As a journalist, I can often fall into a slightly false sense of familiarity with athletes whose careers I cover for a long period of time. It’s easy enough. After all, we see these young people — our peers, at least in age — crying or laughing in the locker rooms after games, gritting their teeth through major injuries, promising improvement or revenge. It’s easy enough to feel like, along the way, we come to know these athletes as people, not just as a players.
With Sam Darnold, this is especially true. Last year, the Daily Trojan was the first publication to cover the new quarterback phenom in depth, and I spent hours talking to Sam, along with coaches and teammates.
In the process, I ended up spending hours in an interview with his parents, Chris and Mike, in their home in San Clemente. Most journalists know that there is truly no easier way to glean background information for a story than to talk to a young athlete’s parents, and the Darnolds were everything you would expect — patient and compassionate, humble yet full of pride for their son.
The few hours I spent with them made me feel like I actually knew this one-day first-round draft pick beyond just a few sheets of statistics. In around four hours, I collected enough adorable stories about Sam to fill an entire issue of Daily Trojan — and believe me, I tried to convince my editor to dedicate a whole 16-pager to those anecdotes — and along the way, I stopped looking at him as solely an athlete.
One story that Sam’s mother told me especially stuck with me. There was no conceivable way to work it into my already-way-past-word-count feature, but I still attempted to jam it in several times before giving up. Chris didn’t cry when she talked about the Rose Bowl, or the NFL, or anything else football-related at all. But she cried when she told me this one, about the bravery of her sixth grade son.
When Sam was in sixth grade, he had a best friend, Cole, who had multiple sclerosis. The pair was playing basketball — Sam’s first love in sports — with a group at recess when several older boys approached them and ridiculed Sam for letting Cole play. Sam squared his jaw and replied, “He’s my friend.” He stared the older group down until they shied away.
An aide told the story to Chris, and she cried when she heard about her son’s loyalty. It was something that couldn’t be taught, she said. He was fiercely loyal — to his friends, his teammates, his coaches. For the past two years, we saw that same loyalty toward head coach Clay Helton, toward his offense, toward our school and our football program.
Every single one of his teammates spoke of Sam with a mix of awe and pride. He was a perfect team player, they said, a shy guy who led by example and lifted up those around him. We saw it even in that dismal route in Arlington, as he walked the sidelines talking to his receivers and praised his teammates in postgame interviews.
Sometimes, it got exhausting. After all, the offense this season had its flaws, and it could get tiresome to hear a quarterback defend his team and coaches with such vigor, even when they were clearly letting him down. But every time that Sam defended this program, I saw the same little kid who had stuck up for his friend on the playground — fiercely loyal, perhaps to a fault, but always unwavering.
It’s easy enough for fans to wax poetic about team loyalty and the courage of those athletes who choose to finish what they started with their college programs. Many will claim that it’s in those athletes’ best interests to stay and get their degrees, to fulfill the college education that exists as the purported “pay” for a college athlete.
But the truth of the matter is that Sam doesn’t owe USC anything more than he has already given. In fact, he’s given this school just as much as it gave him. Nothing reflects that truth more than the Cotton Bowl.
In his final game, Sam took nine sacks, often brutal and often preventable. He threw a boneheaded interception, but made up for it by doubling Ohio State’s passing yards and slicing apart the secondary to eat up the field. But nothing that Sam did could make up for the lack of all the other factors — pocket protection, clock management, receiver receptions — that could have turned the corner to create a comeback. He tried, but he wasn’t enough on his own.
In the end, I think that Sam’s final chapter at USC feels like such a heartbreak because we were all rooting for him. Yes, we wanted the team to win. We wanted the redemption of reclaiming national championship caliber, and all the glory that would follow in its stead. But we also wanted Sam to win it all, and we knew he could do it.
At the start of the season, I bought into all of the hype. Hook, line and sinker. If anyone asked me, Sam Darnold was going to win us the Pac-12 Championship and the National Championship and the Heisman to boot. And as the season dragged on, I wondered — was I really wrong? Was he not that good? Was it all a fluke?
With the pain of the last season finally fading, I’ve come to see that we were all right. On any given season, Sam could’ve been that guy for us. It wasn’t our year, perhaps, but that’s not his fault. It’s also not his fault that he couldn’t give us the goodbye we wanted, especially on his own.
And even though he didn’t go out in all of the blazing glory that we had hoped for him, I know that as the years pass, this school will remember him at his heights — scrambling out of the pocket, slinging bullets past Penn State’s triple coverage and sprinting down the sideline of the Rose Bowl with his helmet held high.
For Sam, USC will always be here. So will the Trojan Family.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism.