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Go Pro? And Give Up Learning Zulu?

July 27, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

As he ambles across campus wearing a UCLA Bruins shirt inside-out, J.J. Stokes looks the picture of summer contentment. He is so pleased not to have a job. Everybody was fooled when he passed up the paydays of pro football to come back to college and catch passes, but what everybody forgot is that pro football is work. And that J.J. would much rather go to school than go to work.

"What will you be studying?" Stokes is asked.

The usual, sociology and psychology, he says. "Oh, and Zulu."


"Yeah," UCLA J.J. says, kicking back, cool as can be. "I need a language and I already know enough Spanish."

Work can wait. His father worked hard for many years for San Diego Gas & Electric. His mother worked hard at a naval base. One of his three much-older brothers works hard as a postman. Another is looking for work. The other is head chef at one of Switzerland's four-star hotels. So there is only so much time to enjoy life, before responsibilities weigh you down and you have to account to someone for every hour.

In no hurry to get where he is going, UCLA J.J., the ultimate letterman, is a record-breaking wide receiver about to begin his senior term. Stokes ran seventh in last season's Heisman Trophy voting, whereupon the six players ahead of him promptly turned pro. Agents assumed Stokes would follow suit. So did teammates. Even his quarterback, Wayne Cook, said he had set his mind that his favorite target was gone.

With the Rose Bowl game against Wisconsin approaching, UCLA's coach, Terry Donahue, checked to see what was on Stokes' mind. Donahue has a splendid description of Stokes--he calls him "a difference-maker"--so naturally the coach was curious as to his plans. Stokes said his plans were to play for UCLA. He didn't even intend to test the market. He was staying, so why push temptation?

When the game was over and the Bruins had lost, Cook was feeling pretty lousy until Stokes sidled over and said don't worry, we'll win this thing next year. The quarterback immediately felt better.

And J.J.?

"You know, as soon as the clock ran down, I felt more relieved than anything," Stokes says. "It was such a long season. I thought, now I've finally got a chance to relax. I could finally lay back and do nothing.

"Then everybody starts up with the big 'Are you going pro?' decision. I kept telling them there was no decision to make. For one thing, I had promised my parents that I would get my degree. But the other thing is, I'm enjoying college. Why should I be in a hurry to go to work, get up every morning, practice, lift, run, watch film, practice some more, day in, day out, beating on people all day? What for?"

A guy smiles and says, "For money?"

And Stokes busts out laughing and says, "Well, yeah. That's a good reason."

But not good enough. Truth is, next person who suggests that J.J. is gambling with his future, he might wipe away that happy face of his and scream. Yes, Stokes needs 15 catches to pass Sean LaChapelle as the school's leading receiver, and yes, LaChapelle did postpone turning pro and then got his rib cage racked. This simply prompts J.J. to say: "Everybody's talking about me getting hurt, LaChapelle this, LaChapelle that. He got hurt trying to cut-block a 285-pound lineman. I will run out of bounds if I have to. If I'm surrounded, I don't mind saying hello to the turf."

Stokes might not catch as many passes as he did last season, primarily because opponents will go into their "Where's J.J.?" defense. But on the other hand, he might fool everybody again.

How do you say "Heisman Trophy" in Zulu?

Should he never make another catch, Stokes will always have that 90-yard touchdown reception of Nov. 21, 1992, a day J.J. did to USC what O.J. once did to UCLA. And that wasn't even Stokes' longest. He took a little flip against Washington last season and went 95 yards, looking over his shoulder at midfield with a "where'd everybody go?"

Today he's the best catcher in L.A. this side of Mike Piazza.

Darryl, Jon and Jeffrey Stokes used to take their baby brother out for a game of catch to show him how it was done. Darryl was a receiver for Long Beach State who later played some USFL ball in Chicago. Even though they were considerably older, J.J. says with a laugh, "They used to tackle me until I'd start crying."

His brothers are now 33, 32 and 31.

"My mother and father wanted one last try for a female," J.J. says. "Too bad!"

On those days when he wasn't being tackled by an older brother, he was being fed by one. Jon Stokes used to whip up a seven-layer wedding cake, easy as pie. No one in the Stokes household knows for sure why the second-oldest son felt so at home in the kitchen. Before long, Jon was graduating from a culinary institute and on his way to Lucerne to the elegant Hotel des Alpes, where he was visited by J.J. last summer.

This summer, J.J. hasn't gone anywhere. But that's OK with UCLA. The Bruins like it when J.J. stays.

"Just hanging around going to movies?" he is asked.

"Not really," he says. "Hard for me to go to a movie."

"How come?"

J.J. pats his pockets. He says: "No money."

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