For someone his coaches and teachers describe as quiet, Alterraun Verner sure has made a lot of noise. As a Bruin, he dazzled fans before they even learned how to pronounce his name. As a Titan, his playmaking in practice has landed him in the starting lineup for tonight’s nationally televised preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. Like a quarterback he’s just picked off, he will amaze you before you even know what hit you.
In his very first game as a true freshman for the Bruins, he jumped a route beautifully and picked off Utah Utes’ quarterback Brett Ratliff for a 34-yard interception return in the second quarter. Utah didn’t score again. In his sophomore year, with 1:33 left in the fourth quarter against the No. 12 Cal Golden Bears, Cal quarterback Nate Longshore looked for his star receiver DeSean Jackson on third and 5 with the pocket collapsing. Jackson, widely considered the fastest receiver in the country, was put into motion before the snap. Jackson ran out a few yards and put a quick juke move on Verner, but by the time Jackson could get his hands up to catch the pass, Verner was already headed the other way with it en route to a 76-yard return that sealed the upset victory.
“He’s just got good instincts,” UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel said to ESPN last year. “He is very instinctive. He has great anticipation, and that comes from the study that he puts forth.”
“He’s easiest player I’ve ever coached,” said UCLA defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough. “He was kind of a quiet guy, but he would always take the new guys under his wing in practice and during games.”
From the first day Verner stepped on the field for the Bruins in 2006, he became an electrifying fan favorite for a fan base in desperate need of something to get excited about. The program was coming off one of its most memorable seasons ever but was in rebuilding mode after the departure of Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis and their All-Conference quarterback Drew Olsen. The Bruins went on to have a disappointing season that year, which eventually lead the firing of their head coach. But there was one thing to be certain of after watching them: that kid Alterraun Verner just makes plays.
Verner has taken many by surprise on his way to becoming a professional athlete. The impossibly friendly Verner agreed to an interview with me over the summer, and I learned first hand he is determined to take the NFL by storm as quickly as he dominated the Pac-10.
Before we even sit down at a Jamba Juice on the UCLA campus, Verner is approached by several fans who want say thank you. Verner flashes an infectious smile and shakes their hands as they tell him it was a pleasure watching him for four years, and they wish him the best in the NFL. With a sincere humbleness, he says thank you in return as they walk away. He would have shaken everyone’s hand in the building if he could have.
How friendly is Alterraun Verner? He’s answered more than a thousand questions on his formspring page, including a completely random request to come to a fan’s graduation party. And if he wasn’t on his way to Tennessee for OTA’s at the time of the party, he says he just may have gone.
“I’m a real big fan of a lot of people,” said Verner. “So just knowing, if I was a fan and I wanted to speak to Jerry Rice, if I had an opportunity to tell him how I feel it would be so cool. So if somebody is like that to me, I definitely want to reach out and speak to him.”
He definitely had plenty of fans on campus, and not just for his stellar play on Saturdays. Verner was a star student in the math department, making the Honor Roll multiple times while he majored in Mathematics-Applied Sciences. Ever since he was a kid growing up in Carson, California, he knew he wanted to go to UCLA, but he probably never knew he would be on the front page of its math department website. Alterraun has always found success when he has sought it. He thanks his parents for nurturing his plethora of talent and keeping his life simpler than those of other kids in the area.
“My parents just gave us rules to follow and adhere by and my sisters and I did for the most part,” he said. “I didn’t really have to go through too many struggles. It was just staying motivated and listening to my parents.”
Alterraun fell in love with math as early as kindergarten, and when he discovered football, he balanced the two effortlessly. He smiles now as he admits he “got a lot of crap” from friends in high school for his 4.0 GPA, but he understands very well the stereotypical restraints of a black athlete. So he has spent some time going into local inner-city schools to send a message to aspiring young football and basketball players.
“I talk about how you can be a successful athlete but then you don’t have to compromise your academic work in becoming that,” he says with conviction.
When asked if he has learned anything from his game theory course that has helped him on the field, he says no but with a hearty laugh. But when you watch his self-made highlight reel, it’s much easier to make sense of his extraordinary ball-hawking skills if you watch it under the assumption he theorizes the outcomes of each play in his opponent’s playbook before every game. But that’s not the case. Alterraun’s ability to merge the advanced analytical thinking he attributes to years of mathematics with elite athleticism makes him one of the most intriguing rookies to watch this year. He’s never even started a game before but coaches are already buzzing about his uncanny knack for the ball.
On a roster full of characters like Chris Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, and the enigmatic Vince Young, it’s hard not to fall in love with such a character guy like Verner. Every once and a while a player who has done nothing but produce and show a relentless desire to improve will fall through the cracks of the NFL Draft. Because of a technicality like height or a 40 time, it makes the general managers who passed on a similar player like Nathan Vasher three times in 2004 look like idiots. Even though Verner fell to the fourth round, he is determined to make idiots of even more GM’s.
“I’m used to people saying I’m not big enough or fast enough, ” said Verner, very dismissively.”That stuff didn’t hurt me. I already know what I have to do to get better.”
The most endearing quality about Verner is that you actually believe him when he says he wants to get better. You won’t find him at a strip club this season, nor will you find him disrupting practice. If things don’t work out in Tennessee, it won’t be because of a lack of effort or a lack of respect for the game, which is all any fan can ask of a player. It will be because of a completely unexpected set of circumstances that lead to a problem even a math wiz couldn’t solve. Verner represents that dying breed of athletes: players we really, really want to root for. And not just because there’s a realistic chance of him accepting an invite to one of our Super Bowl parties this year, if he’s not playing in it. It’s because he had a dream, so he put in more work than anyone could have asked of him to become great enough to become a professional athlete. And we know he won’t be satisfied with just getting by.
Flashback: It’s just after the 2006 Emerald Bowl and the UCLA Bruins have just suffered a 44-27 loss to the Florida State Seminoles. A freshman cornerback named Alterraun Verner had 9 tackles and 2 passes defended but the Bruins could not stop the Seminoles from making a couple big plays that ended up deciding the game. Verner was shaking hands with the opposing team and congratulating them on their win, but he was particularly interested in finding a freshman defensive back named Myron Rolle of whom he had admired for years. He found Rolle at midfield, shook his hand and started up a conversation, not knowing if Rolle even knew who he was. They started to head to their respective lockers, but not before Rolle could say one last thing to him: “Hey! See you in the NFL.”
What does someone do who’s already achieved his dreams by 21? Starting tonight, he can only dream bigger.