Whether it’s play­ing bas­ket­ball near the beach with his bud­dies or lead­ing one of the great­est Rose Bowl come­backs in his­tory, Sam Darnold is the guy you want on your side

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Zach Helfand

Rose Bowl hero and a front-run­ner to win the Heis­man Tro­phy, USC’s Sam Darnold finds com­fort at home in San Cle­mente.

The beach city boys used to throw on USC jer­seys and run plays in the drive­way, all think­ing they’d one day make like Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush. Kids’ dreams. The usual. Ex­cept one of them ac­tu­ally be­came a Rose Bowl hero and front-run­ner to win the Heis­man Tro­phy. And now he has to fig­ure out what hap­pens next.

“I never knew it was go­ing to get like this,” he says.

Sam Darnold ar­rived sud­denly at fame, and he is puz­zling over how to em­brace it with­out los­ing his iden­tity. So shortly be­fore his 20th birth­day, he steers his 2001 High­lander to a house not far from the beach, where on a back­yard dirt court four bare­foot guys are play­ing some­thing that vaguely re­sem­bles a bas­ket­ball game.

As he nav­i­gates new pres­sure, out­size at­ten­tion and van­ish­ing free time, Darnold of­ten re­treats to the beach life­style where he feels safe, with peo­ple he trusts, to re­mind him of who he is.

Plus, in this case, Darnold, who speaks like he’s pay­ing by the word, seems to be hop­ing his friends can ex­plain all he’s fac­ing bet­ter than he can.

He sits down on the side­line next to a young man named Dean, who tries to ex­plain how his friend han­dles stress.

Back at San Cle­mente High, their foot­ball team was down 14 points in a play­off game. Ev­ery­one was rat­tled as Dean, a re­ceiver, si­dled up to his an­gry quar­ter­back on the side­line. “Dude, you good?” Darnold stared straight ahead and grum­bled. He fell silent for a tick. Then he did some­thing that star­tled his buddy.

“He looks at me and starts smil­ing,” Dean says.

“And then he goes out on the field and we started win­ning.”

Dean Licht shrugs and shakes his head. It’s his best shot at ex­plain­ing the un­ex­plain­able.

Darnold says noth­ing. With a broad chest and wavy red­dish-blond hair, he looks like G.I. Joe — if Joe quit the ser­vice to live in a Volk­swa­gen by the beach. He’s dressed in his usual shorts and T-shirt, wear­ing blue Vans and high white socks. And he’s al­ready lost in­ter­est in hear­ing about him­self.

“What even is this game, dude?” he says to the group near the hoop.

“The game is called Bon­ers,” he’s told.

“That’s not a very good de­scrip­tion of it,” Darnold says, look­ing annoyed.

A few of his friends sti­fle laughs. The easy jokes are part

of why Darnold comes here as much as he can.

“I re­al­ized with all that stuff hap­pen­ing … that I need to do stuff in San Cle­mente and with my friends more now, that I’m go­ing to be more and more busy every day,” Darnold says. “It just makes you not take it for granted.”

Over­head, the sun has fried the marine layer, leav­ing only a few marsh­mal­low tufted clouds to in­ter­rupt the blue. Most of Darnold’s friends spent the night here and are plan­ning to call up some girls, watch a UFC fight, and do it again to­mor­row.

Darnold sa­vors th­ese times but can’t stay long. A few re­ceivers are driv­ing in for a pass and catch. As he watches his friends play, he takes or­ders for a pre-work­out meal from his fa­vorite sand­wich spot, Board n’ Brew, which has killer se­cret sauce and an ex­pan­sive menu.

“Baja Beef, dude!” some­one sug­gests. But Darnold is al­ready con­tem­plat­ing an au­di­ble. He knows if he goes into the store he’ll cause a scene. So he calls his par­ents. “Yeah, can you pick up Board n’ Brew?” he says. “That would be awe­some. Be­cause we shouldn’t go down there.”

He pock­ets the phone and jumps into the game. The rules are fairly straight­for­ward: One team of two shoots jumpers from around the key. The other team tries to tap in the misses.

The play starts ca­sual, then sud­denly be­comes a real com­pe­ti­tion.

