Vance Mueller felt reasonably certain of at least two things when an injury cut short his senior season of high school football, ended his dream of a major college scholarship and led him to enroll at brainy Occidental College:
He would never play in a college game that was televised.
The NFL would never find him.
He was wrong on both counts.
Twenty-five years ago this week, with NFL players out on strike and Sunday air time to fill, CBS televised an Occidental football game to 60% of the nation, an event so once-in-a-lifetime rare that even the school president allowed a Tiger paw to be painted on his face to mark the occasion and Oxy's usually indifferent-to-football student body tore down the goal posts at game's end.
Mueller, a freshman tailback, took advantage of the extraordinary opportunity by scoring three touchdowns and accounting for 139 yards rushing and receiving in the Tigers' 34-20 victory over San Diego, his first step toward an NFL career.
"Sometimes, you have a dream to grow up and go to a college like Notre Dame or Michigan," says the former Los Angeles Raider, a 43-year-old fitness-club owner and father of three living in El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento. "Other times you take a different turn and you go someplace you absolutely had no intention of going and it turns out to be the best thing ever, which turned out to be my scenario.
"I talk to kids and I tell them that Oxy was the last place on Earth I ever envisioned going, and it turned out to be the best place for me. I think sometimes you just have to be open to going where the adventure takes you."
Alighting at Oxy, which has an enrollment of about 1,600 students, was serendipitous indeed for Mueller, who planned to play linebacker at Oklahoma for Barry Switzer before suffering a shoulder injury.
Only a few weeks into Mueller's freshman season, CBS announced that it would regionally televise four NCAA Division III games, including Oxy-San Diego, on Oct. 3, 1982. A plan to allow major college teams to move games to Sundays during the NFL strike was blocked by Turner Broadcasting System.
Regular NFL announcers Dick Stockton and Hank Stram were dispatched by CBS to work the Oxy-San Diego game, Stram showing up at Occidental's Patterson Field in a limousine. Working with an NFL production crew, Stockton and Stram called the game from a makeshift press box built for the occasion.
Students painted their faces in orange and black, Oxy's colors, and a bluegrass band entertained a crowd of about 1,500. Even rainbow-wigged Rock-N-Rollen, at the time a fixture at major sporting events, was in attendance.
"It was gigantic," Mueller says of the impact on campus. "One, because we filled the stands. Usually, maybe a few hundred people would go to the football games, but that day it was packed. We didn't really notice the cameras and everything else so much as we noticed all the fans. It was just a really exciting environment."
Occidental, which like all NCAA Division III schools does not award athletic scholarships, has produced few football notables other than former NFL quarterback and presidential candidate Jack Kemp. Then-rookie Coach Dale Widolff's Tigers were only 5-5 in 1982, but after they won conference titles in each of the next three seasons, NFL scouts started sniffing around.
Mueller, a national champion long jumper, caught their eye.
Says Widolff, "He got noticed because he was very, very fast. We had a ton of scouts come through, so he definitely was on the radar of a lot of teams."
In 1986, the Raiders made Mueller a fourth-round pick.
For a longtime Raiders fan who grew up in Jackson, Calif., it was a dream come true. Mueller played in 73 games over five seasons for the Raiders, racking up a combined 921 yards rushing and receiving and scoring five touchdowns before a knee injury ended his career in 1991. His teammates included such Raiders legends as Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Howie Long and Tim Brown.
"It was a great time because it was the last of the old-school Raiders with Matt Millen and Howie and Lester Hayes and Ray Guy and Jim Plunkett," Mueller says. "It was an incredible and amazing experience."
Noting that "the Raiders are in my blood," Mueller is still involved with the team's Legends Club and meets with fans before games.
In 1994, he and wife Lissa, an All-American hurdler at Occidental, opened Mueller's Elite Athletic Training Academy in Cameron Park, near their home. Mueller, who coached high school football for three years, coaches his son's youth team. His hobbies include "dirt bike racing and anything fitness-related."
He would have loved to have played longer in the NFL but notes, "It's hard to be a running back when you can't run," referring to his knee injury.
Still, he moved easily into the next phase of his life, eyes wide open.
His Oxy experience had taught him to expect the unexpected.