Brandon Bailey poses a month before his graduation from Sacramento State on April 30, 2022. Credit: Jamond Williams, Black Jewel Images

Brandon Bailey, a Berkeley High alumnus who graduated from Sacramento State University in May, died last weekend near Sacramento. He was 22.

Bailey died Sunday in a jet ski accident on Folsom Lake during a family outing, according to his mother, Tanisha Wilder. The Placer County Coroner’s office is still investigating the cause of Bailey’s death.

To friends, family, and mentors, Bailey represented the best of Berkeley, a young man with a bright future as a sports journalist. Bailey, who friends called “B,” often spoke about his Berkeley roots.

“What he was doing now was just the warm-up for everything that I know was coming,” said Matts Benson, who became friends with Bailey on the basketball court at Willard Middle School in Berkeley.

A recipient of Berkeley High’s Scholar Athlete Academic Achievement Award in 2016, Bailey was a standout middle linebacker on the football team. In college, he channeled his passion for football into reporting, joining The State Hornet as a sportswriter in 2020.

He rose through the ranks at The Hornet, eventually landing his dream beat: football. Bailey profiled star players and covered the Hornets’ rise to victory in the Big Sky Championship. In his final semester, he started a podcast called “Take Your Shot” with Jordan Parker, editor-in-chief of the Hornet, and co-edited the paper’s sports section.

On May 20, Bailey became the first person in his family to graduate from college, walking across the stage at Sacramento State, a source of immense pride for him and his family. He had just started his first professional reporting job covering the San Francisco Giants.

Shortly after graduating, Bailey posted a photo of himself on Instagram, clad in a graduation cap and Berkeley sweatshirt, posing for a photo on Guy West Bridge in Sacramento. The caption read, “Imma be a legend out of my city just give me some time 💫.”

His sudden death shook family and friends, prompting an outpouring of love for Bailey.

“All of this fills my heart, and I’m so grateful for the impact that my son, so young, has made on so many people. And it is also what’s hurting me the most because I feel so cheated. He had so much more to offer,” said Wilder, holding back tears.

Wilder described her son, who the family called “BB,” as mature from a young age, a role model to all four of his siblings, including his older brothers. He spoiled his youngest sister, showing her how a young man should treat her, buying her presents on Valentine’s Day, “all these little name-brand purses,” and taking her to get her nails done, Wilder said.

Growing up, Bailey and his older brother, Marcé Stewart, were attached at the hip. “Everywhere I went, he went,” Stewart said. When Stewart lost his way after high school, it was Bailey who helped get his older brother back on track. “He was so honest and it was brutal at times,” Stewart said. Bailey would prod him, ‘What are you doing with your life? You’re supposed to be doing more.’

A childhood friend and high school football teammate, Yusuf Bey, was struck by Bailey’s death.

“Brandon, Lil B, if you’re listening to me, my boy,” said Bey, addressing his friend Thursday morning. “In Berkeley, we’re going to miss you, we’re going to keep your memory alive, we’re going to keep your legacy going. I love you, brother.”

Parker wrote on Twitter: “The State Hornet family has lost one of its best, and the pain and hurt that I feel can never be fully repaired. This family can never be whole again because our brother Brandon was taken too soon.”

Bailey’s mantra: ‘heart over height’

The basketball team at Willard Middle School. Bailey is on the left in the bottom row. Credit: Matts Benson.

Standing at 5 feet 6 inches and 138 pounds in high school, Bailey’s opponents on the field and the court towered over him. (Even at 5 years old, Bailey was turned away from the youth football league for a year because of his small stature, his mom remembers.) But his work ethic and passion propelled him to athletic success, eventually earning him a starting position on the football team his senior year, earning all-conference accolades.

“Brandon’s mantra was heart over height,” said David Perry, who coached Bailey on the Berkeley High football team his junior and senior years.

It was an approach to sports that all of his coaches saw in him, even as a young kid.

Bailey made the basketball team as a sixth-grader, Coach Amarú Moses said, despite his size but “because of the amount of heart and effort and the overall joy that he brought to his teammates and to the game.”

As a coach, “you look for the tallest, the fastest, the biggest, the strongest. And what I love about Brandon is he beat all those odds,” Perry said.

In 2016, Bailey, a middle linebacker on the football team, was unanimously voted first-team all-league and earned Berkeley High’s Scholar Athlete Academic Achievement Award. His father, Clifton Bailey, was a constant presence at his son’s games, cheering enthusiastically from the sidelines.

Bey, his teammate, remembers a “legendary” interception that Bailey made in a game against rival Bishop O’Dowd. The team would go on to win all-conference in its most successful season of the time.

Inspired by former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Bailey was one of the players who led the Berkeley High football team to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality, a moment documented by Vice News.

“We’re kneeling down to stand up for Black oppression and police brutality. And with us locking arms, it shows that we’re doing it as a team, and we’re united in what we’re doing,” Bailey, then a junior in high school, said in the video, explaining why he wanted to kneel with his teammates.

After graduating high school in 2017, Bailey won a High Hopes Scholarship before matriculating to Sacramento State.

A budding sports journalist

Brandon Bailey, April 2022. Credit: Jamond Williams, Black Jewel Images

Bailey spent the summer before his freshman year at Sacramento State on the Berkeley High football field. Hoping to walk on to the team and play for the Hornets, Bailey trained with Coach Perry all summer, doing drills and sharpening his game.

While he didn’t wind up on the team, Bailey found a way to incorporate the sport he loved into a career. He majored in journalism, joining the masthead at The State Hornet, and quickly earned a reputation as one of the Hornet’s most dedicated writers.

Compliment Bailey, and he would turn it around to be about you, said Magaly Muñoz, managing editor of State Hornet. “He would say, ‘I’m only as great as the people around me who I surround myself with. I’m only as great as my editors.”

“We would say, ‘Brandon, you can stop being humble for 5 minutes. Just take the praise, bro.’ And he wouldn’t.”

After graduating, Bailey said his work at the newspaper made him fall in love with journalism. According to his friend, Bey, he envisioned a future in which he would travel the world, and his family said he wanted to become a sports analyst.

Within a few months, he landed his first gig covering the San Francisco Giants for an online magazine, 4.0 Sports Media.

“Who would’ve knew this young dude from Berkeley, CA would make it this far,” Bailey posted on his Instagram after graduation. “First-Generation college graduate with a B.A. in journalism. Giving all the praise and glory to God for keeping me grounded and getting me through this journey.”

Bailey’s Celebration of Life will be held at 11 a.m. on July 12 at the Covenant Worship Center at 2618 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...