Darnold would be an ex­cel­lent poker player, but this is his one tell: His fa­cial fea­tures tighten ever so slightly. His brow low­ers a frac­tion of an inch. His lips purse a hair. It’s an ex­pres­sion — The Face — in all his old pho­tos, and it ap­pears most times he touches a ball.

This is what Darnold looks like when he gets se­ri­ous.

He and Dean are los­ing, and Darnold mut­ters to him­self af­ter misses. Then, the shots start to fall.

Jake Rus­sell, a high school buddy who is Darnold’s room­mate at USC, tries to rat­tle him. He sug­gests Darnold is only do­ing well be­cause vis­i­tors are present, tak­ing notes and pho­tos for an ar­ti­cle.

Darnold turns to the wit­nesses.

“Did you hear what Jake just said?” he asks. “He said when the cam­eras are on I do way bet­ter.” Darnold faces the bas­ket. “He acts like this doesn’t hap­pen every day.”

The pen is ready. The cam­era is on.

He shoots. The ball arcs through the tat­tered net.

In a pro­duc­tion van out­side the Rose Bowl, the men in charge of ESPN’s broad­cast, di­rec­tor Jeff Evers and pro­ducer Josh Hoff­man, ex­changed glances. A gonzo Rose Bowl game was hurtling to a fin­ish, and their ex­pres­sions said, What the heck is this kid gonna do next?

The broad­cast kept cut­ting to the kid’s face, which was fast be­com­ing The Face — the same one Darnold showed while shoot­ing hoops.

USC was up 13 points on Penn State. Then, in a flash, it trailed by 15. Darnold was in the process of throw­ing for 453 yards. Near the end, he capped one of the sto­ried bowl game’s most mem­o­rable come­backs with one of its most mem­o­rable touch­down passes — his fifth of the game. And the Tro­jans won, 52-49.

But un­til the fi­nal whistle, Darnold re­mained stoic, brow low­ered a hair, lips slightly pursed.

One friend said he thought the cam­era­men were wait­ing for Darnold to crack. Evers, the ESPN di­rec­tor, said he found the quar­ter­back’s dis­pas­sion com­pelling. Where had it come from? Was it a fa­cade? What the cam­eras didn’t see was that the night be­fore the Rose Bowl, at the team ho­tel down­town, Darnold’s team­mates cy­cled through stages of ex­cite­ment, an­tic­i­pa­tion and anx­i­ety. Tight end Daniel Ima­torb­hebhe didn’t sleep. In the morn­ing, Porter Gustin, the mus­cle­bound out­side line­backer, lay on his back in the tub and used the show­er­head to spray wa­ter on his face. Helps the nerves, he said.

Darnold woke to his alarm, well rested, then calmly gave a shake to his suit­e­m­ate, line­backer Cameron Smith. He passed the rest of the day watch­ing “Law & Or­der” on tele­vi­sion.

No USC coach or player re­calls a mo­ment last sea­son when Darnold ap­peared ag­i­tated. No friend or fam­ily mem­ber re­calls many mo­ments ever when Darnold ap­peared ner­vous. (“Be­sides maybe get­ting in the car to go to prom,” his older sis­ter, Franki, says.)

Yet, Darnold says he was nearly over­come with nerves early in the Rose Bowl. It’s ap­par­ent on film: He rushes his first few throws. But this is what sep­a­rates Darnold: Within a se­ries or two, he set­tled in, just like that.

Dur­ing games, Darnold of­ten stands alone on the side­line. When los­ing, he pri­vately stews. He learned the ben­e­fit of com­po­sure in high school, af­ter a bas­ket­ball game. San Cle­mente blew an eight-point lead, and he threw a fist into a locker door. A bro­ken fin­ger caused him to miss much of the sea­son.

“He doesn’t get flus­tered now, he gets mad,” says Tyson Hel­ton, USC’s quar­ter­backs coach. “And that’s a good thing.”

Says tight end Tyler Petite, who shares an off-cam­pus du­plex with Darnold: “He doesn’t like to mess up.”

The day af­ter the Rose Bowl, Derek Wi­nokur, a child­hood friend, found Darnold sit­ting on the couch, watch­ing a re­play of the game. Darnold was grum­bling about his mis­reads and bad throws.

