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Broken wrist? Minor role? Big tuition bill? None of it can stop this Gutty Little Bruin

UCLA wide receiver Ethan Fernea (36) runs the ball during the first half.
UCLA wide receiver Ethan Fernea runs the ball against Stanford during a game in December. Fernea’s perseverance allowed him to make the Bruins. Now, he’s looking to accomplish one last big feat with the Bruins.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The last man standing never goes down easily.

Not after outlasting every other member of UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class.

Not after going from a walk-on confined to special teams to part of the running backs rotation.

Not after paying the hefty out-of-state tuition his first three seasons, getting a job parking cars to help cover rent.

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Not after winning a scholarship only months after being sidelined by a broken leg.

Not after persevering through five consecutive losing seasons, sticking around to see if the sixth time’s the charm.

UConn has hired former UCLA coach Jim Mora to lead the Huskies.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop Ethan Fernea from being part of a Bruins breakthrough.

That broken bone in his wrist he suffered in late September? No biggie.

Fernea had surgery, placed the wrist in a cast and was back after missing only one game.

He’ll be easy to spot Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Just look for the special teams dynamo charging down the field with a wrap on his hand and a furor in his step when the Bruins (5-4, 3-3 Pac-12) face Colorado (3-6, 2-4) in a game that could make them bowl eligible for the first time since Fernea’s arrival.

“He’s one of those guys that when you talk about savoring every moment that you get, whether it’s on the practice field or in a game,” UCLA coach Chip Kelly said, “it’s reality when you see how Ethan’s gone through everything.”

His perseverance is even more remarkable given his backstory. Fernea was so lightly regarded coming out of Dripping Springs (Texas) High, his picture on the 247Sports site showing UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class is a generic graphic of a shadowy, faceless football player.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson benefited from a bye week, using the time to recover from a thumb injury that forced him to miss the Utah game.

Air Force offered a scholarship, but Fernea wanted to play at a higher level and was able to do so thanks to a chance encounter over the Christmas holidays in 2015. His father and uncle were visiting a friend who was the father of Robbie Paton, part of then-UCLA coach Jim Mora’s recruiting staff, when they showed the friend video highlights of Ethan’s high school games.

The footage made its way to Paton and Fernea was offered a spot as a preferred walk-on. He showed up for the first day of training camp in 2016 having met only Paton and DeShaun Foster, who was UCLA’s director of player development before spending the 2016 season as Texas Tech’s running backs coach, only to return to his alma mater the next year.

Those summer days could be a grind, Fernea rising for 5:45 a.m. workouts before heading to Gladstones in Santa Monica to park cars as part of a valet job that helped him cover rent while his parents paid the out-of-state tuition of about $40,000 a year.

Buried on the depth chart at receiver, Fernea realized he would have to dazzle on special teams to get playing time. So he became simultaneously despised and respected because of his relentlessness during a portion of practice that others didn’t treat with the same reverence.

“You’ve got this little walk-on that no one knows and he’s trying super hard and definitely I can see why I was a little annoying,” Fernea said, “but I figured I needed to do anything I could to try to get on the field.”

A ferocious hit on kickoff coverage against California in 2018 impressed Kelly, and Fernea figured he might be in position to land a scholarship before the next season when he broke his leg in spring practice. He returned for fall training camp and was awarded Nick Pasquale’s No. 36 as a tribute to the late player universally hailed for being a great teammate.

UCLA running back Ethan Fernea is tackled by Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau.
UCLA running back Ethan Fernea is tackled by Hawaii linebacker Darius Muasau (53) during the Bruins’ season-opening win in August.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“He exemplifies everything it means to be a Bruin, that toughness to get injured and come back because he loves to play and he loves the game and he loves being out here with us.”

— Jon Gaines II, UCLA offensive lineman

But the clock was ticking. Fernea knew if he wasn’t given a scholarship before the season opener that he was unlikely to get one. He called his father after the final training camp practice, his voice fraught with disappointment.

“I was like, ‘I’m sorry I don’t have good news,’ ” Fernea said. “It definitely seemed a little out of reach at that point.”

The next day, Kelly called Fernea down to the front of a meeting room to dismiss the team as part of a ritual. Before Fernea sent his teammates on their way, Kelly announced he was on full scholarship. The room erupted in cheers. Tight end Matt Lynch nearly tackled Fernea in excitement.

The celebration carried over to an animated phone call with his parents.

“It fills you up with confidence and kind of makes all the work that you put in, it made it worth it for me for sure,” Fernea said of being put on scholarship.

Mostly used as a blocking receiver playing in the shadows, Fernea found himself shown on the video board at the Rose Bowl midway through the 2019 season. A pass play designed to go to Chase Cota went to Fernea instead, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson connecting with him for a 45-yard touchdown.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly has some hefty bonuses in his contract that depend on the number of wins the Bruins compile and whether they qualify for a bowl.

“I wasn’t being used too much in the pass game,” Fernea said, “so it was kind of a surprise to me, honestly.”

Fernea moved back into the spotlight a year later when he caught a 33-yard touchdown pass against USC. He was switched to running back before this season in a move designed to give the team a skilled pass catcher in the backfield.

A sturdy 6 feet and 195 pounds, Fernea carried the ball five times for 19 yards early this season while continuing to play on special teams. While trying to down a punt at the one-yard line against Stanford, he planted his wrist awkwardly on the turf, breaking the scaphoid bone.

The same injury couldn’t prevent Fernea from completing his final high school season, but there was a difference this time: He was going to need surgery.

“I thought my season was over,” said Fernea, who had returned for a sixth season allowed because of the pandemic to sustain his dream of playing in the NFL. “You can imagine how bummed I was.”

His spirits lifted at his next doctor’s visit when the surgeon informed him that he could play with the cast and a protective covering. Fernea’s return early last month provided his teammates with an immediate jolt, helping them win back-to-back games against Arizona and Washington.

UCLA coach Chip Kelly said defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro has the right to refuse to speak to reporters about the Bruins’ struggling defense.

“He exemplifies everything it means to be a Bruin,” offensive lineman Jon Gaines II said, “that toughness to get injured and come back because he loves to play and he loves the game and he loves being out here with us.”

His injury reduced his role exclusively to special teams, but Fernea could contribute on offense Saturday after tinkering with a less restrictive wrap that allows better use of his fingers.

The cast is scheduled to come off in three weeks, meaning Fernea would have no restrictions in a bowl game. A strong finish to his final college season would allow him to supplant UCLA’s epic comeback victory over Texas A&M in 2017 as his favorite memory as a Bruin.

“Hopefully in five weeks,” Fernea said, “I’ll say something different and talk about winning a bowl game and beating USC my senior year and stuff like that. Fortunately, it’s not over.”

With this guy, it seemingly never is.


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