Turn on the TV and you might see an Aggie playing professional sports, including these 10 UC Davis alumni. See if you recognize their names.
They join a select few student-athletes at UC Davis who over the past century have turned their sports into careers.
Kermit Schmidt was perhaps the first, having played two seasons in the National Football League during the early 1930s. Other alumni in pro sports included quarterback Ken O’Brien, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in the 1980s, and former swimmer Dave Scott, who dominated the Ironman Triathlon world championships during that same era.
In fact, former Aggies have competed on an organized, professional basis in many sports, including football, volleyball, soccer, water polo, basketball, swimming, baseball, softball, wrestling and golf.
While dozens of UC Davis alumni play professional sports, both overseas and in this country’s minor leagues, the following alumni bring particular pride and prestige to this university. We celebrate their playing careers while wishing the best to all Aggies pursuing dreams of pro sports glory.
Colton Schmidt ’13
Punter, Buffalo Bills, National Football League
A three-time all-conference honoree and the school record-holder for punting average in both a season and career, the Bakersfield, California, native was a picture of persistence in pursuing his NFL career. Schmidt twice signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a free agent and was cut each time in favor of veteran Andy Lee.
The Buffalo Bills claimed Schmidt off waivers prior to 2014, making him the first Aggie specialist to play in the league since Rolf Benirschke kicked for the San Diego Chargers from 1977 to ’86. This season, the Bills’ acquisition has paid off even further: Schmidt ranks seventh in the NFL in gross average (47.8), and tied for fifth in net average (43.0).
The Bills’ 2015 season has been a disappointment thus far, which means Schmidt’s role takes on increasing importance. The punter plays more if the offense fails to advance the ball. As Buffalo News reporter Jay Skurski wrote in his midseason report on Nov. 2, “There’s good news and bad news when it comes to Schmidt. The bad news is he has been the Bills’ best player at times.”
Fun fact: Former New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan famously wore a tattoo depicting his wife in quarterback Mark Sanchez’s No. 6 jersey. When Ryan took the helm of the Bills, he changed the tattoo from green to blue to reflect his new team. Who wears No. 6 for Buffalo? You guessed it — our favorite UC Davis alum-turned-NFL punter.
Urijah Faber ’03
Bantamweight fighter, Ultimate Fighting Championship
After setting UC Davis Division I-era wrestling records for victories in a season (30) and career (92), two-time NCAA qualifier Faber began his career in mixed martial arts while still volunteering on the Aggie coaching staff.
Originally from Lincoln, California, Faber has been one of the most popular and successful fighters on the MMA scene. He captured the bantamweight titles under the auspices of the Gladiator Challenge and King of the Cage, then won the World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight title on a TKO of Cole Escovedo in March 2006. Faber defended that WEC belt for more than two years before losing to Mike Brown in only his second professional setback. The WEC later merged with the promotional giant Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2010.
In addition to his fighting career, Faber founded the Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male early in his career. MMA Coach of the Year of 2013, Duane Ludwig, and current UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw came from that same crew.
Fun fact: Urijah Faber made one of the many celebrity appearances in Pharrell’s 24-hour video marathon of his bouncy pop hit Happy. You can find Faber with his sister, Michaella, in the 8 a.m. portion of the video (roll to the 36-minute mark).
Kim Conley ’09
Professional distance runner
The wire photo of Conley's astonished look following the 2012 Olympic trials 5,000-meter race graced newspapers and websites across the country after her win. Her third-place finish at the trials earned her a spot at the Summer Games in London that year, and further vaulted the NorCal Distance Project into the forefront. Founded by Conley and five-time Big West Conference Coach of the Year Drew Wartenburg, the NorCal Distance Project consists of seven pro runners — including UC Davis alums Conley, Lauren Wallace ’13 and Alycia Cridebring ’14 — looking to represent the U.S. on an international stage.
Since her Olympics experience, Conley captured national titles at the 2014 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships (10,000 meters) and the 2015 Half Marathon Championship but suffered from an injury-plagued 2015 season. Nonetheless, she posted a winning time of 31:58.54 at the Pacific Pursuit, hitting the 10K qualifying standard for the 2016 Olympic trials. Recently, Conley successfully defended her mile title at the New Balance Games in New York on Jan. 21, 2016.
The 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field is set for July 1-10 at University of Oregon's Hayward Field.
