Five days after the Rose Bowl, still nursing a sore heel sustained in that game, Farmer showed up at volleyball practice. Through Sunday, he had started all 23 of UCLA's matches this season and led the Bruins with a .433 hitting percentage. UCLA, healthy again, has rebounded from its midseason slide to amass a 17-6 record and will be among the favorites to win the NCAA title in early May at Pauley. Farmer will continue to attend some football workouts—"I feel like I should be there," he says—but will skip most of spring practice because it takes place during the stretch run of the volleyball season, and the practices overlap volleyball workouts.
Football and volleyball is an odd double. Scates has been UCLA's coach for 37 years and only once before had a football player on his team. That was in 1965. Farmer not only doesn't think it's an oddity but also sometimes merges the two sports. In the first quarter of UCLA's 34-17 victory over USC last November, Farmer used his 38-inch vertical leap to take a ball from 5'11" cornerback Daylon McCutcheon. As they fell, McCutcheon pinned Farmer's elbows to his side, loosening the ball. Farmer awkwardly put his fists together and punched the ball back toward his chest, where he cradled it as he landed, completing a 42-yard gain. Fans at the Rose Bowl and television viewers saw a circus catch. Scates saw a dig. "That was volleyball right there," he says. "Bob Toledo owes me."
Astonishing as it now seems, Farmer almost played neither sport in college. In his senior year at L.A.'s Loyola High, he was a good receiver on a ground-oriented football team as well as a solid contributor in basketball and the California Division I volleyball player of the year. Yet most recruiters thought he was too slow for football and too short for volleyball. Complicating the issue, Farmer wasn't settling for a scholarship to play just one sport; he wanted to play both. Only Cal showed interest, and the Bears had only a club volleyball program. No sale there.
Neither UCLA nor USC would take a flier on Farmer, even though his family tree is virtually painted blue, cardinal and gold. His father was a star wideout for the Bruins from 1967 to 1969 and also played basketball on the Lew Alcindor-led 1969 national championship basketball team before going on to a six-year NFL career. His mother is also a UCLA graduate. Her father, Steve Miletich, played basketball at USC, and Danny's uncle, Dave Farmer, played football for the Trojans. "I went to [then Bruins football coach] Terry Donahue and told him, 'This kid can play for you,' " says George. "Terry said, 'Fine, I'll give him a chance. He can walk-on.' "
UCLA offered an 11th-hour partial volleyball scholarship, but because Farmer intended to walk-on in football, he turned it down. (The NCAA has a rule against athletes accepting scholarships in one sport and then also playing football, a safeguard against teams' circumventing football scholarship limitations by offering swimming grants to defensive linemen.) Farmer arrived on campus—five miles from his house in the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park—for football practice in the fall of 1995 without a scholarship of any kind. He made a brief splash during team physicals. "They were measuring body-fat percentage," says Bruins All-America offensive tackle Kris Farris, who was also an incoming freshman, "and it's like, 'Twelve percent, 20 percent, 17 percent....' Then Danny comes up and the guy says, 'Three-point-seven percent.' I said, 'Oh, my gosh, who is that guy?' " The eye-opening body-fat number was good for nothing more than a redshirt and a spot on the scout team.
Disappointment was a new emotion for Farmer. He had grown up in a nurturing household that thrived on practical lessons and not on chasing sports glory. "I told Danny from the start, 'Your athletic ability is a freak of genetics, but the most important thing is your character,' " says Christy.
George never pushed football. In fact, Danny can never recall even tossing a football with his father, for which he is deeply grateful. "I know he wanted to play catch, I know he wanted to push me, because I had ability," says Danny. "But he didn't. He let me find football myself, and that was hard for him. But it was the great for me, because I developed my own love for the game."
Even as a redshirt, Farmer rapidly improved on the field, regularly tearing up the first-team defense. "The defense had all these great players, like Donnie Edwards [now with the Kansas City Chiefs] and Tommy Bennett [Arizona Cardinals], and by the end of the year they were begging the coaches to play Danny in the Aloha Bowl," says Farris. Bob Field, then UCLA's defensive coordinator, whose first unit practiced against Farmer, says, "We had some big trouble covering him. By the end of the year, it was obvious he was not only going to get a scholarship, but he was going to be a big-time player."
In the fall of 1996, his first as head coach, Toledo put Farmer on scholarship, and Farmer thanked him by becoming the first freshman to lead the Bruins in receptions, with 31. Farmer's play thrust him into the public eye, but he was saddled with the usual stereotypes, which have persisted, and he saw them coming again during the interviews for this article. "This isn't going to be another 'Ed McCaffrey, tall white guy' story, is it?" he asks. "Because I hate those stories." The answer is yes and no. McCutcheon describes Farmer as "a lot like Ed McCaffrey." Washington State outside linebackers coach Jim Zeches says, "He sort of reminds you of Ed McCaffrey." The reasons are simple: Like McCaffrey, the Denver Broncos' Pro Bowl wideout, Farmer is tall, strong, crafty, productive and Caucasian. Defensive backs taunt him from whistle to whistle. Examples:
"You're too white."