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Rams QB Jared Goff's path to the NFL started, in a way, in Buffalo

During the summer of 1994, Nancy Goff visited her doctor in Buffalo. She doesn’t remember his name, probably because he wasn’t her regular doctor and Buffalo wasn’t her permanent home. She was living in town with her husband, Buffalo Bisons catcher Jerry Goff, and their 2-year-old daughter Lauren.

The Goffs were expecting their second child that fall, and Nancy was getting a sonogram, which would reveal the gender of the baby. Jerry wasn’t at the appointment; he likely was on a minor-league ball field somewhere, trying to make his way back to the big leagues as a left-handed hitting catcher with a strong bat against tough right-handed pitchers.

Goff’s last shot, with the Bisons’ parent club Pittsburgh Pirates, hadn’t gone well, which was why he was back in Buffalo, playing in Triple A.

He often was gone, spending long days at the ballpark for home games, and traveling lengthy stretches on road trips. It’s a travail of pro baseball: You miss key moments, like the one that happened that day.

“Looks like you’ve got another lefty on your hands,” the doctor said to Nancy Goff. It was his way of letting her know she was having a boy.

That doctor got one thing right, and one detail wrong: That October, the Goffs had a boy. But he was not a lefty. He was right-handed, and as he grew up, his parents realized he had a rocket launcher of an arm.

Today, that boy-turned-6-foot-4 man is the starting quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. This weekend, Jared Goff will be taking on Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

This 1994 Goff family photo includes Jerry, then 2-year-old daughter Lauren, and an expecting Nancy Goff. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Goff)

•••

He knew.

When Jerry Goff tossed a ball with his young son, he sensed it. Jared was blessed with skills and gifts in abundance: the work ethic, the physical abilities, the enthusiasm for sports – especially football. In one prescient moment when Jared was 7, Jerry possibly redirected his son’s future. As the writer Daniel Brown of the Bay Area News Group described it in a 2016 story, Jared’s youth coach let the kids pick their positions. Jared joined the linemen, but Jerry found an assistant coach and suggested, “How about if he tries out at quarterback?”

In a phone interview this week from the family’s home in Novato, Calif., a community 30 miles north of San Francisco, Jerry Goff said, “You always hope your kids outshine what you did, and I kind of knew as he was growing up that that was going to be the case.”

Jared had athletic abilities far beyond his father’s, though Jerry Goff’s talents were considerable. The elder Goff grew up in nearby San Rafael and was a standout player in the mid-1980s at the University of California, which is located in Berkeley just across the San Francisco Bay. Goff was a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 1986 and made his big-league debut four years later with the Montreal Expos. Goff played 55 games with the Expos between 1990 to 1992 and spent the rest of the time with their Triple-A team in Indianapolis.

Goff then became a minor-league free agent and signed with the Pirates organization. That brought Goff, along with Nancy and their then 1-year-old daughter Lauren, to Buffalo. He played 104 games for the Bisons in 1993, batting a solid .251 and hitting 14 home runs.

When Jerry Goff finished his pro baseball career after the 1997 season, he decided to turn down minor-league coaching offers and instead settle permanently in the Bay Area. That allowed him to coach his own kids. Jared played baseball through high school. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Goff)

“I loved the guy,” said Goff’s Bisons teammate, John Wehner, who is now a broadcaster for the Pirates. “He was a cool dude. He played hard. He was talented, obviously. He always had an upper-lip dip in.”

Wehner, speaking by phone, laughed at the recollection of his tobacco-chewing former teammate, and started ticking off a list of Goff's attributes: He was well-liked and funny, laid-back off the field but competitive on it. “He had some pop,” Wehner added, referring to Goff’s strong bat, “which was a little harder in Buffalo for a lefty batter because the wind always blew in from the right.”

The Bisons’ 1993 season ended with a second-place finish and Goff was called up to Pittsburgh. He batted .297 and slugged a pair of home runs in 14 games that September, a strong performance that likely helped him land a spot on the Pirates’ 1994 opening-day roster.

