By 6 p.m. last Friday, Austin Pereira had wrapped up the final practice of his college football career at Lewis & Clark.
The Calistoga High graduate was on his way to his last lineman dinner ahead of Saturday’s season finale at Pacific Lutheran in Puyallup, Washington. As is the case with most athletes in that situation, the gravity of the moment hadn’t sunk in yet.
“I don’t think it’s hit me that it’s my last game of my life,” he said last week, “but I think that it’s definitely – I don’t know – I’m going to miss it. It’s all these little things. You learn to be thankful for all the things you take for granted, and just the team and the guys. It’s crazy to see these are the guys that look up to me, and just yesterday I feel like I was the young kid.”
The Pioneers, an NCAA Division III program in the Northwest Conference, ended up losing that game, 40-24.
They didn’t beat the Lutes in 2016. Or the year before. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. In fact, the last time the Pioneers beat them was in 2011.
And it doesn’t stop there. Coming into the 2017 season, Lewis & Clark hadn’t won a game since 2013 – the year before Pereira joined the program. Pereira went his first three years at the collegiate level without a single victory.
Few would blame him for wanting to punt on the entire situation and just focus on academics. He’s a biology major and the demands of that subject area are daunting.
But that’s just not how Pereira does things. When he joined the Portland-based team in 2014, there were 24 players in his class. By the time his senior season rolled around, he estimated one-third of that number stuck with it all four years.
“Honestly, you’ve just got to have faith,” Pereira said. “I keep preaching to the freshmen just to have faith because it’s easy to give up. Most of the people I started with at Lewis & Clark, they gave up. It’s tough to say, but there was 24 of us when I started freshman year and there’s only eight of us now, or less.”
Pereira was the only offensive linemen in his class and, by the time he was a senior, he was one of three upperclassmen in his position group. The other seven were freshmen and sophomores.
With so much inexperience up front, the 6-foot, 240-pound guard isn’t shy about saying how much worse off the team would have been if he quit at some point. His dedication to the program and his desire to see it succeed has been noticed by the coaching staff, too.
“What Austin has in him is fight and desire that is unmatched,” said Pioneers offensive coordinator and line coach Isaac Parker. “His desire to be a good offensive lineman pushed him to changes that I don’t think he was ready for. He just wanted to play and be a good lineman.
“What I asked him to do in order to be ready to play was to grow up as a man, learn teamwork, and trust fundamentals of line play. He did all three of those things, and became a good player, a starter and a leader. He brought passion and intensity to every role.”
Parker also pointed out that Pereira embraces the odds stacked against him at the position, evidenced by the fact that the rest of the line averages two more inches of height and more than 60 pounds in weight.
“Austin has grown tremendously in his tenure here at Lewis and Clark as a student and as an athlete,” said Pioneers head coach Jay Locey. “As a senior this year he has evolved as a positive leader. He is an undersized offensive lineman that has embraced technique and strong fundamentals taught by Coach Parker, and has become a very effective player for us … His greatest strength may be his tenacity to compete on every play.”
Thankfully for Pereira, despite losing the last game of his career, he wasn’t forced to hang it up without a ‘W.’ Lewis & Clark reeled off two straight wins in September, beating Pomona-Pitzer on the road, 40-29, and then Willamette at home, 24-21, in its conference opener. That victory gave the Pioneers a brief taste of life over .500 for the first time since 2012.
“It was amazing. I didn’t shut up about it,” Pereira said. “Honestly, yeah, it was just a relief to stop that losing streak. It was just good because finally we could have something to say to all the haters, all the doubters.”
It had gotten to the point where losing had become synonymous with Pioneers football, and a lot of the students Pereira interacted with on-campus were so jaded that they completely dismissed the work the players were putting in altogether.
Naturally, Pereira never let it get to him.
“There’s always going to be doubters,” he said, “and I think that the whole process that we’ve been through has just proven that, if you just have faith in something and you never give up, the path will (emerge) and you just make it happen.”
A position change for the better
Pereira grew up in Kelseyville and played youth football for the Chiefs. In high school, circumstances forced him to relocate further south to Calistoga his junior year.
He came in as a quarterback, but the Wildcats, led by Paul Harrell at the time, already had one – the coach’s son, Orion Harrell.
Paul needed his size up front, though, and suddenly he was playing offensive line for the first time in his life.
Considering the journey he’s been on since, Pereira still laughs at that.
