The highlight of Saturday’s spring game did not involve football.
It wasn’t the touchdown that senior quarterback Matt Barkley threw to sophomore receiver Marqise Lee in the corner of the end zone.
It wasn’t the pair of interceptions that senior cornerback Isiah Wiley made either.
No, it happened when the Trojans stood around with their helmets off, looking down at the field at a 5-year-old boy wearing a cardinal No. 7 jersey.
Before the highly anticipated game even began, Barkley, senior safety TJ McDonald and senior punter Kyle Negrete stood around as a boy, who goes by the name McClain, stabbed the field as only true USC Trojans can with a fake sword roughly a quarter the size of Tommy Trojan’s.
McClain suffers from a rare blood disease that might ultimately prove fatal, but, looking at the boy on that cool Saturday afternoon, you sure wouldn’t know it. As he ran through Negrete’s legs and playfully tackled him, his life-threatening illness hardly seemed to matter.
McClain was able to get on the field with the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which has made it possible since 1980 for terminally ill children to live out their dreams while they can. The foundation has made these sorts of dreams realities for 250,000 children around the world.
For many children, their dream is to be on the field with their favorite professional team or to practice with stars like Jets quarterback Tim Tebow or Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
McClain’s dream? To lead his favorite team, the USC Trojans, out of the tunnel at the Coliseum.
And the players seemed to love it. Barkley was seen smiling on the JumboTron, helping the boy stab the field and helping him do traditional Trojan poses, including the “V” for victory. McDonald was beside Barkley, having fun and carrying McClain around the field. And there was Negrete, who, when tackled, received loud applause from the more than 15,000 fans at the game.
Traditionally, a spring game is the chance for a player to prove himself, to make his way up the depth chart, to make an impression on coaches and to excite fans for the season to come.
But Saturday was so much more than that for everyone at the Coliseum.
We didn’t learn who is going to be Barkley’s backup. We didn’t learn who is going to start opposite junior cornerback Nickell Robey, either.
We did, however, learn that football is just a game. It is a game that ends when the final whistle blows and the clock hits zero.
Unfortunately, a boy like McClain does not necessarily have the luxury of playing a game. Every day is a fight.
And to the delight of fans in attendance, the Trojans took a few minutes out of their hectic day to realize this in the midst of Saturday’s chaos.
For fans, the lasting memory of Saturday probably isn’t going to involve football at all. Sure, it is going to involve a football field, but that’s about it.
Fans will remember McClain being lifted on the broad shoulders of Barkley and McDonald, who already have the weight of an entire fan base on those shoulders, and of the boy doing his best Tommy Trojan impression.
And I don’t think the Trojans would have it any other way.
In a game that can be so violent and so time-consuming, it was obvious that when McClain was on the field, the only thing that mattered was McClain getting his chance to have a dream come true. It was a chance to show true emotion and humanity and to give hope for those who need it.
And without hesitation, the Trojans obliged.
As much as we like to think that our student-athletes train 24 hours a day, seven days a week to prepare for the grueling season that begins in September, these are actual people under the helmets and beneath the shoulder pads.
People who realize football is only a part of life, who know that sometimes doing the little things can mean so much to someone so small and that making a sick child’s dream come true is more important than throwing four touchdowns or beating a top-ranked team.
Besides, the smile that McClain wore was worth more than any tackle or touchdown could ever prove to be.
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