For USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, the bright lights of Saturday night begin with Sunday mornings. It’s because before football, before USC, Cody Kessler and his parents would go to church every week in Bakersfield, Calif.
In the world of media, Christianity often only appears in extremes, usually “fundamentalists” who constitute the religious right being paired with religiously fueled policy agendas and used as one of the counterpoints in the United States’ constantly bifurcated philosophical discourse. Religion, as the argument goes, is at the heart of so many wars. Yet religion (in Kessler’s case, his Christianity) is seldom credited for being the mightiest sword in every individual’s most important war: the war of a man against himself.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
It’s a warm evening during spring camp in 2013. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Max Wittek, freshman quarterback Max Browne and Kessler are at the south side of Howard Jones Field doing footwork drills. After Wittek completes his dropback, he launches the ball to a net with three hoop targets. The ball shoots out of his hand with a sharpness that could slice a grain of dust: there’s a reason the word “laser” has become a football cliché for tightly thrown spirals. At least for that moment, you’re convinced it’s because of Max Wittek. His passes are not “passes.” They’re archetypes, projectile extensions of his virility. The ball smashes into the net with enough force to kill a small animal.
Kessler steps up and looks almost feeble and meek in comparison. After the initial stepback, he throws a wobbly spiral into the air. The throw looks almost as tentative as Kessler himself, like Kessler’s arm had politely requested that the ball fall into the target. The pass takes on a parabolic trajectory before it lands neatly in one of the nets.
Practice ends about an hour and a half later, and the press swarm begins. Wittek walks toward the reporters with a smile.
“Bring it on,” Wittek says. And they brought it. It’s 6:15 p.m. during the first spring practice of the year. Max Wittek is USC’s starting quarterback, and if we judge by sight, it’s not even a race.
Down the right side of the press swarm walks No. 6, helmet in hand, toward the exit. His head is up, he’s thinking to himself. No reporters, no notepads, no iPhones. Just a man, his pads and his helmet, thinking about something, maybe talking to Someone.
“I think I was tested the most those first two years. Not being able to start, not being able to play,” Kessler said. “I lean heavily on my faith. I’d talk to my mom and she’d always tell me, ‘Just pray, just pray. God has a plan, everything’s going to take care of itself.”
Do not fear … for I am your God. I will strengthen you … Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
You know how the rest of the story goes, and that’s sort of a testament to Kessler himself. But Kessler is no Tim Tebow. You won’t see him kneeling on the sidelines praying after a victory or a loss. Kessler bleeds cardinal like the rest of us. He’s going to have a couple choice expletives on national TV if he throws a pick six. He’s going to yank his chinstrap and get pissed off if he feels like he let his teammates down. But that doesn’t make him any less of a Christian. And being Christian certainly doesn’t make him any less of a man.
Through his coach’s sudden departure, through the installation of the new system under interim head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, through a soul-crushing loss to Washington State at home and an unmitigated whipping at the hands of ASU, through constant injuries and shuffling of backfield personnel, Kessler remains. USC’s most uncertain position coming into this season has become the team’s lone constant. And Kessler’s constant has been God.
When asked if he could identify a single point this season where he felt the need to turn to God, Kessler demurred.
“I pray, honestly, all through the season. Some people think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m struggling, I need to pray on the side, something’s not going well so I need to pray,’” Kessler said. “But it’s something that you don’t go to ‘only in the bad times.’ I always try to give Him praise even during the good times.”
This mindset creates a foundation for emotional and physical stability that’s befittingof one of the most demanding and stressful jobs in sports. In his latest book Eleven Rings, 13-time NBA Champion and former coach Phil Jackson said he often cited a Zen phrase to capture the spirit of emotional and physical stability. In order for sustained success, Jackson suggests, it’s not important to merely strive to improve. It’s a matter of sustaining the mindset to constantly strive — to find a motivation beyond simple tangible successes. Jackson described it in his book as, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want … Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Cody Kessler is the quarterback of USC’s future. To Kessler, the notion of living for a greater purpose — something beyond football — isn’t just a cheap PR sentiment reserved for press conferences after charity events. It’s part of a greater respect, for someone bigger than himself. For Kessler, that Someone is God.
The Trojans kick off against the Stanford Cardinal at 5 p.m Saturday. ESPN College GameDay will be in town; the game will be nationally televised. The cameras will be on Cody Kessler. And Kessler will look up at the bright lights of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on a crisp Saturday night — and find peace in Sunday morning.
“Euno, It’s Saturday…” runs every other Friday, ironically. To comment on this story, email Euno at email@example.com or visit dailytrojan.com.
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