It’s far too fitting that I’m writing my last column for the Daily Trojan on the first day of the 2013 NFL draft.
As I watch Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, T.J. McDonald and others hear their names called over the next few days, I can’t help but remember all the times I interviewed them on the practice field. The laughs. The awkward pauses. The tension after a loss and the joy after a victory. All of it.
But I also felt a connection in another strange way. All the prospects are likely reflecting on their time at USC. Three or four years at a school, and it’s on to the next chapter, wherever that may be. As they ponder their futures and reflect on their pasts, I find myself doing the same.
I came to USC as a graduate student in journalism in the fall of 2011 as a lifelong Trojan fan. My father’s whole side of the family went to USC, and I grew up watching Matt Leinart, Troy Polamalu, Mike Williams and so many other stars.
I finally got to Troy in September of 2011 and was accepted to the Daily Trojan staff. I was assigned my beat by the sports editors at the time and was deeply disappointed: Swim and dive. Not exactly what I had in mind. I couldn’t have told you whether USC had a good team or not. But everyone starts somewhere.
And as I covered head coach Dave Salo and his team of swimmers and divers, it quickly became apparent that I was watching something special that provided me a lesson I wouldn’t soon forget: there’s so much more than just football at USC.
Water polo, tennis and volleyball, for example, are all national championship contenders every single year. Watching Salo’s squad made me realize just how lucky I was to be covering an athletic department like this. Talking to players and coaches and getting access was unlike anything I could have imagined.
But, I’d be lying if I said that my eyes weren’t still on the biggest prize of all: covering Trojan football.
I was lucky enough to be named the sports editor in spring of 2012 and carried that over into the fall of 2012, this time with a co-editor, Sean McCormick. As the editor, football becomes your beat; it’s the main reason a lot of people apply for sports editor in the fall. And why wouldn’t you? You get to travel to all the games, stay in cities you’ve never been to and talk with players and coaches you’ve been watching on the television for years. It was perfect.
Except, then the season actually began. And though I was professional in the press box, I was a little disappointed in watching a 7-6 record unfold before my very eyes. For a team that was coming off a 10-2 record and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll, it was, again, not exactly what I had in mind. I’ll never forget the scene after the Stanford loss in Palo Alto: An absolutely dejected Barkley and McDonald sitting in a makeshift tent-type conference room, at a complete loss for words with their heads down in front of the microphones.
Even I felt bad, and I hadn’t played a snap. I just had to watch.
But just like covering swim and dive, there was something more important behind the scenes than the sport itself — that was the experience I had along the way. Sure, witnessing a devastating loss in Tucson, Ariz., wasn’t a perfect weekend for me. But covering games in New Jersey, Seattle, Salt Lake City and El Paso was a dream come true.
Now, I’m not going to say that staying in El Paso was the greatest moment of my life (anyone who has been there understands), but just being able to present myself as a professional, fly all over the country and sit in the same press box as guys such as Bill Plaschke, Gary Klein and Arash Markazi was an experience you just can’t get in journalism school classes, no matter how good the university is.
But just as important as traveling and sitting with the big dogs was interviewing the biggest dogs of all: the Trojan football players. My first interviews for a football story were with Barkley and offensive lineman Matt Kalil. Talk about getting your feet wet. I was a tad bit starstruck.
But the pair of Matts were two of the nicest guys I’ve talked to and were in no way condescending to a new journalist who was trying to figure things out. They answered my questions respectfully, and I came away impressed. And as I interviewed guys such as McDonald, Woods, Marqise Lee and Nickell Robey, I didn’t even feel like I was interviewing college football stars. Instead, it felt like I had just finished a casual conversation. The butterflies in my stomach disappeared and intimidation dissipated as the year continued.
Even though the 7-6 record in 2012 was subpar, covering this football team was a dream come true, the pinnacle of fanhood for anyone who has ever rooted for the Trojans. Talking to Barkley after a game against Washington at CenturyLink Field in Seattle and asking him why the offense was terrible in the second half is something I will never forget and will cherish forever. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, to say the least. The whole year was.
As the NFL draft continues through the weekend, Barkley, Woods and the gang are probably thinking back, as I am, to their times at USC — the good, the bad, the painful and the joyous. The future is as unclear for them as it is for me, though they’re all going to have jobs in the next few days. Me? Not so much (hopefully that changes soon).
But here’s the bottom line: The past is over with. I seem to remember Barkley responding, when asked about coming back for his senior season and whether it was a mistake or not, with the following:
“I’ve never had one regret about coming back and making the decision to play my senior year. I’ve learned so much from this year that I would never have gained if I had left — I’m not the type of guy to look back and think ‘what if.’
For the first time in my life, I feel like Barkley. Because I wouldn’t have changed a thing in my experience on the Daily Trojan staff, either.
“Goal Line Stand” runs Fridays. To comment on this story, email Michael Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit dailytrojan.com.