Over winter break, 6-foot-5, 275-pound offensive lineman Baraka Beckett of Palisades traveled to Kenya to visit his grandmother. He stopped by the giraffe center in Nairobi and found himself looking up for the first time in many years while sticking out his hand to offer food pellets to his giant friends.
"They're so tall it's absurd," he said. "I felt like a child again."
It's been a whirlwind of changing dreams and changing plans for Beckett, who's scheduled to sign a letter of intent with UCLA on Feb. 7. He had committed to Hawaii but decided not to sign in December.
Changes in college staffs have created intrigue, indecision and vacillation on both sides for many players from the high school class of 2018.
Beckett had always wanted to play in the Pac-12 Conference. Before Chip Kelly became coach at UCLA, the Bruins were hardly recruiting him.
"It was a perfect storm," Palisades coach Tim Hyde said. "The Cal line coach loved him at a camp but never offered him. The first guy Chip Kelly hired was Jerry Azzinaro, the Cal defensive line coach. They called and said they wanted to talk to Baraka."
Beckett decided he didn't want to go to Hawaii if there really was a chance he could attend UCLA. His father attended Duke, and his mother attended Harvard. He dreamed of going to college in Westwood.
"I didn't know if UCLA was really interested," he said.
It turned out the Bruins really wanted him.
"The biggest thing with Baraka is that word potential," Hyde said. "The kid has a tremendous upside."
Beckett played for three years at L.A. Windward before transferring to Palisades when Windward dropped to eight-man football.
"It was the best thing to happen to him," Hyde said. "It was like night and day to where he was."
The tougher competition helped Beckett, a two-star recruit, focus on getting better.
"I want to come in with my feet running and do something to make a mark," he said. "My whole thing is you only get to go to one college, and it's all about what you do. Stars don't matter."
This could be UCLA's chance to make amends. Palisades is the school that produced the Schwartz brothers, Geoff and Mitchell, standout offensive linemen who had UCLA ties. The Bruins contacted Geoff during the Karl Dorrell era, but five days later, his scholarship offer was rescinded.
Geoff declined to immediately accept an offer because there were other schools he wanted to consider. There were bad feelings on both sides. So the Schwartz brothers never made it to Westwood. Geoff played at Oregon and Mitchell played for Cal. Each became starters in the NFL.
Now Beckett will get his chance to be the Bruins' Palisades connection.
His goal each year is "to improve significantly." That's how you become a standout at the next level.