Grinding Gears: A farewell to USC sports and the memories of covering them

I remember the first story I ever wrote for the Daily Trojan, — how could I forget it? It was the first week of my freshman year, and the sports editors asked if someone could cover football practice the next morning. As the eager, naive freshman that I was, I signed up.

The next day, I showed up to Howard Jones Field bright and early to no fewer than 15 news trucks lining McClintock Avenue. Every local news channel was there. ESPN was there. Steve Sarkisian, the head football coach at the time, was making his first public statement since he appeared on stage intoxicated in front of boosters during the Salute to Troy event. The story made national headlines and would eventually lead to his termination.

And there I was, a wide-eyed freshman, covering my first story for the campus newspaper. If you look at the video that ESPN embedded above its story on its website, you will catch a full glimpse of me, standing to the left of Sark, sporting a bright blue T-shirt and neon green backpack. I looked like a total freshman dork.

Unbeknownst to me, that kicked off four years of working at the Daily Trojan, which has defined so much of my time at USC. It also led to this column, where for the last seven semesters I’ve been privileged to have a weekly platform to spew my hot sports takes.

But this sign-off column isn’t about me. It shouldn’t be. It is about the people I have met, the stories I have written and the moments I have witnessed over the last four years. And man, there have been so many that the challenge lies in where to start.

I could start with Jake Olson, the blind long snapper on the football team who has been an incredible inspiration in his four years here. He was the subject of my first-ever feature. We sat on the patio outside Heritage Hall, his guide dog Quebec by his feet, and I listened to him describe his journey, struggles and persistence. I was at the practice where Sarkisian called on him to deliver his first snap during a live field goal drill, and I was in the press box two years later when he snapped for the first time in a game.

I will never forget either moment, and neither will anyone else in attendance. Nor will I forget Olson’s quote after the game on appearing in his first game, a line that sucked the air out of a packed room of media members.

“I just think there’s a beauty in it. If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one.”

Amen, Jake.

I could go with Jack Jablonski, the hockey player who was paralyzed after a hit during a game in high school. I still get emotional thinking about his mom choking up during our phone interview, describing the frantic moments after the injury in which he looked at her and said, “Mom, I can’t feel my legs.”

His hockey dreams shattered, his life altered forever, Jablonski persisted. He enrolled at USC, interned with the Los Angeles Kings and started a foundation to raise funds toward a cure for spinal cord injuries. My profile on Jablonski won a California College Media Association Award, but all the recognition should go to Jablonski for his story, for allowing me access to grab a glimpse of his life, to follow him during one of his grueling thrice-weekly rehab sessions and see the daily struggles that come with paralysis. If there is one person who will beat the odds and walk again, it is Jack.

Or I could open with Sam Darnold, the phenom quarterback who I had the pleasure of covering when I was sports editor in 2016. I was in Utah for his first-ever start. USC lost that game on a rainy, miserable Friday night in Salt Lake City, dropping its record to 1-3. The Trojans were off to their worst start since 2001, and I remember thinking, “This poor redshirt freshman is going to get killed.”

Nobody was prepared for how exceptional Darnold was. This man became superhuman the rest of the season, making spectacular plays on a weekly basis. I loved his laid-back, lowkey attitude, the way he treated an upset over No. 4 Washington on the road like he won a pick-up game. Perhaps that’s what made him effective as a leader, the quiet confidence that his teammates automatically respected.

USC won its last nine games, culminating in a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State for the ages. That is the best sporting event I have ever attended, and it will take a pretty damn good game to beat it. I thought I was experiencing an earthquake in the press box when the sold-out Rose Bowl shook after Matt Boermeester kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.

There are so many other ways to begin — with Bennie Boatwright and his work ethic that will lead him to a successful professional basketball career; men’s basketball head coach Andy Enfield, who sat with me for not one, but two extensive profiles on his efforts to revamp the program; sports information director Tim Tessalone and his entire team, who are so accommodating in working with student media to cover this prestigious athletic program. It is fitting that my final byline in this paper later this week will be a profile of Tessalone, who has experienced more than 40 years of sports memories at USC.

I can debate how to begin recapping my time around the USC sports landscape, but there’s no doubt how I will end it: with a heartfelt note of appreciation. Appreciation for all the incredible people I have met, the friends and memories I have made covering this program, for the passion of the USC fan base through good and bad times, and lastly, for the opportunity to go along for the ride, to grow as both a person and a journalist and witness some amazing stories over the last four years. Freshman dork me would be so proud.

Eric He is a senior writing about current events in sports. He is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” ran Mondays.