Fun fact: Kim Conley provides insights into her training in a blog called The Blueprint on her website.
Infielder, Colorado Rockies, Major League Baseball
A first-team All-Region pick in his final Aggie season of 2007, Descalso made history five years ago when he became the first UC Davis position player to reach the major leagues as a September call-up to the St. Louis Cardinals. His MLB debut came three years after being selected in the third round of the June draft — then the highest pick in Aggie history.
Descalso’s fall stint in 2010 and subsequent spring training performance earned him a spot on the Cards’ 25-man roster for 2011, a season that culminated with the team winning its 11th World Series title. The San Carlos, California, resident played a significant role in that championship, as he sparked St. Louis’ 10th-inning comeback rally in game 6.
After four full seasons with the Cardinals, Descalso signed a two-year, $3.6 million deal with Colorado heading into the 2015 season. He hit .205 in 101 games, contributing at five different positions for the Rockies. Descalso is only the second former Aggie to play in the major leagues, following Steve Brown, who pitched for the California (now the Los Angeles) Angels in the early 1980s.
Fun fact: Descalso competed in the “Old Skool Baseball Card Tourney” on Fox Sports Midwest, along with teammates Matt Holliday, David Freese, Jason Motte, Jon Jay and Mitchell Boggs; as well as coaches Mike Aldrete and Mark McGwire. (McGwire, incidentally, was one of Descalso’s childhood baseball heroes.)
Demi Runas ’13
Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour
One of the brightest of our many stars in UC Davis women’s golf, Runas won three straight Big West Conference Player of the Year awards, became the second All-American in program history, and the first golfer to win the Heitman Award as the school’s outstanding female athlete of the year.
After graduating in 2013, the Torrance, California, native played on the Cactus Tour, then made the 2014 LPGA Symetra Tour, a developmental program formerly known as the LPGA Futures Tour. In the Symetra Tour’s year-end championship, Runas battled a nasty bug bite. It swelled her ankle so badly that the emergency room doctor advised she sit out. But Runas ignored the advice and carded a 7-under 65 in the final round. That performance vaulted her from No. 15 to No. 10 in the tour’s final rankings, thus qualifying her for the LPGA Tour in 2015.
Runas finished in the money in four events during her rookie year, including a season-best tied for 54th at the JTBC Founders Cup. She is just the second Aggie golfer, male or female, to reach the sport’s highest tour. Scott Gordon made two cuts on the PGA Tour in 2011.
Fun fact: A full year before her storybook performance at the 2014 Symetra Tour Championship, Runas garnered national attention when Golf magazine selected her for its Most Beautiful Women in Golf list, headlined by TV host Holly Sonders, player/model Blair O’Neal and LPGA veteran Natalie Gulbis.
Lauren Wallace ’12
Professional distance runner
This 2008 All-American in the 800 meters captured national titles at both the USATF indoor and outdoor championships in that event in 2014. A year later, she won the 1,000 at the USATF meet in Boston last March, then hit the Olympic trials ‘A’ qualifying standard at the USATF outdoor meet that summer. Arguably as much an underdog in that indoor 1,000-meters race as Conley was at the 2012 Olympic trials, Wallace reacted to her win with similar surprise.
Fun fact: Sponsored by Oiselle, a manufacturer of women’s competition wear, Wallace has apparel named after her. The Wallace Jacket is “small but mighty” and weather-resistant.
Forward, San Jose Earthquakes, Major League Soccer
UC Davis men’s soccer advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of its first two years of eligibility, thanks in large part to its speedy forward, Amarikwa. Exactly one month after earning second-team All-America accolades, the student from Bakersfield became the first Aggie selected in the MLS SuperDraft when San Jose nabbed him in the third round.
Amarikwa played for San Jose in 2009, then for the Colorado Rapids from 2010 to 2012, before joining the Chicago Fire in 2013. In his second season in the Windy City, Amarikwa’s star began to rise: He started 29 games, led the Fire with eight goals and five assists, then added two more goals in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The Aggie alumnus rejoined the Earthquakes after a midseason trade in 2015. Since returning to his home state, he has started all 17 games and scored six goals. Coincidentally, Amarikwa’s arrival with San Jose united him with Adam Jahn, a former Stanford star and son of UC Davis’ longtime swim coach, Barbara Jahn.
