The murmurs I’m hearing through the grapevine signal a sense of uneasiness in Southern California, as the calendar changes to 2011 in just more than a month.
To put it mildly, the last 330 days around this neck of the woods haven’t exactly been hallmark material for the USC football program.
Coaching departures, NCAA-imposed sanctions, a student-turned-player-agent roaming aimlessly around campus in a golf cart and a sub-par football season later, and it seems as if the metaphorical ball was dropped long before Saturday night’s 20-16 conclusion.
But for every misstep, blown coverage and deer-in-the-headlights moment that has come the Cardinal and Gold’s way this year, there exist hidden stories beneath the aging peristyles of the Coliseum that shine a much different perspective on what looks to be a bleak and rather unmemorable season.
During last Saturday’s game between USC and Notre Dame, one of these stories — lost between a game-winning touchdown that wasn’t and a torrential downpour — unfolded about 75 cement stairs up from the muddied white lines of the playing field, where 14-year-old Carlos Moran was taking in his first USC game in Section 115, Row 64, Seat 1.
Don’t be fooled by his age because, unlike most teenagers, Carlos is of a rare mold. He’s engaging, mature beyond his years, genuine to a T, and possesses the uncommon ability to charm anybody within the first few seconds of a conversation.
You’d never know it from the uplifting tone in his voice or the amazing knack he has for finding strength in just about any situation, but Carlos’ year has been anything but a swift high step to the end zone.
His 2010 season was not defined by late-game miscues or underwhelming performances, but rather by visits in and out of hospitals, an unpleasant trip to the surgery table and more or less a period of confinement by way of life’s unpredictable nature.
After undergoing surgery earlier this year to, as he puts it bluntly, “remove bags of pus inside of him”, the 14-year-old did what he knew best: stayed patient.
Instead of moping around the LAC+USC Medical Center during the weeks following his surgery, Carlos befriended and bonded with the pediatric team — made up of hospital staff, doctors and students from the USC School of Pharmacy and Keck School of Medicine — who were assigned to look after him.
“I really liked the hospital; everyone was really nice,” Carlos said. “Usually at other hospitals the people that work there don’t have enough time. But for me, they took the time to check in on me, and I really like that.”
Although he might have been treated to first-class customer service during his stay, the biggest reward for his patience and unwavering spirit came on Oct. 18, when he received some friendly encouragement from an unlikely source: the USC football team.
Both confronted with troublesome circumstances and both looking to each other for a much-needed boost of support, it was no surprise that the visit quickly turned into love at first sight between a kid and his local football team.
“For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Carlos said. “There are a lot of people that want to see the USC players, and I got to see them.”
It’s customary upon departure for the team to leave the patients with tickets to an upcoming game — an opportunity Carlos embraced with open arms.
But days before he and his family were set to watch the Trojans in person, a nagging pain in his leg sent Carlos back to the confines of the all-too-familiar medical center — a bump in the road he didn’t take lightly.
His trip to the Coliseum was cancelled, and as all of the other patients excitedly headed toward the USC campus to watch their favorite gridiron stars in person, the 14-year-old was left with the lingering question: When will my day come?
That answer came by way of Phi Delta Chi, USC’s professional pharmacy fraternity, and the helping hand of Lindsey Tsugawa, a graduate student studying pharmacy.
Tsugawa currently works under the direction of Dr. Irving Steinberg, who just so happens to be a member of the pediatric team that cares for Carlos.
Every year around the holidays, the fraternity devotes time to philanthropic activity aimed toward promoting the social, scholastic and professional growth of its members. Whether it’s with their work with the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital or the resources the group delivered to local Los Angeles schools last year, no stone goes unturned in the Phi Delta Chi quest for community outreach.
This year with money earned from several fundraising events on the Heath Sciences Campus, the fraternity’s president Derek Garcia did what any forward-thinking medical student would do — he acted with his heart.
Not only did Phi Delta Chi raise enough money for Carlos to see the Trojans play Notre Dame, but the fraternity provided him with two extra tickets — giving him the opportunity to not only experience the game with his father and a friend, but also teach them some of the finer points along the way.
“In general at the hospital, and especially in pediatrics, we try to divert a patient’s attention to something more positive, so they are not focused on how they are ill,” Tsugawa said. “For him, I could tell he really loved football and having the football players there to help impact his life was huge for him. So to have the opportunity for him to see these players play, and do what they do, was just amazing.”
Fittingly enough, the night unfolded with a bevy of follies and forgettable highlights, including the dropped pass by Carlos’ favorite player, senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson, who Carlos said was the most positive man he met. Combine the turnover-filled sloppy mess of a game with torrential rain, and on the surface you’d expect Carlos’ first visit to USC’s grand cathedral to be his last.
But for a kid who has been forced to grow up faster than most, it’s no surprise the unwelcoming weather and final outcome were not enough to deter Carlos from enjoying a night that almost never happened.
“It was emotional. I don’t care if they lost or if they won,” Carlos said. “At least they played, and I got to be there to see it. It was the best — just a great experience for me.”
So how does a teen’s first football experience play into how we evaluate USC’s turbulent roller coaster ride in 2010?
To start, take Carlos’ advice: “Patience is everything.”
Sure, the Trojans’ newest No. 1 fan can’t help senior quarterback Mitch Mustain on his timing routes, or teach the wide receiving corps Pass-Catching 101. But his unexpected yearlong challenge might be more telling than your standard X’s and O’s revision.
Forced to overcome real obstacles, Carlos simply stayed the course. He accepted the process, opened up to the people around him and replaced fear and uncertainty with positivity and trust.
So the lesson for supporters of the USC football program to learn in the coming year is simple: Do what Carlos Moran has done — face the barriers that lie ahead with an appreciation toward the struggle, even if when all is said and done the journey doesn’t end with new hardware in Heritage Hall.
“For The Love Of The Game” ran Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.