“I was like, ‘Sam, you had one of the most in­cred­i­ble Rose Bowl games of all time,’ ” Wi­nokur says. “‘Just re­lax.’ ”

Clay Hel­ton, USC’s coach, says his fa­vorite Darnold mem­ory from the Rose Bowl wasn’t the quar­ter­back’s im­pro­vised, gut-drop­ping rain­drop throw be­tween three de­fend­ers for the touch­down that tied the score. It was what hap­pened right af­ter that pass.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine per­cent of all 19-year-olds would’ve dang-gone ab­so­lutely crazy,” Hel­ton says. “In­stead, his first thing af­ter do­ing it, and you could see it on the TV copy, he turns his head and looks at me. And it’s, ‘Coach, one or two?’ ”

Af­ter the game, Darnold de­clined of­fers to party on cam­pus and in­stead drove to San Cle­mente. Ar­riv­ing home, he tossed his uni­form to­ward his mom, Chris, and said, “I need you never, ever to wash this.”

Then he went to Dean’s.

Ri­fling through piles in his messy bed­room, Darnold sur­prises him­self by dis­cov­er­ing an­cient trea­sures, as if an ar­chae­ol­o­gist stum­bling upon a cache of ar­ti­facts. His bed is the same bare mat­tress he threw on the f loor as a kid. He still has a poster for the 2003 USC foot­ball team on the wall. A science project on lizards hangs nearby. On his dresser sits a plas­tic mu­si­cal in­stru­ment from his early child­hood.

“I have so many clothes too, just lay­ing around,” he laughs. “A bunch of col­lege clothes.” His eyes scan, then widen. “And then clothes from freak­ing el­e­men­tary school!”

Darnold doesn’t like change.

His par­ents say he’s a movie buff, but his girl­friend coun­ters that he mostly watches the same 10 or so, over and over. He has recorded one voice­mail greet­ing, ever. He was in fourth grade.

“I think I need to do that,” he says of chang­ing it. “Or should I not? Prob­a­bly not for a while.”

Re­cently, Darnold’s par­ents have con­tem­plated down­siz­ing once they re­tire. Darnold doesn’t want to hear it. “One of the few things he has an opin­ion on,” says his fa­ther, Mike.

Darnold and friends al­ways fre­quent the same beach, Lausen’s, a nar­row strip of sand shel­tered by a sin­gle rail­road track and a scrubby hill. A Beach Boys song come to life.

Lausen’s is Darnold’s fa­vorite spot, and the place he made his first come­back of sorts. He was 5, boo­gie board­ing on a day when a big swell smashed huge, hol­low waves into a far-out beach break. His mom wanted him to come in. He re­fused. The shore looked smaller and smaller. A rip cur­rent was pulling him out to sea.

Chris ran to a life­guard. A huge set was rolling in. The life­guard couldn’t do any­thing un­til it passed. Chris sobbed. He’s not a great swim­mer.

Hope­fully he’ll catch one of those waves, the life­guard said.

The set hit the shal­lows and rose. Darnold set­tled into a wave, a big one. He glided in on his belly and strut­ted across the sand with a huge smile.

Darnold was al­ways like this — a Bud­dha child, calm and al­most silent. Chris, wor­ried about his ret­i­cence, asked a teacher friend to test him be­fore first grade. He’s fine, the friend said. He’s just shy.

Chris and Mike al­ways fig­ured their chil­dren would be lit­tle surfers. The beach was al­ways there and al­ways free.

“Our kids never went with­out, but we never had af­flu­ence or any­thing like that,” Mike says. “They never ex­pected stuff or wanted stuff.”

Chris was a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher, the daugh­ter of a two-sport USC ath­lete, an Olympian and for­mer Marl­boro Man named Dick Ham­mer. Mike worked con­struc­tion. They bought their house, a for­mer drug spot that went into fore­clo­sure, for the price and for what they saw from atop the garage: ocean views.

Chris was preg­nant with Franki, and Mike gut­ted the place and ren­o­vated it him­self.

As a kid, Darnold boo­gie boarded, but he never surfed much. He was al­ways play­ing — base­ball, bas­ket­ball, foot­ball. He was a re­ceiver and line­backer his first two sea­sons at San Cle­mente High, but he came in at quar­ter­back one game as a sopho­more.

