Following last year’s 56-48 triple overtime loss to Stanford, I thought the Coliseum public address announcer might as well cue the Jaws theme music.
After maneuvering his way to the three-yard line in the third overtime, senior tailback Curtis McNeal fumbled into the end zone, and Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley recovered the football to seal the win. So, I expected everyone to attack McNeal like the sanguine shark would a carefree swimmer in an inner tube.
In the game, McNeal rushed for 145 yards on 20 carries and scored two touchdowns. His backfield counterpart, former tailback Marc Tyler, contributed a mere three yards on one carry.
But I feared McNeal’s fumble eclipsed those statistics.
Sports culture is littered with heroes and villains. When covering games, sports journalists obsess over defining moments and condensing lengthy games into signature plays, neglecting to mention the countless plays — both made and missed — that brought teams and players to those moments. And fans can’t resist pointing their fingers at the goat.
With McNeal shouldering the entire running attack, it seemed like his game to win — or lose — despite the pre-game billing of a quarterback showdown between Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck.
The notion that one player can lose a football game, however, is ridiculous, because no sport is more team-oriented.
I anticipated that the media would bombard McNeal with profound questions like, “How did it feel to fumble?”
I anticipated that the Coliseum would filter out quickly, with students grumbling that McNeal was not a feature running back on a USC team overflowing with expectations.
Worst of all, I anticipated McNeal would validate this nonsense, lamenting his mistake and apologizing profusely for letting his teammates down.
To my amazement, however, none of this happened. The media was relatively respectful — as much as can be expected, at least. And the Coliseum faithful actually applauded the Trojans’ efforts.
After the tough loss, fans were quick to point out there are no moral victories for USC. But few left the stadium angry.
Most importantly, McNeal responded with uncommon perspective for a young student-athlete.
“I feel like beating myself up, but I just got to keep my head up and keep pushing,” McNeal said following the loss. “I’m going to face worse things in my life.”
McNeal refused to sulk and honor the “Moody” moniker his youth football teammates playfully gave him — the nickname that is now a mere vestige of his former personality. He wouldn’t give reporters the satisfying “money” quote about how nothing could compare to the anguish he now felt.
I don’t need to tell you that scapegoating in sports runs amok. With countless camera angles now at our disposal, everyone can quickly establish who blew his blocking assignment or what led to the quarterback’s pick-six. We’re all coaches breaking down game film.
It’s sad, but inevitable. After all, if college football players couldn’t handle the scrutiny, it’s unlikely they would have made it this far.
Think about it: how articulate and composed would you have been leaving the field after going blow-for-blow with Stanford — owner of the longest winning streak in college football at the time with 16 consecutive victories?
McNeal bravely faced everyone, understanding that mistakes, even ones committed before a sold-out Coliseum crowd and millions of primetime television viewers, are not overcome by brooding.
He’s learned this lesson multiple times.
Growing up in the Pueblo del Rio housing project in South Los Angeles, McNeal witnessed friends and classmates delve into a world of drugs and gang violence. His sister, Sonja, raised him and seven other sibling safter his father suffered a stroke.
In January 2010, USC coach Lane Kiffin was at the brink of jettisoning McNeal from the team. The 5-foot-7 tailback was academically ineligible for the coming season.
Simply put, it would have been so easy for McNeal to devolve into a cautionary tale about wasted talent.
Instead, his experiences have brought him refreshing perspective. He knows the challenges he has faced outside white lines stenciled on grass matter much more.
I’ve never been one for athlete idolatry, recognizing that superior athletic talent, alone, isn’t a quality that deserves admiration. The USC community often piles praise on football players without really knowing who they are as people. But that night against Stanford, McNeal earned my respect as a player and, more importantly, as a man.
Since then, he’s done nothing to change my opinion of him. He welcomed junior tailback Silas Redd to the running back rotation and didn’t complain about his reduced carries in the first two games.
On the Tuesday morning after practice, the media predictably prodded McNeal about the Stanford game once again.
“It’s just football,” McNeal said. “You just have to keep going.”
No matter what happens, the rabid USC fanbase is wise to exhibit similar perspective during the Trojans’ quest for their 12th national championship.
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