Senior Michael Hutchings has two favorite memories from four years as a Trojan. One at the beginning, one at the end.
His first came in November of his freshman year, when a team in transition with a new head coach and something to prove knocked off No. 5 Stanford in front of a sold-out home crowd. The team rallied, former quarterback Cody Kessler threw a key touchdown and a defense-heavy game ended in a 20-17 victory.
The stadium shook with cheers as the final whistle blew. Fans streamed over the barricades and onto the field, with cell phones held high to record the madness. Hutchings didn’t start, didn’t record a single tackle all game. But standing on the grass of the Coliseum in the middle of the crowd, he felt like he’d finally made it.
A month and 29 days later, he felt as if his world was flipping on its head.
He’d lost his father, his idol, the man he was named for, to a battle with pancreatic cancer that didn’t last half of a year. His father, who watched film and scouted opponents, who called him before each game to give him a rundown of suggestions and who taught him to love football.
His dad only saw him play a handful of USC games. He was hospitalized soon after moving Hutchings into his dorm. By New Year’s, he was too weak to open presents for his birthday. He died on a January afternoon, two weeks after turning 49.
It was a loss that Hutchings couldn’t shake. For him, football and family were intertwined, inseparable. Without his dad, Hutchings wasn’t sure what was left to love about the sport.
“It was hard,” Hutchings said. “It was easy to feel like there wasn’t much to keep playing for.”
He started skipping team meetings and coming to practices late. Clay Helton, an interim coach at the time, was told to keep an eye on him. For awhile, Hutchings considered just quitting football entirely.
Hutchings isn’t sure why he stayed. But he did, grinding through practices, staying steady through every head coach replacement and front page scandal. It wasn’t easy, he said, but it was worth it. The whole team took each season one practice at a time. They trusted in the future, that a season would come when it all would fall into place.
In 2016, Hutchings decided that this season, his last season, was the year. As a sophomore, he fell to second string and spent two years clawing his way back into the team’s rotation. But as a senior, he felt ready to leave an impression that wouldn’t fade easily.
“I had one year left and I didn’t have anything to lose,” Hutchings said. “I knew I wasn’t going to get any days back. There was no next year. I gave everything I had each day.”
The difference was noticeable to Hutchings almost immediately. He attacked every practice at spring camp and approached the locker room just as fervently, making sure to connect with each of his teammates.
In August, Hutchings was named a captain alongside Max Browne, Zach Banner and Adoree’ Jackson. A bright red “C” emblazoned his jersey as he started every single game, tying for the second most total tackles for the team. And through a shaky start and a roller coaster finish to his final season, Hutchings focused on being there for his teammates every game, every practice and every day.
It was a year to be proud of, a year with nothing to lose and everything to gain. And Hutchings made the most of it. Until this year, his father’s death was a weight, hanging heavily. But now, it’s a constant motivation.
“It made me grow off the field a tremendous amount,” Hutchings said. “It made me look at sports, look at football in a different way. I look at it as more of a privilege. It helped me grow to take a step back and appreciate everything that was in front of me.”
This year was a turning point for Hutchings. It brought him to his second greatest memory — Saturday’s game against Notre Dame — and the most recent, its vibrance still fading after a few days.
He’s not sure what it was about the game, whether it was the pelting rain or the roaring student section or Jackson’s leap over a defender to sprint into the end zone. He recorded five total tackles, but Hutchings’ stats weren’t his focus at the end of the day.
It was something about the energy, the way his teammates grinned and laughed and hugged each other after every play. The sideline brimmed with excitement, and Hutchings fed off of it. It took until later, after the game ended and the locker room cleared out, that the weight of his final game in his home field sunk in.
“After, when everything was all done, it settled in that it was my last game,” Hutchings said. “Afterwards it hit me hard. This team, it means a lot to all of us. I’ve grown so much as a part of it and when you look back, it just means a lot more than you can say.”
Part of that has to do with Helton, a man Hutchings has known since he was 14, since he first considered putting on a USC jersey. He praises the head coach for his fierce loyalty and his determination to support and connect with each of his players.
But most of what Hutchings will take away from USC has nothing to do with post-game statistics or highlight reels. It’s the teammates, he says, the friends who have become close to brothers. He respects his teammates, looks up to them and learns from them.
“You’re just around all these guys who set great work ethics and great examples,” Hutchings said. “The game provides so much more than just playing. You learn to appreciate people a lot more and know that your problems aren’t the biggest. The fun, the team that I had during this time — that’s what I’ll take away.”
Hutchings likes to think that his greatest memory at USC isn’t made just yet. There’s one game left — the unannounced bowl game, a final chance for every senior to make their mark on the team.
After that, he’ll graduate in the spring, along with 13 other seniors on the team. He’s not sure what will happen then, what will come next.
But Hutchings know one thing for sure.
In a few weeks, he’ll put on a jersey labeled “19” on the back and “C” on the chest. He’ll think about his dad, about the advice he would give if he could, and he’ll look for his mom in the stands. He’ll dance with his teammates on the field, cheer from the sidelines and throw hard hits when he can.
He’ll play as a Trojan, one last time. And for now, that’s the only thing Hutchings wants to worry about.