Jim Leyland, who was then the Pirates manager, remembers Goff as “a very solid player” and, speaking separately from Wehner, listed similar characteristics: “Had a little pop. Just a great guy. Really a good-looking young kid. …

“A good guy to manage. He was a nice player. He wasn’t a great player, obviously, but he was a nice player. I don’t know exactly how much time he got in the big leagues.”

Not as much as he wanted.

Don Slaught was entrenched as the Pirates' starting catcher, which meant Goff had to capitalize on occasional opportunities to play. Leyland tapped Goff, as a left-handed batter with power, to face tough righty pitchers such as Atlanta’s Greg Maddux. Goff didn’t come through, going only 2-for-25 in eight games early in the 1994 season. At the end of April, Pittsburgh acquired veteran catcher Lance Parrish and sent Goff to Buffalo.

With Parrish on the roster, Goff understood his time with the Pirates was likely over. “I knew I wasn’t going back,” he said.

Jerry Goff was a Buffalo Bisons catcher in 1993 and 1994. He played in 183 games during that time and also appeared in 22 games for the Bisons’ parent club, the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Courtesy of Buffalo Bisons)

The Bisons struggled that season, too, finishing eighth in the American Association with a 55-89 record. It was a frustrating year on the field, but Goff had plenty to be excited about away from it. Both Jerry and Nancy enjoyed Buffalo: They had a furnished apartment downtown, became friends with other players and wives, and enjoyed watching and playing games in a then-state-of-the-art stadium with large crowds. (Sahlen Field, then known as Pilot Field, opened in 1988, and the Bisons regularly drew more than 1 million fans per season. Today, attendance is about half that.)

“If you had to be in Triple A, that was the place to be,” Goff said. “You almost felt like you were in the big leagues. You had a private parking lot, and the clubhouse was massive, compared to anything on the road. It was a fun place to play.”

Nancy and then 2-year-old Lauren were present at almost every home game, sitting in the section behind home plate that was populated by players’ families, season ticket holders, and baseball scouts. Lauren, a constantly smiling toddler, would visit with everyone around their seats, climbing into people’s laps to watch the game.

During the summer, team owners Bob and Mindy Rich held a picnic at their house for players and their families. The neighbors stopped by, too, bringing food and visiting with the young families. That resonated with Nancy, who was so far from her actual home.

“We were away from California for eight months at a time, so it was really nice for people to bring us into their backyards and homes and treat us kind of like family and have a summer barbecue with the kids,” she recalled. “It was really fun.”

The Goffs have many warm memories from their two years in Buffalo, and that includes Lauren, who is now 26 years old, married (her name now is Lauren Butts) and living in Los Angeles, with a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA.

She remembers one thing from Buffalo: The mascot.

“I feel like it was … Buster?” she said, summoning her memories during a phone call last week. She’s correct – it was Buster T. Bison.

“I remember really liking him, and thinking it was so cool,” Lauren said.

Of course, the coolest thing to happen for the Goffs that year was their son and brother, who was on the way. Jerry was thrilled to learn that Nancy’s Buffalo doctor said they were having a boy.

“Did I want a boy?” he said. “Hell yeah, I wanted a boy. We had a beautiful daughter. To complement her with a brother would have been great, and that’s what happened.”

It happened about six weeks after the Bisons' season ended, when the Goffs were back home in California. On Oct. 14, 1994, Jared Goff was born.

•••

Jared’s path from young, athletic California kid to top NFL draft pick to superstar, multimillionaire quarterback has several twists and turns. Every successful journey does, and it’s near impossible to project what would have happened if any of those pivot points had gone differently.

But this one is pretty certain: Had Jerry Goff made different decisions at the tail end of his baseball career, his son likely would not be a Super Bowl quarterback.

Jared Goff’s agent Ryan Tollner, left, joined the family after the Rams’ 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship. From left: Tollner, Goff’s brother-in-law Mason Butts, Jerry Goff, Jared Goff, Nancy Goff and Lauren Butts. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Goff)

After his second season in Buffalo, Goff signed with the Houston Astros organization. He spent 1995 shuttling between Houston and the team’s Triple A club, the Tucson Toros. Goff played one game for Houston in 1996. It was in Montreal, against his old team. On the phone last week, he brought up what happened before it was even asked.

