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Every day last spring, Nicko Rising would return from work, pull into the driveway of his Ventura, Calif., home and see resistance bands hanging from his front door.
He would see the youngest of his three sons, Cam, hard at work, rehabbing “religiously, every day” to recover from the torn right labrum he endured five months earlier while playing quarterback for the University of Utah.
“He did what he had to do,” Nicko Rising recalled during a recent phone interview. “We would go throw, mark out 20 throws from 20 yards, another 20 from 35 yards. We would mark it out, go through it, go home, ice the shoulder down. He did what he had to do the whole time.”
And what Cam Rising has had to do is be determined.
Rising was determined to beat the timetable doctors had given him for recovery, putting him in a position to fight for the Utes’ starting quarterback this season. The sophomore did just that, forcing an extended battle in fall camp. And, when graduate transfer Charlie Brewer eventually won the job, Rising remained determined still.
“I think what they did was understandable,” Rising said.
“Even with what happened with Brewer, he told me, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it, I’ll be the quarterback in no time,’” Nicko Rising added.
“There was always competition in the house”
Cam Rising has never been afraid of competition.
Nicko Rising played college football at Division III Cal Lutheran, and his three sons, Tyson, Jordie, and Cam, would all start playing the game as children. Cam did not grow up crazy about football, but rather basketball during the 2000s and 2010s as he rooted for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. As a freshman at Newbury Park High School during the 2014-15 school year, Rising ascended to become the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team before football started getting his full attention as a sophomore.
Of course, whatever love there was for basketball was fostered by games in the family driveway, whether it was against dad, Jordie or Tyson, who is three years older and grew into a 6-foot-5, 290-pound offensive lineman at Arizona State.
“There was always competition in the house, always going to practice, games, something 24-7, it just seemed nonstop,” Rising’s mother, Eunice said. “The boys, especially Cameron, he would never give up. He would sit there and play hoops with his brothers, out there crying because he couldn’t win and he wanted to win. He’d be out there yelling at his brother or his dad.”
Added Keith Smith, Rising’s personal QB coach and the offensive coordinator at Newbury Park during his time there: “Darts, foosball, it’s almost comical how much they compete. That was a huge thing for him, growing up, getting roughed up, and getting trash-talked. There’s still trash talking going on in that house. Don’t fool yourself. That’s probably still going on with the Risings.”
When Cam was 10 years old and playing youth soccer, his grandfather told him that if he scored four goals, he would buy him a new PlayStation Portable. Cam got to four, then he got four more. As Nicko remembers it, after goal No. 10, he told Cam to maybe chill out a little bit. Cam thought if he got to 12, he would earn PlayStation Portables for both of his brothers, too.
“Specifically with his brothers, he’s watched them his whole life, all of the work they put in, the sacrifices they made,” Eunice Rising said. “It was a study on what to do and what not to do. He has been able to perfect it for himself.”
At 13, Cam and Nicko were playing a game of “21″ in the driveway. The unwritten, unofficial rules of “21″ sometimes vary by region, but they generally involve scoring a basket, followed by having to shoot at least one free throw.
At one point, Nicko led, 19-3. He didn’t score another point.
“Ever since then, I kind of took the title,” Cam said. “I ran the driveway.”
Football becomes the focus
Basketball may have been Cam’s first love, but he was aware enough as a Newbury Park sophomore that quarterback was going to be his future. This, after his youth football days that included him playing running back, wide receiver and defensive back.
“Sophomore year, I started to blow up in football and it just really became my No. 1 because it was going to be a guaranteed free education,” Cam said. “I love to compete and be out there and just going up against another person, it’s fun, especially when you have 10 other guys all working towards the same goal.”
The shift to quarterback came in the eighth grade, but his star began to brighten during that second high school season.
In 2015, Rising threw for 3,213 yards and 40 touchdowns against just one interception, finishing with over 4,000 total yards and 51 total touchdowns. Washington State, Cal, Oregon State and USC all levied scholarship offers before Halloween. Michigan, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama and a host of others came the following winter and spring.
“I noticed a huge transition in him from the spring of his freshman year, through that summer, during 7-on-7 stuff in terms of mechanics,” said Smith, who played quarterback at Arizona and later spent time in the CFL. “He tightened up his release, and it was clear that he was putting in the work. Cam really wanted to be a good player and he was willing to work for it.”
Rising was committed to Oklahoma for eight and a half months before changing his mind and committing to Texas on April 22, 2017. Cam does not believe he committed to Oklahoma too early, just that things changed. Eunice, at a minimum, wondered as to why such a decision had to be made so early, so quickly. In hindsight, Nicko doesn’t know how it would have worked out in Norman.
When Rising showed up at Texas as a four-star early enrollee in the winter of 2018, a quarterback competition was imminent between Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele. Rising was on the periphery. Ehlinger, a true sophomore and a native Texan from Westlake High School, won the job, essentially entrenching himself as the long-term starter. Rising hit the NCAA Transfer Portal after the season.
Rising did not have 25 or 30 offers out of the portal as he did out of Newbury Park, but Utah’s quarterback situation, on paper, was going to be up in the air after the 2019 season with Tyler Huntley set to leave.
The Utes needed a quarterback, Rising needed a new home, not to mention an opportunity.
Cam Rising’s shoulder injury
Utes recruiting coordinator Freddie Whittingham and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig traveled to Ventura to recruit Cam. Nicko called them straight shooters.
