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Fernando Mendoza: From Columbus QB to Power Five QB

by Eddie Lopez

Source: Fernando Mendoza's Instagram (@fernando.mend0za)

Nov. 25, 2023 marked the last Pac-12 regular season game in a game between the UCLA Bruins and the Cal Berkeley Bears in which the Bears won 33-7. 

The leader of the Bears offense? Columbus’ own Fernando Mendoza class of 2021.

Fernando poses with his father and brother. Source: Adelante Staff

Fernando’s journey in football started in South Miami when his parents put him in sports early on. His parents, former athletes, put him in various sports to keep him active. Fernando's mother played tennis at Cornell University and his father rowed crew at Brown University. His love of football started in elementary when he joined the South Miami Grey Ghosts.

"What I was really attracted to in football was the element of team sport," he said.

Fernando initially didn't like the idea of being a quarterback. but his mom preferred him to play the position due to the lower likelihood of collisions and injuries. However, one professional athlete changed his opinion on the position.

"After watching Tom Brady in the 2011 Super Bowl...and saw the note of influence he had on the team," he said. "He was essentially the game manager. He was very intelligent out there. He knew what he was doing and how he commanded [the team]. I was naturally attracted to the game of football already [after watching him] and I was like, 'Hell yeah, I want to be the quarterback.' I see Tom Brady; that’s the guy I want to be."
Fernando poses with his teammates after the 2019 state championship win. Source: Fernando Mendoza's Instagram (@fernando.mend0za)

Fernando was a part of the 2019 state championship team in his sophomore year in Columbus. What he took away from that year is the grind of the football season and the experience he gained from it. That year, he came in as the third-string quarterback and had a sit-down talk with Columbus Head Coach Dave Dunn, whom Fernando has a good relationship with. Although the expectation was that Fernando wasn't going to play, he had the opportunity to start five games due to injuries.

"It was a very special moment for me because that’s where I really gained confidence in my game and I knew I could play high school football and football at a higher level," he said.

Fernando believes his experience at Columbus was pivotal in his growth as a man and gave him his first sense of brotherhood.

"Columbus is a pinnacle high school experience, whether it’s socially through school activities or athletic wise, it made me the man who I am today... there were always people reaching out supporting and it was more of a community, not just a friend group. Your whole entire class at Columbus is truly a brotherhood and going to Columbus I was able to see firsthand what a brotherhood really is like and I can’t thank Columbus enough for my time there; it was an experience that can be compared to no other."

Despite being a part of the 2019 state championship team, his favorite Columbus football memory came in his junior year when the team battled through adversity to become Tri-County champions in 2021 in a final against Deerfield Beach, and one play in particular that he believes changed his football career. To note, there was no state tournament that year due to COVID-19.

"We battled through a lot of adversity with the pandemic and especially in the tri-county championship game. We were up late in the game and I threw a pick six to give Deerfield Beach the lead. I really believe that it was the defining moment of my football career because I could have crawled under a rock and put my tail between my legs but I trusted myself, my teammates, and God, and we were able to do go down and throw a game winning touchdown that I threw to my best friend Chris Gibert."

His senior year, Fernando had to choose to further his career at Yale, or Cal. What helped him make the decision was his family and Cal's overall football history.

“I believe that my family and prayer helped me make both of those decisions. I was committed to Yale and it’s a great school academically but it's not a top tier football school. Late in my recruitment around December, I was given the opportunity to come to Cal. At that moment I knew that coming to Cal would increase my chances of my end goal which is to reach the NFL."
Source: Fernando Mendoza's Instagram (@fernando.mend0za)

The biggest change from high school to power five football, according to Fernando, is the physicality of the game. Still, he thinks playing for Columbus and in a football hotbed like Miami/the state of Florida, he was able to adapt quickly. He remembers one throw he thought he made late in a game against top 25 ranked Oregon State. He compared their speed to Deerfield Beach High School and complimented the team's talent and physicality. But, once he made that play, he knew he could play Division 1 College Football.

“We were able to put 40 points on them and at that point, I knew I could play college football at a high level as the speed translated from high school football from Columbus to the PAC-12, soon to be ACC," he said.

Fernando’s rise to starting QB wasn’t easy as the offensive coordinator who recruited him left and he now had to compete against new quarterbacks the school brought in. And, at the end of fall camp, he was made third-string quarterback. The thing that kept Fernando motivated and on track was a lesson from his football hero Tom Brady.

"Though I was 3rd string, there was a lesson I took from Tom Brady which was to always prepare as if you were going to be the starter because you don’t know when you’re gonna get your opportunity and you want to capitalize on it. I knew whether it was this year or next year, I was going to capitalize on it," he said.
Source: Fernando Mendoza's Instagram (@fernando.mend0za)

Fernando understands that all the attention and coverage he has gotten can quickly leave. Something that keeps him grounded is his mentality and his love for the game.

"At the end of the day as a quarterback of a power five team you’re essentially a CEO of a multimillion dollar business. I always keep in mind how many jobs are on the line. At the end of the day, it's not only about you. It's about your teammates and that’s what attracted me to football in the first place. You have to be a leader and care about your teammates.”

Playing quarterback at Cal Berkeley, Fernando not only joined a conference in the PAC-12 historically deemed the "conference of quarterbacks" for their ability to produce NFL quarterbacks, but he also joined a great lineage of Cal quarterbacks such as Aaron Rogers and Jared Goff.

"Having that guidance and seeing that lineage makes you believe that you can do it," he said. "And belief and confidence are the two most important things for a quarterback. So seeing Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers and many other great quarterbacks come from Cal is very important to me."

Fernando has a lot to be proud of this season, with becoming the starter and leading Cal to their first bowl game since 2019, but his proudest moment of the season was beating UCLA for a bowl berth at the historical Rose Bowl stadium.

The team entered the game with a 5-6 record so a win would get them a bowl and a loss would have ended their season.

“Playing in that historic stadium, and essentially playing for a playoff berth was a really big deal and we ended up coming out and killing our rival,” he added.
Fernando Mendoza being introduced at the Senior Game. Source: Adelante Staff

Fernando joins Explorer alumni Brian Griese, Mike Shula, Chris Masson and Tucker Beirne as the only Division 1 quarterbacks in Columbus history. Soon, his younger brother, Alberto will join that list. Alberto signed his commitment to Indiana University on Dec. 2o, 2023.

Despite the spotlight and opportunity, Fernando always remembers to keep the Columbus brotherhood on his mind.

"One thing I will say is Columbus is the best choice you could make. Everyday I try to make my Explorers proud, C-pride.”

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