San Cle­mente faced a dou­ble-digit deficit against Te­soro High and Darnold hardly said a word as he led a come­back to tie the score, then won the game with a two-point con­ver­sion in the fi­nal sec­onds.

It was some time af­ter this that his team­mates came up with a nick­name for him: “Our Lord and Sav­ior.”

Darnold’s USC room­mates later re­vived it. It was clear he res­cued the pro­gram last sea­son. USC started 1-2, and Hel­ton was on the hot seat in his first full sea­son as head coach.

The Tro­jans fell to 1-3 with a loss at Utah in Darnold’s first start, but in the postgame news con­fer­ence, Hel­ton glowed. He was … happy? The coach says now that he knew USC had found its quar­ter­back. The Tro­jans had been saved.

The nick­name mor­ti­fies Darnold, and he wishes it wasn’t known. “I don’t know where that comes from,” he says.

But ear­lier, his mother had showed off a scrap­book. On one of the first pages was a photo of Darnold in a preschool Christ­mas play. His role: baby Je­sus, the Lord and Sav­ior. He had to laugh. “There you go,” he said. Fame is strange, Darnold says. Peo­ple ask him for things all the time. Re­cently, he re­ceived fan mail at home.

“It is scary when you don’t know who the guys send­ing you a bunch of pic­tures of your­self are,” Darnold says.

He has told his girl­friend, Claire, that he ap­pre­ci­ates that she doesn’t “yes” him all the time. Such peo­ple are in short sup­ply.

He tries to steer clear of crowds. Shortly af­ter the Rose Bowl, Darnold was mobbed when he went to watch a cousin play vol­ley­ball at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity in Irvine. On the way there, he stopped for chicken in Aliso Viejo. He sat down: Selfie. Photo. Au­to­graph. A bar­tender came over to join him. Af­ter his dad paid the bill, the wait­ress ap­proached. “I hate to do this, but …” An­other photo.

Darnold was home on break for the rest of the week and didn’t go out in pub­lic again.

He is a nat­u­ral in­tro­vert. Claire met him last fall and was drawn by his lack of pre­tense and a hu­mil­ity that sur­prised her. He liked her too, but it took some time be­fore he opened up. When he met her par­ents for the first time, he hardly talked. They thought they’d scared him. “And I’m like, ‘No, that’s just him,’ ” Claire said.

Though he is a mem­ber of a fra­ter­nity, and is known to prac­tice dance moves with his room­mates for hours, Darnold prefers to keep his cir­cle small.

Ear­lier this sum­mer, he and his mother got into an ar­gu­ment when she asked him to visit his old teach­ers at her school. They would love to just say hi, she told him.

Vis­it­ing the school unan­nounced would cause chaos, he told her.

She had to con­cede that point. “My, things have changed,” she says. “I have to re­mem­ber, part of my job is to pro­tect him a lit­tle bit. I didn’t even tell peo­ple he was here. Be­cause they’ll just come over. On Easter. It’s un­be­liev­able.”

Darnold watched an­other quar­ter­back go through a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’ll use [Josh] Rosen as an ex­am­ple,” Darnold says. “He had so much at­ten­tion on him since he was in eighth grade, you know? … He had me­dia com­ing to his house his sopho­more year in high school when he was the huge re­cruit. I never re­ally had that un­til last year. It’s been kind of an ad­just­ment for me, ob­vi­ously, but for my fam­ily too.”

Speak­ing of Rosen, the UCLA quar­ter­back, Chris asks whether Sam has heard his fa­ther’s story. Right now, Mike is work­ing a grave­yard shift do­ing plumb­ing and gas work.

“He’ll be able to tell you when he gets here,” Chris says. “I think it’s a funny story.”

Darnold didn’t care for re­cruit­ing, view­ing it as a dis­trac­tion from the games. And dur­ing the win­ter and sum­mer re­cruit­ing sea­sons, when there were seven-on­seven tour­na­ments, it in­ter­fered with bas­ket­ball.

Plus, he didn’t think seven-on-seven qual­i­fied as real foot­ball any­way, so he re­fused to par­take un­til in­juries dur­ing his ju­nior sea­son forced him to hit the cir­cuit.

