Cal running back and rising senior Patrick Laird is known for more than just his walk-on career and impressive collection of awards. An avid reader since childhood, Laird isn’t afraid to flaunt his bibliophilia—on the football field and now, in the classroom. With the support of Cal Athletics, he’s using his platform as a standout football player to encourage younger students to pick up a book (or four, or six) this summer.
Between making classroom visits and training for the upcoming season, Laird found time to answer a few of our questions, which you can read below.
1. Reading is obviously a big part of your self-identity—to the point that you celebrate touchdowns by flipping pages of an imaginary book. When did this love of reading become your calling card?
I have always had a love for reading. It’s only been a part of my self-identity the last couple years I would say. I’ve always taken my academics seriously since I’ve been at Berkeley, so my teammates know me as a good student. I’ve also shown an interest in reading things outside of the classroom. So, it was during the 2016 season where my housemate Chad Hansen was scoring a lot and doing cool touchdown celebrations when the genesis of my celebration came about. My friends were going around the room coming up with personal celebrations when someone jokingly said, “Patrick would probably read a book if he scored a touchdown.” I kept that in the back of my mind and decided to run with it if I got the chance. I’m not ashamed of my love for reading, and I just thought it would be funny to see a football player do something like that.
2. You’ve launched a Summer Reading Challenge to encourage kids to read over the break. What was the origin of that project, and how’s it being received so far?
Before one of our games last season, a young fan was introduced to me who had made a custom #28 jersey (my number). It was in that moment that I realized that I had a larger platform to make a positive impact on kids who looked up to me. It was a surreal moment and something I won’t forget.
So, I came up with the idea to host a Summer Reading Challenge back in February. I knew I wanted to do something positive this summer, and reading and education are two things I’m passionate about. I researched the importance of reading over the summer months and learned about the negative effects of summer learning loss. I pitched it to the Cal Athletic Department and originally only asked for one or two tickets per student. They came back and said they would give away four per student!
It’s been well received. I’ve visited over 20 elementary schools, and I’m almost to 2,000 sign-ups and we’re about a week away from summer starting for most students (though sign-ups will be open all summer!).
3. What do you tell these young students about the importance of reading? And what would you say to someone who doesn’t like to read?
I usually just try to portray my passion for reading and then tell them about how important it is for their future academic success. The students hear it all the time from their teachers or their parents, so I try to come in and be a different, younger voice telling them that reading is important. I think for people who say they don’t enjoy reading, it’s usually that they haven’t found what they are interested in reading. I let students select the books that they read for my challenge, specifically for that reason. I tell the kids that they can read any book they want (preferably chapter books!) so that they can pick something they are interested in, and as a result, are more likely to read.
4. How many books do you expect to read this summer?
I have to complete my own challenge! I’m requiring students to read four to six books this summer (dependent on grade) and then fill out a summer reading journal that I send out after they sign up. The journal has slots for eight books so I plan to fill that.
5. People seem surprised to learn that a college football player reads as much as you do. Is that fair? Do your teammates and coaches share your love of literature?
Whenever I speak to elementary schools, I say something like, “You may be wondering why a college football player is here to talk about reading.” So I understand why people are surprised. It’s probably a fair generalization to say many college football players aren’t into reading as much as the average college student. But as in most things in life, it’s best to treat each person as an individual rather than the caricature of the group they belong to.
A lot of my teammates read some interesting stuff. Same with the coaches. Coach Wilcox is a well-read person. He always has book suggestions.
6. Speaking of literature, you’re not an English major. Why not?
My high school AP English teacher was very disappointed to hear I was planning on majoring in business rather than English in college. I’ve just always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and I love the competitive aspect of the business world.
7. Describe your reading diet. Is it mostly fiction or non-? Any particular genres? Do you also read magazines and newspapers?
I go through phases. I read Freakonomics in seventh grade, and for years after that most of the fiction I read was assigned in the classroom. I just fell in love with reading non-fiction, social science books. I like to learn when I read, and so I thought that those types of books were best. But now I’ve realized how much you can learn from a novel. The past few years I’ve opened it up to a lot more stuff. Now I sort of switch back and forth between fiction and non-fiction across many different genres.
I wish I read magazines more, like National Geographic and The Economist. I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal print edition for two years and read that almost every day but recently stopped. Now I read most of my news online. I’d like to go back to print at some point.
8. Football’s getting a lot of attention with respect to brain trauma and CTE. Do you worry about how playing the game may affect your own long-term neurological health?
I definitely worry about it. I think there are many ways people can rationalize the data that’s coming out to say it’s better now: safer helmets, different playing style than before, more protective rules, etc. In whatever way you look at it, it’s still a risk. I try to be a rational person in all parts of my life but I think my love of the game clouds the rationality I should have in considering my long-term health. It’s a weird thing; we all (or most) know the risk but continue to play anyways.
9. And the obvious follow-up: If you had a son, would you let him play football?
I think golf is a great sport. I hope he enjoys it.
10. Finally, if you could recommend one book, what would it be?
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. He lives in Berkeley during the summers, so I’m hoping to bump into him!