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All-American UC Davis running back returns for final ride

Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr has a chance to be the all-time leader in rushing at UC Davis
Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr has a chance to be the all-time leader in rushing at UC Davis 01:42

DAVIS — Ulonzo Gilliam, Jr has a chance to be the all-time leader in rushing at UC Davis, but this isn't the first time he has achieved greatness.

As a high school senior in Merced, Gilliam was a standout. He was named the All-Central California Conference Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for over 1,500 yards.

His parents shuffled him around the state, trying to get him to camps to get noticed in front of major college coaches. He wasn't often told specifics of why the calls weren't coming. They just never did.

"I knew I could compete on that level," he explains. "I was just getting the back end of the stick."

When he needs to lock in, he listens to J. Cole. The song "'03 Adolescence" off of Cole's 2014 album 2014 Forest Hills Drive speaks to him, he says. And whenever he feels that ever-present chip on his shoulder, he throws on some music and gets into a zone to work.

"When I first came here, I was kind of a shy dude," Gilliam recalls. "They called me 'Beats' cause I always had my beats on my head, even in the locker room."

These days, he's not called 'beats' anymore. Instead, he's named 'All-American.'

He had options to walk on to prominent Mountain West programs but wanted to ease the financial burden on his parents. His sister was already a student at the University of California-Berkeley, and he saw football as an opportunity to make their sacrifice worth it. So Gilliam decided on the program a few hours up the road.

He was named a freshman All-American, nearly rushing for 1,000 yards while helping propel UC Davis to their first Big Sky title. Since then, he's been named to multiple All-American lists and was the conference's leading rusher in 2019.

But after the 2021 season, Gilliam thought about leaving Davis.

"It was one of those things ... a masters program," he says. "I was looking beyond football."

The senior was hoping to get an advanced degree in physical therapy while using his final year of eligibility to play. Then, things broke in a way where he started to reconsider, not just because of the graduate programs but because of the legacy potential at Davis.

"There's very few guys that have the chance to be the all-time anything at a place like Davis," says head coach Dan Hawkins. "Been playing football for over 100 years."

"They kind of kept in my ears like 'look, you're gonna come back and break the record, and that should be something you think about,'" Gilliam recalls.

Heading into the year, Gilliam needs 155 yards to break GP Muhammad's career rushing record, 150 yards behind the career all-purpose yards record, and 43 points behind the career points record.

With all that in mind, the young man from Merced came back with a chip on his shoulder for one last ride. He says it's about more than his accolades. It's about his family that sacrificed for his younger brother playing football at Fresno State and for all the underrecruited central valley athletes with something to prove.

"It's about the kids that went to my high school and grew up in my area," he concludes. "That's showing them that you can make it out. If they don't see it, they're not gonna believe it. And it's a blessing to be in the position I am, and people are being able to see what I'm doing it, and it inspires them."

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