When Jamal Ellis, the former Fresno State cornerback, received his master’s degree, he was in cap and gown, all decked out, and on his right hand were two Mountain West championship rings, one from 2012, the other from 2013.
His master’s in sports management is from Long Beach State, not Fresno State, but no matter.
“Those two rings have a special place in my heart,” Ellis said. “I’m so proud of them. Even at a different school, I want people to know what I was a part of and how much those rings mean to me.
“All of my classmates thought they were maybe high school rings, but I was quick to show them that Bulldog logo.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Those Fresno State championship rings have been a part of many occasions by now, big, small and in between — at graduations and on date nights, at family gatherings, on job interviews, at weddings.
“Kameron Henderson got married this year, Richard Helepiko got married this year, Greg Watson got married this year,” cornerback Jonathan Norton said.
“Derron Smith was there. Dalen Jones was there. At Richard’s wedding, Matt Hunt, there were more linemen there, but they were all wearing their rings. It’s funny, we all had our rings on, so I guess they all have that feeling, too.”
“It’s mostly at weddings that I wear them because now everyone is getting married,” said Helepiko, who started all 13 games in 2012, seven at right guard and six at center.
Linebacker Karl Mickelsen, who is working as an EMT, wore his to an interview with the San Jose Fire Department, a subtle reminder of the teamwork involved in the sport and the profession. “It has its perks,” he laughed.
Then there are game days ...
“Anytime Fresno State is playing a big game, you have to throw the ring on just to represent,” Jones said. “It feels amazing.”
And, everywhere, they are topics of conversation.
But both of those seasons, five and six years later, still are.
“It has always meant a lot to me and around here there are always at least 10 people everywhere you go that went to Fresno State, so when you wear something like that it’s a head-turner and everybody asks a lot of questions,” said safety Shannon Edwards, who is from Bakersfield and went to Ridgeview High before Fresno State.
“It means a lot, not only to me, but to everybody in the community.”
The Bulldogs in 2012 went 9-4 in the first season under coach Tim DeRuyter, with a roster loaded with talent recruited by Pat Hill, who was let go after a 4-9 season when second on the school’s all-time coaching victories list. Derek Carr was the quarterback. Running back Robbie Rouse that season became the Bulldogs’ all-time leading rusher. Safety Phillip Thomas led the nation with eight interceptions and was the first unanimous All-American in school history and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award.
“The crazy part about that year is a lot of people actually wanted to leave, transfer out and go someplace else,” Helepiko said. “We had a players’ meeting (after the coaching change) where we just said, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together. If you want to leave, go ahead and leave. But if you stay, we’re going to work toward building something here’ and from that point on we were just grinding.”
In 2012, Fresno State, San Diego State and Boise State all finished 7-1 in conference play and as co-champions; the Mountain West didn’t hold a championship game until the following season.
It would have been the Bulldogs and Boise State, as it will be on Saturday at Albertsons Stadium, as it was in 2014 and 2017.
In 2013, it was Fresno State and Utah State, and for the Bulldogs it was a season full of super-sized plays and epic games starting with the opener against Rutgers, a 52-51 overtime win in which there were 10 lead changes and the score was tied three times.
“Shout out to Greg Watson,” running back Malqiue Micenheimer said.
The Bulldogs trailed by a touchdown with 1:18 to go, but Carr led a drive to tie the score with 38 seconds to go and then in overtime found Watson in an exploitable one-on-one matchup with a linebacker and lofted a perfect 25-yard scoring pass. Even then, they weren’t home until Rutgers attempted a 2-point conversion after answering the Bulldogs’ score, the Scarlet Knights’ pass and shot at a win ending in failure.
Fresno State two games later beat rival Boise State 41-40, securing the victory when Norton broke up a fourth-down pass at the Fresno State 40-yard line with 56 seconds to go.
The Bulldogs escaped San Diego State with a 35-28 overtime win when 6-foot-6 tight end Marcel Jensen, who was not normally on the field goal block team, used his length and wingspan to block a field goal at the end of regulation that would have put an end to a Fresno State winning streak at six games to start the season.
“We raised everybody’s heart rate,” Ellis said.
The Bulldogs put up 61 points in a victory at Idaho with Carr throwing five touchdown passes, three to Davante Adams. They topped that with 69 points in a victory over New Mexico with Carr throwing seven touchdown passes, four to Adams.
Even the loss that broke the Bulldogs’ winning streak tested the bounds of imagination: 62-52, at San Jose State. Carr passed for 519 yards and six touchdowns, but the Spartans’ David Fales threw for 547 yards and six scores. There were 1,382 yards of offense, the Bulldogs averaging 9.6 yards per play and the Spartans 8.1.
What stands out, five years later?
“All of them stand out,” said Jones, who in the 2013 conference championship game clinched the Bulldogs’ 24-17 victory over Utah State with an interception at the Bulldogs 17-yard line with 44 seconds remaining and the Aggies driving toward a tying score.
“It was the atmosphere — we got spoiled that year with having 40,000 people at every single game. It was special,” Edwards said.
“So many memories,” Norton said.
Coach Jeff Tedford and the Bulldogs have a chance to make a few more in the Mountain West championship game at Boise State, and no doubt will stir up more.
The players from 2012 and ‘13 are only five and six years removed from Fresno State, and many of them shared the field with players on this year’s team.
“I’m really proud of this team, proud of the young guys because I played with a lot of them when they were freshmen – James (Bailey), Jamire (Jordan), George (Helmuth),” said outside linebacker Ejiro Ederaine, who in 2013 led the Bulldogs with 10 sacks.
“I’m so proud of Georgie. Man, I remember when George got there, he was a walk-on, but he had the work ethic. He always had the work ethic. I remember Jared Rice. I was like, ‘Yo, this dude is mad skinny, but boy is he fast.’ It’s just crazy to see them grow into these guys. It’s really fun to watch.”
A lot of the Bulldogs from those championship teams got together this season for the game against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, tailgated before the game, cheered during it.
When they get together, always, the rings come out.
“It’s showing off this beautiful thing that we worked extremely hard for,” said linebacker Jeff Camilli, who as a true freshman played in seven games during the 2013 championship season.
“It brings so many memories back,” Norton said.
Some of the players gave their rings to their parents — for safekeeping, to wear, to say thanks..
“My dad wears them more than I do,” said defensive lineman Nikko Motta, from Sanger. “He likes rocking them. Everywhere he goes he’s like, ‘My son played for Fresno State, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. ... ’
“It’s like, ‘Dad, it has been a couple of years now, you’ve got to let that go.’ But he doesn’t care. He wears them very proudly.”
Ederaine passed his rings up in his family after he graduated. “I had to sport them for a little bit, but after I moved out of Fresno I gave them to my parents,” he said. “I know that’s one safe spot. I know they’re not about to lose them.”
Micenheimer gave one to his mom and one to his dad.
“I don’t actually have them, but it’s something that I will carry with me forever,” he said, “and I look forward to watching generations of Bulldogs to come make that quest to accomplish the same thing.”