Sonoma County’s Field of Dreams
Under Friday night lights at the high school football field or roaming the outfield on a hot summer day. In the early morning chill of the Ridgway Swim Center or the fading light of afternoon on a rock formation at the Sonoma Coast.
Sonoma County has all kinds of fields on which athletes pursue their dreams. And some of those dreamers, with luck and skill and hard work and perseverance, have awoken to find themselves at the top of their sport.
Here are a few of their stories.
Brandon John Morrow was born in Santa Rosa in 1984 and attended Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, where he excelled on the pitching mound. As a senior he was 9-2 with a 0.61 ERA and had 84 strikeouts in 63 innings. He earned first-team all-league, first-team All-Redwood Empire, first-team All-North Coast Section and second-team all-state honors. At UC Berkeley he was an All-Pac 10 player and emerged as a top pro prospect out of the Cape Cod League. He joined the Seattle Mariners minor league organization in 2006, and made his Major League debut in 2007 against the Oakland A’s, pitching one scoreless inning. He made his first big-league start in September 2008 against the NY Yankees, and pitched seven no-hit innings and won the game. He played for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2010-2014, and then the San Diego Padres. After injuries threatened to end his career, he was picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers in early 2017, and has been a key part of their bullpen.
Jenna Leigh Johnson was born in Santa Rosa and began her swimming career at Ursuline High School and with the Santa Rosa Neptunes. She moved to Southern California to concentrate on swimming, and in 1984 set national records in the butterfly and freestyle. As a 16-year-old at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, she won three medals: a gold in the women's 4×100-meter freestyle relay, a gold in the 4×100-meter medley relay and a silver in the 100-meter butterfly. She continued her dominance in the pool at Stanford University.
Jerry Dewayne Robinson was a standout athlete for the Cardinal Newman High School football team in the mid-1970s, and just kept getting better as he moved up the football ranks. At Newman, he played any position well, whether on the defensive line or lined up at wide receiver. Recruited to UCLA as a tight end, he was converted to linebacker by Coach Dick Vermeil. An All-American in 1976, 1977 and 1978, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996. Robinson was taken in the first round of the 1979 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was part of the team that won Super Bowl XV. He played for 13 years, including for the Los Angeles Raiders from 1985-1991.
Every kid likes to climb, but Kevin Jorgeson became good enough to make it his career. Born in Santa Rosa in 1984, he began learning the ropes at Vertex Climbing Center when he was 11. By age 16 he was competing in international climbing contests. In late 2014, he and his partner Tommy Caldwell became the most famous climbers in America with their high-risk, high-profile ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. With the eyes of the climbing world on them — and many of the rest of us, too, through the New York Times, National Geographic and other mass media outlets — the two men free-climbed the 3,000-foot wall in a daring ascent between Dec. 28, 2014 and Jan. 14, 2015. The Dawn Wall is considered the one of the most difficult in the world, and their feat brought accolades from around the globe to Jorgeson and Caldwell.
Madeline Jane DiRado was born in San Francisco, but by age 6 was swimming with the Santa Rosa Neptunes. At Maria Carrillo High School, she was a three-time state champ in the 200-meter individual medley. She was a standout swimmer at Stanford University and was named Pac 12 Swimmer of the Year in her senior season, but then failed to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. In 2016, though, she emerged as an Olympic star, winning two gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Melvin Dean Gray wasn’t big, but he was very, very fast. As a 5-9, sprinter at Montgomery High School, he ran the 100-yard-dash in 9.4 seconds in the 1967 California state high school meet — a national record at the time. He won a football scholarship to the University of Missouri, and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth round of the 1971 NFL draft. A wide receiver, he was named to the Pro Bowl four straight years (1974-1977) and caught passes in 121 consecutive games from 1973-1982.
Ernest Alonzo Nevers already was a good teen-age athlete when his family moved from Minnesota to Santa Rosa. But at Santa Rosa High School, he became a football star. In 1920, his senior year, he led SRHS to the North Coast championship. He went on to play for Santa Rosa Junior College. At Stanford University, he was an All-American fullback who led the Cardinal past Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl. He was the first Stanford football great to have his jersey (No. 1) retired, followed much later by Jim Plunkett (No. 16) and John Elway (No. 7). Nevers also excelled in the National Football League for the Chicago Cardinals. On Nov. 28, 1929, he scored six touchdowns and kicked four extra points against the Chicago Bears, becoming the only NFL player ever to score 40 points in a game. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The football field at Santa Rosa High is known as Ernie Nevers Field.