Standing among men made giants by pads and cleats, Frankie Telfort is almost dwarfed. He exudes an austerity punctuated only by the gold chain and diamond studs he decorates himself with. He rarely smiles.
Until late July of this year, the cusp of the new season, Telfort was one of the most highly touted football recruits in the country: a fast, slightly undersized outside linebacker known for the strength of his hits and the depth of his football intelligence.
One day in July, however, Telfort was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital heart defect that could be deadly for a high-performing athlete. Telfort’s career as a player ended immediately. Standing among his fellow Trojans after a recent practice, he recalled those moments of loss with a detached honesty.
“It was pretty tough, just trying to transition from playing ball to not playing ball. It’s something you love and it gets stripped away from you,” Telfort said, his voice steady as he recalled the memory.
But Telfort’s words suggest that those few weeks after his diagnosis are a time still etched raw in his mind.
“I played ball for the last 10 years of my life and it kind of seemed like a bad dream or something like that,” Telfort said. “I had a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of nights I cried — I’m not afraid to say that.”
After his diagnosis, USC made the decision to honor Telfort’s full scholarship and to allow him to remain on the field as an assistant linebackers coach. Telfort threw his full weight into the responsibility, maintaining a strong visibility in practice by offering advice, doling out criticism and getting down in the mud with his former teammates.
“I’m just an extra set of eyes,” Telfort said. “I’m looking at what my linebackers are doing. I throw in my two cents every down and when they make a mistake or something like that.”
Defensive coordinator Rocky Seto has watched Telfort’s transition from player to coach in the little time that has passed and suggested that the young man has “tremendous potential.”
“One of the things that was his strength as a player was the knowledge that he had and how much he studied,” Seto said. “Coaches have to be really into it and dig in as much as they can. He’s already done that as a player, so if he continues to dig in I foresee great things for him as a coach.”
Though Telfort said he has had little trouble adapting to the sudden distance between himself and his teammates, he admitted the transition from player to coach has forced him to shift perspectives rather quickly.
“Let’s say you get like your bell rung one play or you’re out of breath, you’re not really thinking about your plays. Whereas as a coach, you’re always thinking about plays and what the players need to do and what assignments they have,” Telfort explained.
Seto, himself only a little more than a decade removed from the game as a player, remarked that while Telfort has suffered no disrespect from the older and more experienced players, the pure newness of his situation could make things hard for him.
“It’s so hard to have that separation,” Seto said. “I remember when I first started volunteering after I got done playing, there’s still a connection with your old teammates. He’s in the transitionary phase right now, where he’s trying to learn and see what coaching’s all about.”
Outside linebacker and fellow freshman Jarvis Jones praised Telfort’s presence on the sideline, particularly the palpable energy and experience that the coach brings every day.
“He’s pushing us real hard. He’s working on our blitzes, our get-offs, our cut-blocks and everything you could think of to become a better player,” Jones said. “Frankie is a great coach. He’s got a lot of energy. He tries to push us everyday to be the best players we can be.”
Jones not only spoke highly of Telfort’s effectiveness as a coach, but also of his presence as a rallying point for the team.
“When he gives us a pregame speech, when Frankie talks everybody’s really feeling it. He’s one of the best out of us because he can’t do it,” Jones said. “He’s just trying to play through us, and we play through Frankie. I love him like a brother, and everybody really respects Frankie and what he does for us.”
When asked about his future prospects on and off the field, Telfort displayed a practicality that belied his youth, expressing his belief that education is paramount to his future.
“I’ve got to graduate first. I want to major in creative writing with a pre-med path, so I got my hands full,” Telfort said. “Hopefully I can either go to med school here or back closer to home. I guess after that there’s always the coaching option, just because I love the game.”
Earl Sims, Telfort’s former football coach at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, reminisced about how Telfort’s drive pushed him through those first dark days after his diagnosis.
“He was devastated, and when I asked how he felt, whether or not he was feeling homesick, whether or not he wanted to give it up and come back home, he was adamant about not coming home because he left to pursue a plan and he didn’t want to give up, even if that plan had changed,” Sims said.
Telfort’s former coach remembers the neophyte coach’s writing ability fondly, remarking that while Telfort may still be searching for the next step in the face of a brave new world, he is well-suited to rewrite his story.
“I remember saying to him ‘God never makes mistakes. This might be his will for you to move on to something else.’ Everybody has a story, and everybody builds their story by their lives,” Sims said. “Frankie’s trying to figure out how to put together his own story now.”