“The passed balls,” he said.

Six passed balls, actually. Behind the plate, Goff allowed six pitches to slip by him, allowing five unearned runs for the Expos, who won the game, 8-7.

“That was my last game in the big leagues.”

“Was it?” asked Nancy, who was on the call with her husband. Clearly, they have had more important things to think about in the last two decades.

“It was,” Jerry said. His voice was lighthearted, not sad or frustrated. “I was 2-for-4 and hit a home run, though. You’ve got to remember that.”

He sounded like he was smiling. Goff has this in perspective: He made it to the majors – had “a good run” – and eventually it ended. His big-league career was comprised of 90 games over six seasons with three teams. He batted .215, hit seven home runs, and then it was over. Goff talks about it not as a failure, but as a conclusion.

After one more season of pro ball with an independent team in 1997, Goff retired. He had offers to become a coach, but that would have meant bouncing around the minor leagues for years – decades, even – in an effort to make it to the big leagues.

In this 2004 photo, 10-year-old Jared is sitting with the family dog Wilson while 12-year-old Lauren holds their cat, Lucky. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Goff)

Goff didn’t like what that would mean for his family. Lauren was starting kindergarten, and Jerry and Nancy wanted stability for her, and eventually for Jared. With that in mind, Jerry made a decision that effectively ended his baseball career but also positioned his children with the best chance of achieving happiness and success: He turned down the coaching offers. The Goffs were settling for good in the Bay Area, the place where they grew up, and where both sides of their families lived.

“I really admire that choice my dad made,” said Lauren, who now works for CASA, an organization that advocates for foster children in court. “Looking at the trajectory of our lives, and the stability that we had growing up – not that families can’t create that stability if they move around – but we had so many cousins, aunts, uncles, our whole family was rooted in the Bay Area. That was a really big part of our life growing up, being really connected to family.”

The Goffs had plenty of family time, too. Nancy went to work as a mortgage broker and Jerry as a firefighter. (He and Nancy laugh at the unlikely skill that made him extra attractive for the job back in the late ’90s. The station had a highly competitive softball team, and someone thought Jerry’s talents would be valuable. “My background helped,” Goff said, quickly adding, “You can’t do that now.”)

Those jobs allowed enough scheduling flexibility for the family to spend lots of time together, which nurtured a strong sense of support and well-being. Lauren remembers game nights, dance parties (a family favorite: Electric Light Orchestra) and hide-and-seek contests at home. She liked crafts, and Jared got into those. Jared loved sports, of course, and Lauren delved into them, too. Jerry coached Lauren in softball and Jared in baseball.

He was great for me growing up, with baseball,” Jared Goff said during a Super Bowl news conference. We were always practicing together, batting practice. We were always going to baseball camps. It was really something we shared together. It was a lot of fun.

Jared Goff was a three-sport varsity athlete at Marin Catholic: football, basketball and baseball. (Photo courtesy of Marin Catholic)

When Jared enrolled in Marin Catholic, Jerry served as a hitting coach for the baseball team, but knew to give his son plenty of space on the football field. “Jerry just said, ‘Hey, he’s yours. We trust you,’ ” said Mazi Moayed, Marin Catholic’s head football coach, who is joining the Goff family and several friends in Atlanta for the Super Bowl. “He was never involved in anything except being a fan and great supporter once (Jared) was in high school.”

Moayed, and others interviewed for this story, emphasize that this is a somewhat rare quality among the parents of elite athletes – and particularly the parents of star quarterbacks, who can tend to hover. (Or, as coaches often put it, be “helicopter parents.”)

Even NFL scouts asked about this a few years later, when as their part of their due diligence in evaluating Goff, asked Moayed about Jerry Goff’s involvement in his son’s career.

“They basically wanted to know, was Jared his own guy, or was he being controlled by the dad?” Moayed said. “Jared was his own guy.”

The younger Goff was – and is – his own guy with a great deal of support. Jared is by all accounts a sociable guy, though not one who seeks the spotlight. That character trait, matched with the constancy provided by his dad’s decision to leave baseball and keep the family in California, has helped him build a long-term group of friends that still shows up for him today, including at games.