“I remember the first day I stepped on the field, it just felt like home,” he said. “Everyone was so welcoming. I joined the team and, it was funny, at the time I played quarterback and I remember the first day Coach Paul was like, ‘You’re going to play line.’ And I just wanted to play. I just wanted to be on the field, so I was all right (with the move), and I just worked at it.”
Pereira was part of a special class at Calistoga. In 2013, the Wildcats went 8-2 overall and only lost to St. Vincent in North Central League II play, earning a share of the school’s first league title since 1997. They started that campaign 8-0 before falling to the Mustangs in the regular season finale and then to Ferndale a week later in the first round of the CIF North Coast Section Division 5 playoffs.
While Calistoga was steamrolling through its season, Paul Harrell was helping his players garner attention from collegiate programs. When his son was being recruited by Northwest Conference schools like Puget Sound and Lewis & Clark, Harrell helped Pereira get a look, too.
“He threw my name out, and that’s all it took I guess,” Pereira said. “I sent my film to the coaches and, I might not be the biggest or strongest guy, but I always play hard. I think that kind of stuck with the coaches. I got a couple schools that were really interested in me and Lewis & Clark, the coach came to Calistoga and he basically said, ‘We want you to come.’ I don’t know – it felt right on my visit so that’s how it happened.”
Early in his college career, Pereira used to come back during the summer to see his family. It was also important to him to devote some time to helping the Calistoga Cubs. But as time went on and his offseason demands began piling up, he made fewer trips south across the Oregon-California border.
However, he still checked on MaxPreps to see how his former team was faring, but what he saw was a fairly different situation. The season after he graduated, the Wildcats won two games and Harrell eventually stepped down in the offseason.
That was also the last time Calistoga played 11-man football before getting moved to the 8-man North Central League III.
The Wildcats have strung together a few winning seasons, but they haven’t won a league championship since Pereira’s senior year. This fall, they finished under .500 in league for the first time since that disastrous two-win season.
As the distance grew between Pereira and his adopted home, he came to appreciate just how special his class was. They took care of business in the classroom as well as on the field, two key ingredients for success in prep football.
“The thing about Calistoga sports is you just need that one class that sticks together because there’s always these guys that are really good athletes but they don’t have everything together; they don’t get their grades and I feel like that was what the problem was,” he said. “My year we had so many athletic people, and they all knew that you had to get the grades, you had to do everything. And that’s why we were so good. We all put everything into it.”
The grind has been tough, taking on a science major while juggling collegiate athletics. Pereira has 8 a.m. classes and the Pioneers also practice at night, “so I don’t get home until 10 (p.m.),” he said.
“It’s been hard, honestly. I’m a biology major, which is probably one of the most demanding majors at Lewis & Clark … Any of my free time I have to go to the library, otherwise I won’t be able to get it done,” he said. “It takes that dedication. But I really think it’s worth it because the things I’ve learned in college playing football has just (helped me grow) leaps and bounds … You really learn how to be a man and really handle everything you’ve got to when you’re in college.”
With football officially over and finals on the horizon, Pereira is shifting his attention to the next step. He was accepted into a study abroad program in Australia, and gets to spend his final semester of college in unique fashion.
It’s a fitting reward for a player that devoted so much to a cause that faced numerous lows over a four-year span. But Pereira has taken it in stride, and that approach has been met with gratitude by those around him.
“I definitely feel that the coaches, especially, are thankful for the seniors that have stayed because it’s made their jobs so much (easier),” he said. “It’s given them an example of kids that don’t give up. For the younger guys, it’s like, ‘Man, these guys played for three years, didn’t win a single game, and they’re still here trying to battle and come to workouts every day? They’re still doing it because they never gave up.’
“I just feel like that’s good motivation for them because Lewis & Clark will never see a time that dark again, and that’s because we had to go through it and we stuck through it.”
As for the legacy he’s leaving behind, well, Parker sees him as one of the best he’s ever had.
“I think he should be extremely proud of what he accomplished in his college football career,” he said, “because he contributed to a foundation that we can build a program on ... (and) football contributed to a foundation that he can build a life on. He will be one of my most memorable players I have and ever will coach.”
Now, Pereira will prepare for his next great leap, one that’s much further than the distance he traveled after high school. After graduating, he plans to explore different research fields and see which one fits best. He expects more school down the road, too, but there’ll probably be a breather sprinkled somewhere in there.
“After that,” he said, “it’s just, life.”