USC revives the ‘student-athlete’


I have a confession to make.

For four years now, I have been trying to mask the obvious with every key stroke and article produced.

But before entering the campus walls in August 2008, I had no love or, for that matter, respect, for the USC athletic program.

I didn’t grow up going to the Coliseum on Saturdays in the fall, the Sports Arena, Dedeaux Field or the North Gym on spring afternoons.

Frankly, no one in my house ever talked about Heisman Trophies, Song Girls, marching bands or what it even meant to have school spirit.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the only one in my family to ever go to a BCS school, let alone a school that prides itself not only in academics but in athletics as well.

The idea seemed foreign to me.

And to be completely honest, while fans of the Trojans saw themselves as a part of the history, the mystique, the aura that comes with being associated with the Cardinal and Gold, I simply couldn’t relate and oftentimes took their pride as a sign of arrogance.

So much so that I boycotted the school I would eventually call home during their national championship game on that January night in 2006 and rooted for those Longhorns in burnt orange.

Needless to say, times have certainly changed.

When I came here four years ago I was warned that upon exiting it would finally hit me. And it certainly has.

It, of course, is the love affair between a student and his school, between a writer and his athletic program, between two parties that years ago would never have seemed to be a perfect match.

There have been championships, instant classics, sanctions, bowl games and everything in between during my four years covering the USC athletic program, and yet that isn’t what I’ll remember.

What I’ve learned is that, underneath the helmets and in between the sidelines, are people just like you and me.

They may play a coach or a quarterback or a sprinter or a power forward for a few hours every afternoon or night, but at the end of the day they are human. They endure the same struggles, the same moments of happiness, the same challenges we all face in our own lives.

Some will say I missed out on a chance to cover a golden era in the school’s history and that may be so.

But I won’t look back on my time wishing the football team had made it to a national championship game or the men’s or women’s basketball team had made it to a Final Four. Sure, those moments would have added great meaning to the experience, but when you have an opportunity to meet and to get to know the young men and women that represent our university on an athletic field, you learn that there is more to sports than wins and losses.

I witnessed junior cornerback Nickell Robey honor his late mother in the months after she passed, redshirt senior running back Curtis McNeal fight his way from the streets of Los Angeles to the grass of the Coliseum, junior coxswain Dionne Licudine lead the USC rowing team to victory just a month after laying in a hospital, and have personally had the opportunity to cover numerous Trojan athletes as they worked on service projects in the community during their off hours.

From this, I realized that the USC athletic program’s greatest strength isn’t having some of the top athletes in the world: It’s having some of the top people in the world as well.

Sports can be a welcomed distraction, a connection to our childhood or a chance to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves.

But at USC it’s really all of those things and more. It’s a community of thousands. It’s a relationship passed down from generation to generation. It’s a chance to sing, to tailgate, to yell, to embrace the moment for what it is.

It’s an opportunity to be inspired by your peers achieving their dreams, with the hopes that one day you too will achieve yours. It’s a social interaction that doesn’t rely on knowledge of the game but rather love for one’s school. It’s a party with 90,000 of your closest relatives or a quiet moment in the hall of humbling achievements.

It’s about feeling a sense of belonging, and whether in a press box, the student section, at midfield, the sidelines or in the nosebleed seats, that’s what I will remember most. It never mattered what sport I was covering, what the score was or if the game had any meaning in the standings. For me, it was always about getting a chance to feel like I was home.

I never really took time to reflect on this until these very words hit the page, but for the guy who entered USC with no allegiance, loyalty or, for that matter, interest in the well-being of the USC athletic program, I will leave thoroughly in love with what it represents and what it has meant to me during my college tenure.

These days are fleeting for all us, whether you are a freshman two semesters in or a senior with one foot out the door.

My one pearl of wisdom is the next time you take in a sporting event on campus, do so with open eyes. Take in the crowd, the spectacle and the beauty of it all. Whether you know the athletes or not, appreciate their skill, the work they do when no one’s looking and the way they conduct themselves whether it’s in a crunch time situation or in a hospital visit.

These things might not make sense now, but when life starts pushing you outside the friendly confines of this university, you’ll understand.

Trust me, it’s never too late to say I love you. Four years later, I can proudly tell you that.

 

“For the Love of the Game” ran Wednesdays. If you would like to comment on this story, visit DailyTrojan.com or email Dave at dulberg@usc.edu


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