“He was very grounded because he’s had the same group of friends since he was in middle school, and a lot of those kids went to Marin Catholic,” said Adam Callan, an economics teacher at Marin Catholic and the school’s athletic director. “I think having that grounding has really been great for him.”

The ability to access his support system positioned Jared for success when he left high school a semester early to enroll at Cal. He moved into a dorm, started taking classes and began competing for the starting quarterback position in spring practices.

Andrew McGraw, Cal’s assistant athletic director for football administration, remembers a telling detail from that first semester: “Not all of the time, but probably more than his teammates, he would quietly take trips back home, which is a half-hour drive north, to be with his parents. That proximity served him really well while he was going through probably the most challenging transition from high school to college.”

Jared Goff set more than two dozen school records during his three years as Cal’s starting quarterback. (David Bernal/ISI Photos)

Goff won the starting quarterback job as a freshman, and was noticed early for his ability to move on from mistakesIt's probably mainly because of the way my dad raised me, Goff told the Bay Area News Group writer Jeff Faraudo at the outset of his freshman season. I listen to everything he says because he's been through it. Through the struggles, bad days, good days, everything in between.

Though the Golden Bears won only one game in his first season, Goff starting breaking school passing records and quickly established himself as a star. By the end of his junior season, Goff had broken more than two dozen records and Cal was a winning team (7-5).

Goff entered the NFL draft in the spring of 2016, and the Rams traded up to select him first overall. That kept him in California, a day’s drive or a short flight from his parents and friends, and in the same city as his sister, Lauren, and brother-in-law, Mason Butts. He was 21, about to become the face and leader of an NFL franchise, and he made it work – but not immediately.

Goff picked up the starting job midway through the 2016 season, and lost all seven of his games. The Rams finished 4-12 and a new head coach, Sean McVay, was hired for the next season. Under McVay, Goff blossomed and so did the Rams. Goff was named to the Pro Bowl in 2017 and the Rams' 11-5 record placed them atop the NFC West. For the first time in 12 years, the franchise was headed to the playoffs. The Rams lost to Atlanta in the wild-card round, but came back stronger in 2018. They finished 13-3 in the regular season, earned a first-round bye, and then beat Dallas and New Orleans to win the NFC Championship.

Jerry Goff greets his son during Jared Goff’s stint as the University of California Golden Bears quarterback. (Photo courtesy of John Polzer)

Now, Goff and the Rams are a win away from the top of the football world.

“Obviously, I’d like to think he’s very talented, but it’s been a series of very fortunate events that have helped him,” said Nancy, listing several of those events: staying in California with the Rams, McVay’s hiring, improvements to the team’s offensive line. “It seems like Jared has been in really good circumstances a lot.”

Both Jerry and Nancy admit it’s difficult to find words that capture the feeling of watching their son in the Super Bowl spotlight. “It’s still kind of surreal,” Jerry said.

Not just for him, and not even just because of the Super Bowl. For the past couple of years, people from his baseball past have been connecting that quarterback Jared Goff is the son of catcher Jerry Goff.

A couple of years ago, Jerry was caddying for Jared in a celebrity golf tournament at Lake Tahoe when he came across his former Bisons teammate, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who went on to become a big-league star.

Wakefield, who felt a kinship with Goff during their Bisons days as two guys who had experienced the big leagues and were hoping to get back, was surprised to see his former catcher.

“How are you, man? What are you doing?” Wakefield said to Goff.

“I’m caddying for my son,” Jerry Goff said.

“Who’s your son?” Wakefield asked.

“Jared,” Goff answered. “The quarterback for the Rams.”

“Holy crap!” Wakefield said. “That’s your kid?”

It happened last week, when Goff’s former Pirates manager Jim Leyland learned of the connection. Leyland – who, ironically, is a friend of New England coach Bill Belichick, and is rooting for the Patriots – got Jerry’s number and gave him a call. He wanted to congratulate his former catcher, and wish Jared luck.

“This is a great story,” Leyland told The News. “You look up and one of your old player’s sons is going to quarterback in a Super Bowl. That’s pretty good.”

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