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Former five-star recruit Mique Juarez is slowly winding his way back into the fold at UCLA

Mique Juarez
Mique Juarez was a five-star recruit out of North Torrance High who signed at UCLA but redshirted his freshman season with what the university called “personal issues.” He is now attempting a return to football.
(David Wharton / Los Angeles Times)

The football stadium at his old high school lies pretty much empty in the gray drizzle of a Monday morning. A couple of runners slowly circle the track, then give up and leave.

Bundled in a sweatshirt and knit cap, Mique Juarez climbs into the bleachers and leans against a cold metal railing.

“Oh man,” he says. “I miss this place.”

The game was fun — still just a game — when Juarez played linebacker at North Torrance High. He loved nothing more than to pull on a helmet and hit someone. Football ran deep in his blood.

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That feels like a long time ago.

So much has changed since last summer, when Juarez entered training camp at UCLA as a top freshman recruit but lasted only a few days before walking away from the team.

The university issued a vague statement about an excused absence for “personal issues.” Coach Jim Mora said, “He’s getting the help he needs … and that’s all I can tell you about that.”

Even now, Juarez struggles to explain what happened, calling it a “mental breakdown” or, at other times, simply “the incident.”

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“I didn’t expect something like that to happen to me,” he says.

Rumors have swirled like storm clouds over the social media landscape with theories both sympathetic and derisive regarding the character of a 19-year-old from whom so much was expected.

Tugging at the blue-and-gold Bruins cap on his head, Juarez says, “Guess I just had to get away for a while. Figure things out.”

::

This isn’t one of those stories where a promising young athlete contracts a serious illness or runs afoul of the law. Juarez’s struggle is not painted in such bold or clearly defined strokes.

His uncles and cousins played football, so he grew up around the game. Todd Croce, the coach at North, was considered a family friend.

“Mique’s a football player,” Croce says. “It’s in his DNA, it’s what he is designed to do.”

If Juarez’s talents were obvious from a young age, so was his passion for the game. The young man had what coaches call “a motor,” racing tirelessly around the field.

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And when his team fell behind or officials made a dubious call, he could not help showing his displeasure. “Sometimes,” he says, “I let things get to me.”

It was odd because off the field the teenager was generally good-natured and apt to keep his feelings hidden.

Maybe no one fully understood the pressure he felt during his senior season as The Times named him its 2015 player of the year and he rose to the level of a five-star prospect, listed among the nation’s top outside linebackers by ESPN and others.

“All the attention it brought,” he says. “I didn’t know how to handle it.”

After initially committing to USC, Juarez leaned toward Alabama, then switched to UCLA, saying he wanted to play near family and friends. The decision brought relief, if only temporarily.

“The day I signed that letter,” he recalls, “it was like that night I caught up on all my sleep.”

Graduating from high school early, Juarez enrolled at UCLA in time to participate in last year’s spring practice.

It should not have been a surprise to discover that the college game was faster and more physical. Or that defensive schemes were more complex.

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Most freshmen face a jolt when they reach the next level. For Juarez, the seeds of doubt planted a little deeper.

::

His father always told him, “Never be average.”

Those words fueled Juarez through high school, where he excelled not only on defense but also at quarterback, passing for 23 touchdowns and rushing for 36 in his final season.

“He did everything he needed to get ready for college,” Croce says. “He looked ready to go.”

As the Bruins reported to summer camp in San Bernardino, there was talk of the freshman competing for a starting spot. The media mentioned him in the same sentence as a former Bruins star, the multi-talented Myles Jack.

“He fit athletically and ability-wise on the field,” Mora recalls. “But I think there was an inner struggle … not everyone matures at the same rate.”

Every missed tackle and blown assignment put a dent in Juarez’s confidence. Even the smallest mistakes consumed him.

Playing under a microscope did not help. In those first days, there were suggestions on social media that he was overrated, having feasted on mediocre opponents in high school.

“It was eating me up,” he says. “I felt like I had lost it, like I wasn’t good enough.”

This is where his story gets tricky, where some people have labeled him a quitter. Juarez acknowledges lacking the maturity to handle the situation and losing his hunger for the game.

Mora and linebacker coach Scott White realized they had a problem.

“There are a lot of pressures — self-imposed pressure, family pressure, the outside pressure of trying to live up to the hype,” Mora says. “Part of our job is to recognize that everybody reacts differently and grows differently.”

Not that football looks kindly upon players walking away but, with the coaches’ blessing, Juarez quietly left camp.

::

The Bruins opened last season ranked in the top 25, with hopes of maybe even reaching the Rose Bowl. Their new linebacker should have been part of the excitement, traveling with the team to Texas A&M for the opener.

Instead, Juarez stayed home. News reports suggested that he might return within a week or two, but that didn’t happen.

Senior defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley took to Twitter, writing of Juarez, “If you not at UCLA grinding everyday with yo bros going to practices, lifts, meetings etc. How [abbreviated expletive] are u a brother.”

Though Juarez snapped back with an angry reply, he felt lost.

“Since I was a kid, there was nothing but school and football,” he says. “I couldn’t see anything ahead of me in life.”

Mora encouraged him to attend classes when the fall quarter began, which he did. UCLA also provided counseling to help him deal with his emotions. Back at North, his former coach had another suggestion.

“We just kept in touch and I let him know we were always available,” Croce says. “He’s a guy you want around.”

Juarez began showing up to run on the field and lift in the weight room. It was no big deal, just something to do, but muscle memory began to take hold.

The harder he worked, the better it felt. Again, he struggles to describe this epiphany — he suggests that it arrived gradually, in multiples of wind sprints and shoulder presses.

“I remembered something,” he says. “I was born to do this. I couldn’t just throw it away.”

UCLA, headed for a 4-8 record, could have used help but the coaches resisted pressuring Juarez, merely reminding him that he was welcome any time.

Only after the season ended, at the start of winter, did Mora notice a change.

“The tone he projected in his voice and the enthusiasm in his words,” the coach says. “It gave me an indication that he had moved to a point where he could come back and be happy and be motivated.”

::

A season away from football had taught Juarez hard lessons. Or, at least, begun to teach him.

The young man says he needed to grow up. That involved learning to deal with challenges; learning to rely on people close to him, the ones he could trust.

“I have to talk about whatever I’m going through,” he says. “Don’t just walk away.”

When word spread that he wanted to give football another try, he says that Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen sent him a friendly text. Juarez hoped his return “wouldn’t be too awkward.”

These last few weeks, he has begun attending off-season workouts with the team. Not that his detractors will be so quickly won over.

The ones who branded Juarez a bust last fall, calling him immature and overrated, might resist giving him a second chance. Mora asks them to view the situation from another angle.

“I have tremendous respect for a young man facing his issues and not being afraid to get help,” the coach says. “Where others might see weakness, I think he has shown strength.”

If some fans still doubt him, Juarez is fine with that.

The sky over North Torrance has darkened, a harder rain starting to fall, as he walks down the bleacher steps to head for home. For the first time in a while, he feels optimistic.

“People may be skeptical,” he says. “I’ll just have to show them why I came back.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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