Cam and his parents visited Salt Lake City, and a positive impression was made, especially on Eunice. As the old recruiting adage goes, if you want to score a commitment, recruit the mother.
“We felt good about the school,” Eunice said. “Cam’s not a big party person like Texas was in that way, he couldn’t find his groove and people who were like-minded. I liked how he felt with fellow students when they were showing us around. I think he was immediately around like-minded people. Things were focused there, and it was a good vibe. They straight-shooted us about everything, and I appreciated that.”
Per NCAA transfer rules, Rising sat out the 2019 season after not receiving an eligibility waiver, then won a quarterback competition vs. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley ahead of the COVID-impacted 2020 season.
On the 14th offensive snap of the Nov. 21 opener vs. USC, Rising was stripped-sacked deep in Utah territory by Marlon Tuipulotu. With Rising and the ball on the ground, he lunged to recover the ball and appeared to get caught up underneath multiple players.
“They did a little test on my shoulder, and it was bad, we knew it was bad,” Rising said. “It was hard to hold myself together. I was emotional because I just wanted to be out there with the guys and competing. It’s not easy to have all that hard work be for nothing when you get hurt like that.”
Added Eunice: “When it first happened, it was devastating, and yes, it was scary and it was heartbreaking. He had the time to reflect, and this is part of the plan. This gave him time to grow mentally, and to focus, and to be better. He accepted this would take time, but he limited himself throughout this whole thing. He is very emotionally mature. He is quite gifted with that.”
The diagnosis was a torn labrum. No rotator cuff, no biceps tendon, which was a lucky break. After considering their options, the Risings wound up traveling to Florida about a week and a half after the injury to have the surgery performed by Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon in the world of professional sports.
Rising’s surgery, which is considered routine, was a success. Andrews sent him off with a laundry list of what to do and how to do it moving forward. Rising got with the Utah trainers, got a plan together, and set forth on the aforementioned seven-month timetable.
“They talked to me about making sure I go about it the right way, handle myself the right way, like a professional in this aspect because this is not something to mess around with,” Rising said. “As a quarterback, this is the money-maker, because if you can’t throw, you can’t be a quarterback.
“There were definitely some days where I would say the trainers came in handy and really just said ‘OK, I understand you can throw more on this day, but more doesn’t necessarily mean better all the time.’ They really talked to me, made me understand and I think that made it a lot easier on me in that aspect having them there.”
Rising was deemed 100% healthy and ready for the start of fall camp, and what happened next is well-documented.
Brewer and Rising engaged in a month-long quarterback competition through August, which Kyle Whittingham called “neck-and-neck” on more than one occasion. Brewer won the job, struggled behind a porous, banged-up offensive line and was pulled in the third quarter against San Diego State on Sept. 18.
Three days after Rising dragged the Utes to triple overtime vs. the Aztecs, Brewer left the program, and Rising was installed as the starter.
“He never lost his confidence,” Nicko Rising said.
This is Rising’s moment
Rising has taken a long, bumpy, detour-filled road to get here, but he’s here now.
The near-comeback at San Diego State and a productive, mistake-free start vs. Washington State gave way to a coming-out party last weekend at USC. Twenty-two completions on 28 pass attempts, four total touchdowns, three of them through the air.
In staying with the Rising family mantra of competitiveness and talking trash, Cam made sure to deftly slide into his postgame remarks that USC, whose Watts campus is 80 miles from Ventura, may have offered him, but never seriously considered him.
“It’s always a good feeling, especially when you come to a school in this area, just being from this area, and they didn’t really recruit me, especially,” Rising said. “It’s always special to get one like that.”
Added Smith: “That’s Cam Rising, that’s who he is. The way he played in that game, that is who I saw every day, every week for years when I coached him in high school. That’s the guy, smiling. He’s just having fun out there. He’s not overly serious, he just plays with fun, passion, and the guys on the sideline gravitate to him. You can see it.”
The win over the Trojans reaffirmed that everything is still on the table for these Utes. A third Pac-12 South title in four seasons and an accompanying trip to the Pac-12 championship game are attainable, as is a trip to the program’s first Rose Bowl. If Utah is to do any or all of those things, it will be with Rising at the wheel, which is a level of responsibility not lost on him.
After all, he made promises.
On Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, with Rising taking his redshirt during Utah’s 11-win season, he hosted the late Ty Jordan on Jordan’s official visit. By all accounts, that visit went well, so Jordan, who was committed to Texas at the time, had something to think about, especially after his late mother, Tiffany, had taken a liking to Utah.
Cam and Ty promised each other that they would win a Rose Bowl together. There was a bond built during that official visit weekend, a bond strengthened by a season together as teammates, a bond strengthened by tragedy. Jordan, last season’s Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, died on Christmas night, the victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Nicko got a phone call alerting him to what was happening early on the morning of Dec. 26. He was the one who broke it to Cam, waking him up in his bedroom down the hall.
Jordan was gone. The grief over his passing has only been compounded by the Sept. 26 shooting death of Utes sophomore cornerback Aaron Lowe, a close friend and high school teammate of Jordan. Rising has understandably not taken that well, either.
Nicko and Eunice were in town for the Washington State game. The next morning, hours after Lowe’s death, Cam brought them breakfast and the three of them talked.
“He was hurt a lot, but I think he knew there was no other way but to go forward,” Nicko said.
And to go forward with determination.