The dream season – the perfect one – hung precariously in the Palo Alto air.
In the four seconds that those lofty expectations spent floating in the night sky, USC players still clung to hope. When Matt Barkley’s pass crashed back to Earth out of bounds, the unbeaten season shattered. The weight of those soaring goals crumbled atop the Trojans.
But dreams of that fragile crystal football somehow remained intact.
Nine seconds – a mere formality – lingered when Barkley’s fourth-and-40 pass caromed onto the Stanford sideline. Stanford 21, USC 14. The Cardinal had toppled the team seemingly predestined to run rampant through the Pac-12 and fight for the national title since Barkley spurned NFL riches.
But the Trojans didn’t yield to themselves or each other after those nine seconds ticked away. They didn’t fracture as their undefeated season had. Fingers weren’t pointed.
Focus didn’t wane. The team pressed on through defeat, its ultimate goal still vivid, though more distant. The Trojans weren’t broken by the Week 3 loss, in part, because 16 of them couldn’t be.
Those 16 Trojans – several of whom are the most respected voices in the locker room and the most diligent workers on the field – had used their one week free of academic or athletic obligations this past summer to travel to Haiti. There, they built four homes for citizens of a nation ravaged by and still reeling from a 2010 earthquake. While building those houses for four days in the Haitian heat, the players – the team leaders – hammered together unspoken bonds that wouldn’t relent after a stunning defeat or to a season that had taken a jarring detour.
“It’s special to see how that grit and toughness we felt and endured while in Haiti, we could bring that back now and say, ‘You know what, it’s go time now. We let one slip through the cracks, but we’re going to move on and have a chance to win the rest of our games on our schedule,’ ” senior punter Kyle Negrete said.
In May, the players boarded an early morning plane in Los Angeles to embark on a journey that Barkley’s father helped organize and donors helped fund, assisting in the efforts of Hope Force International. Once they arrived in Haiti, the Trojans said they were appalled by the decaying infrastructure, the shattered buildings, the homes cobbled from scraps and piled together in endless rows of debris. The boisterous group grew quiet. In that moment, and many that would follow, they shared a common, quiet understanding.
“We all know each other athletically. The glue that held us together was we all play football,” junior defensive end Kevin Greene said. “Just seeing each other out there on a different side of the world and seeing how we handle the small adversities and seeing how the Haitian people handled their own adversities, it was just breathtaking. And you really got to see a different side of guys – it was definitely positive.”
The players toiled amid 98 percent humidity, building four houses alongside the four families that would go on to inhabit them. It was grueling work, the players said, but immensely rewarding not only because they were aiding people of little means, but because of the camaraderie forged with every wall raised. They’ve all sweated and strained aside one another on the football field, but this perspiration meant more.
“You’re tired, you want water, and you look over and you see your buddy just hammering nails, and your teammates just hammering nails,” Negrete said. “You see the sweat and the hard work that your brothers are doing – it really pushed us.”
Greene’s 22nd birthday came during the trip. He celebrated with his teammates and local school children who dove on top the 6-foot-4, 255-pound giant after they sang happy birthday. It was a far more welcome pile than the one he finds himself in every Saturday, one that gave him the sort of memory he craves.
“I wanted to look back on my college years and tell myself that I did a lot more than going to class and playing football, that I was able to touch the world in some sort of way,” Greene said.
Greene did. They all did. Then the 16 Trojans returned, and teammates took note of the unity among the team leaders who had built those homes.
Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald are captains and USC’s two most heralded players. Junior wideout Robert Woods is one of the offense’s most dynamic playmakers. Senior center Khaled Holmes is the anchor of the offensive line. Other players look up to those stars and are eager to emulate them. So the positive tone set on the trip has since trickled down to much of the roster.
“The bonds we created among the 16 guys, obviously, it’s extremely special,” Negrete said. “We brought that experience back to the 95 guys who were here.”
That effect was evident in the immediate aftermath of the loss to Stanford. The team has remained unified, Green said. The defensive lineman noted that he wasn’t accustomed to the team responding to disappointment and adversity with such poise and focus, crediting the lessons learned in Haiti for the change in demeanor.
One of those lessons was simple – it’s merely football. The players learned about true hardship, true heartache, when they toured and worked in the dilapidated nation. They wouldn’t let themselves or their teammates be consumed by a loss after what they’d seen, and lived, four months before. While these players’ lives are largely built around football, and an upset loss can feel like the world is caving in, those who went on the trip knew that the planet was much bigger; they’d seen what happens to people when their world, quite literally, crumbles around them.
“We lost our game, but there are people who did not eat that night and there’s also people who did not have shelter,” Greene said. “There’s a lot bigger problems going on in the world than just us losing.”
The Trojans’ composure in the face of frustration and uncertainty was evident the week after they fell to Stanford – USC routed conference rival Cal 27-9. After a week of rest, they defeated Utah 38-28 in front of a hostile Thursday night crowd.
The schedule toughens soon. With games against Oregon, UCLA and Notre Dame on the horizon, the friendships built in Haiti will again be tested. The Trojans’ perfect season is a distant memory, but thanks to four humid, rewarding days in May, their hope isn’t.
“There is a direct correlation between the [reaction to] the loss and what we experienced in Haiti,” Negrete said. “It brought us all together.”
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