Fun fact: With arguably the largest social media presence of the Aggies on this list, Amarikwa hosted a video series known as #QuincyTime during his stint with the Chicago Fire. Most videos consisted of the former UC Davis star taking on challenges – ranging from Name That Tune to a spelling bee – including his most-watched video, in which he took on took on teammate and goalkeeper Sean Johnson in a penalty kick shootout.
Kaitlin Gregg Goodman ’10
Professional distance runner
This Aggie is competing separately from the NorCal Distance Project. The Strava Track Club and Team USA member has enjoyed a meteoric climb in distance running since barely missing a 10K berth at the 2012 Olympic trials. Goodman’s ninth-place 2:39.29 at the 2014 California International Marathon hit the qualifying standards for the 2016 trials. Throughout the 2015 season, she also hit personal bests both on the track and in road races, most notably a seventh-place showing at the USATF cross country championship.
Fun fact: Goodman offers training tips, recipes and lively stories from the road on her blog Running Joyfully.
Daniel Fells ’05
Tight end, New York Giants, National Football League
Fells knows a thing or two about second chances. After redshirting the 2001 season at UC Davis (which most first-year players did near the end of the program’s Division II era), he left school and returned to his home in Fullerton, California. Fells attended a community college until his grades allowed him to return to the Aggies. He won the team’s Palmer Moody award as the outstanding sophomore, later earned a nod as team captain and helped UC Davis to its historic upset of Stanford as a senior in 2005.
He wasn’t immediately drafted after college by the NFL but made the practice squads for two teams. Fells never saw regular-season action until he made the St. Louis roster in 2008. He played three years with the Rams, started 15 games during the “Tebowmania”-fueled 2011 season in Denver, then joined the all-star tight end crew of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in New England in 2012. With Gronkowski’s injuries and Hernandez’s criminal troubles looming in 2013, Fells seemed to be prime for an enhanced role in his sixth pro year. Instead, he was cut from the team.
Fells sat out that entire year but stayed in shape with hopes of returning. Shortly after its 2013 season ended, the New York Giants invited him for a tryout and subsequently signed him to the team. Fells played in all 16 games last year — the first two in 2015 before a well-publicized battle with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ended his season. The infection threatened to cost him his foot. After the Giants’ Oct. 11 win over San Francisco, head coach Tom Coughlin awarded the game ball to Fells. After three weeks and five surgeries, Fells returned home in a moment captured by his family on Instagram. An October 2015 news report said it was likely the athlete would keep the foot but had more surgeries in his future.
Fun fact: On Sept. 14, 2014, the New York Giants hosted the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium for their Week 2 matchup. Wearing No. 85 on the Giants was tight end Daniel Fells. Wearing No. 85 on the opposite sideline for the Cardinals was Darren Fells, Daniel’s younger brother. Darren had starred in basketball at UC Irvine and briefly played professionally in Europe but returned to football after talking to Daniel during a visit. Darren’s Cardinals pulled away to a 25-14 victory in the fourth quarter, but Daniel scored on a one-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning in the third.
Bakari Grant ’05
Wide receiver, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Canadian Football League
Many Aggie fans know Grant for the “Hail Bakari” play against Northern Colorado on Oct. 4, 2008. Surrounded by four defenders, the 6-foot-4-inch flanker from Oakland, California, leaped up to score a 38-yard touchdown with no time remaining to deliver the knockout blow in a 34-30 win.
While the UC Davis spotlight did not always shine on Grant — he played in a receiving corps that included greats Chris Carter and Brendan Rice — post-college accolades have made him a standout. After one season with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent, Grant headed north to the Canadian Football League to play for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Coincidentally, the quarterbacks coach of that team was none other than Aggie Hall of Famer Khari Jones, who had recently completed his stellar CFL career.
Grant is now wrapping up his fifth year with the Ti-Cats. He enjoyed his best season in 2013, during which he posted career highs of 69 receptions and 947 yards in helping Hamilton to the first of back-to-back Grey Cup appearances.
Fun fact: While the “Hail Bakari” play may be his greatest on-field accomplishment as an Aggie, the three-time All-Great West Conference honoree left another legacy for UC Davis Athletics. He and teammate Brandon Tucker launched an all-athlete art exhibit as part of the 2009 edition of the Aggie Idol charity talent show. That fall, Tucker transformed that exhibit into the inaugural Art of Athletes, starting a tradition that saw its sixth edition in February 2015.