entrepreneurs sell lemonade, not mangoes.
The humid weather of Mendoza’s hometown, Miami, Florida, is well suited for growing tropical fruit. Even better, with mango trees in his grandparents’ and parents’ backyards, it was easy for Mendoza and Alberto to capitalize on the market.
Their only competitor? Publix Super Markets — for which they offered a better price. So after summer camp, which ran from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., it was business hours for the Mendoza brothers.
“We’d just grab our wagon and go door-to-door, knock and sell mangoes,” Mendoza smiled. “We would always fight like, ‘oh who’s gonna go to the door?’ Because at this point we’re like 13 years old and 12 years old, really scared, and we’d go up to these adults and knock and just ask if they want $1 mangoes and tell them, ‘We’re better than Publix’s price.’ ”
Mendoza says he loves Publix Super Markets, though the jury is still out on whether Publix loved his mango business. But to Mendoza, this story was about more than just mangoes — even if subconsciously.
Without being asked a follow-up question, Mendoza’s expression grew softer as he segued from mangoes to family.
“Spending that much time for your family, it essentially creates a ‘why’ for you in football and creates a motivation. Especially with my mom not being able to help physically with my (youngest) brother Maximo as much, as she has contracted MS, multiple sclerosis,” Mendoza said. “Spending so much time with (my family) and seeing how much I mean to them, it gives me a why and it gives me a competitive edge.”
As Mendoza explained that multiple sclerosis has no cure, he paused.
“(My mom) keeps on fighting to try to help our family. Whether it’s my dad, my brothers, my grandparents, my cousins or whoever, it’s really motivating to see how she fights every day and still always comes with a positive attitude and a positive mindset. That’s the one thing that I really try to cherish and model after, is I always try to be a positive guy. My mom is super positive. So that’s who I get it from,” Mendoza said.
And you can ask anyone — Mendoza is the epitome of positivity. Ask the reporters who are regulars in postgame press conferences. They’ll tell you that every week, without fail, Mendoza thanks a list of teammates and staff longer than his arm, donning a bright smile as he answers their questions. Or they’ll tell you that Mendoza thanks reporters for their time, referring to them as ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mr.’ — something other athletes rarely do.
Even when Mendoza got his first start in high school, his parents say that he called all of the coaches who trained him when he was younger, thanking them each personally for helping him develop as a football player.
“It’s crazy, because the way he is on the field and the way he is like with press and everything, it seems fake. Like it seems like he’s just trying to do something for cameras or trying to show something, but it’s exactly how he has always been,” Luckhurst said. “I don’t even know, he’s just a pretty charismatic guy … and he’s just a pretty funny guy. Without even trying to be.”
Mendoza’s grandfather Alberto Espino was also quick to admire Mendoza’s kindness, though he admitted that he’s a little biased. He calls this bias, this innate affection of a grandparent, “irrational love.”
Beyond being endlessly proud of Mendoza, Espino explained that he only has daughters and had always wanted a son. In a sense, he says Mendoza became a son to him.
“Time is important, precious — so we share trips. I took him on a memorable trip with me … going back to Cuba, which is where I was born. I was able to show him where our family was from. So we’ve spent a lot of time together, and significant time, good time. We’ve had a great relationship. I’ve been kind of like his cheerleader,” Espino laughed. “I only see the best in him.”
Whether it was taking Mendoza to and from school or playing tennis with him, Espino and Mendoza spent much of their time together. Though Espino didn’t claim credit, Mendoza says he learned the importance of being kind to people from his grandfather.
“We’d always go to … essentially Cuban coffee shops like Casa Cuba or Versailles,” Mendoza said. “He would introduce me to all the workers, and he taught me the importance of being nice to everybody. And so we always would go there, essentially just talk to the workers, have a good time, chop it up with them. And yeah, drink some Cuban coffee and eat some tostada.”
These habits seemed to have stuck with Mendoza, even 3,000 miles away from Miami — though what used to be friendships at Casa Cuba have become those at La Burrita. And it’s not as a courtesy, it’s because he has genuine respect for other people, a genuine interest in what people have to say.
“Fernando works hard for what it is and he realizes how hard everybody works. And he appreciates everybody’s hard work. And he appreciates people. Like, he loves La Burrita over there at Cal. He got the people at the La Burrita tickets for the game because he says they’re always so nice to him and they’re always rooting for him,” Elsa said.
At the end of the day — to borrow a frequent expression of Mendoza’s from press conferences — Mendoza’s heart lies with his craft, his family and new experiences. His unwavering commitment to those who support him exhibits genuine care, the same care that carried him from door to door selling mangoes — and now radiates on the field as he leads Cal football from game to game.
“Conor McGregor has a great quote. It says, ‘Your lack of commitment is insulting not to you, but to the people that support you.’ And so whenever it’s hard or tough, I always think of that quote in a positive manner — that my commitment and my dedication is not for just myself and my pleasure and my journey,” Mendoza said. “It’s for the people (who) support me.”