“I just think it’s a lot of the coaches try­ing way too hard,” Darnold says of re­cruit­ing. “And I think it can some­times ruin ca­reers. If a player’s su­per good, su­per tal­ented, they might not think that they have to work as hard as they should be­cause all th­ese coaches say, ‘Oh yeah you’re go­ing to start right away.’ ”

Lightly re­cruited early on, Darnold re­lied on his own eval­u­a­tion of him­self and ri­val quar­ter­backs. His keen per­cep­tion formed the bedrock of what ev­ery­one close to Darnold de­scribes as an un­com­mon con­fi­dence. Even­tu­ally, he trusted Hel­ton be­cause they seemed to value the same things.

USC al­ready had a solid com­mit­ment from an­other quar­ter­back of the same age: Ricky Town, who at the time might have been the na­tion’s most touted high school passer. Hel­ton was then USC’s of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, and Darnold’s high school coach, Jaime Or­tiz, swore to him that his quar­ter­back was le­git.

Hel­ton watched film and agreed. He stud­ied Darnold’s body lan­guage and noted that team­mates took their cues from him. Hel­ton saw Darnold’s ath­leti­cism and in­stincts where oth­ers might have fo­cused on his un­pol­ished me­chan­ics.

Ul­ti­mately, head coach Steve Sark­isian gave Hel­ton the go-ahead for a sec­ond quar­ter­back schol­ar­ship. Hel­ton re­cruited hard. He vis­ited Darnold’s house of­ten. He ate Chris’ cheese­cake.

Sark­isian didn’t fare as well. The coach’s one in­home visit went poorly enough that Darnold made up an ex­cuse and left early. Darnold: “Sark is weird.” Chris: “He said ‘phe­nom­e­nal’ so many times. I re­mem­ber that.”

It didn’t mat­ter. “I knew I was in good hands with Hel­ton,” Darnold says.

Other coaches some­times used mys­te­ri­ous eval­u­a­tion meth­ods. To­ward the end of Stan­ford’s re­cruit­ing camp there was a longest­throw com­pe­ti­tion. Darnold’s best was around 67 yards. An­other quar­ter­back threw 71. “And they made a big deal about that,” Mike says.

UCLA in­vited Darnold to a camp, but the staff hardly gave him a look. The coaches show­ered at­ten­tion on Rosen. Af­ter­ward, Darnold asked his dad, What’s so spe­cial? I don’t get it.

Which brings the Darnolds back to Rosen, and Mike’s story.

Mike is a med­i­cal gas plumber and has of­ten worked at UC Irvine Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Orange for more than 15 years. Re­cently, a gen­eral con­trac­tor friend sought him out.

“He goes, ‘Mike, your kid’s the quar­ter­back?’ ” Mike says. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Dude, you’ve gotta come look at this.’ ”

The con­trac­tor led him down a hall on one of the up­per floors un­til they came upon a name­plate: “Charles Rosen.”

“He goes, ‘That’s the other quar­ter­back’s dad!’ ” Mike says.

Dr. Charles Rosen, an or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon once on a short list to be­come sur­geon gen­eral of the United States, is also the fa­ther of UCLA’s star quar­ter­back. The con­trac­tor who made the rev­e­la­tion of­fered to tell Rosen too. Mike de­clined.

“I don’t know him,” Mike says. “And I don’t think he cares.”

As for their sons, Darnold says he and Rosen are friendly enough: “He’s a lot dif­fer­ent than me, but we can def­i­nitely just click on a lot of dif­fer­ent things just be­cause we’re go­ing through the same stuff.”

As Darnold slips into his room to change for his throw and catch, his par­ents lower their voices and dis­cuss ways to shield their son from the at­ten­tion that makes him un­easy.

There is some con­cern among peo­ple close to him that the pres­sure of great ex­pec­ta­tions might change him. For the first time, he has lots of peo­ple telling him how good he is.

Darnold isn’t wor­ried. “I just want to play well just be­cause that’s what I want do,” he says. “It’s not be­cause I need to play well to win the Heis­man, you know?”

He says if he plays hard and pre­pares, he’ll do well. He shrugs. “But you never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

His equa­nim­ity baf­fles his par­ents. They want to know where it comes from. “I’ve al­ways wanted to ask you this,” his mother says. “Like your come­back, that fourth quar­ter, do you even re­mem­ber?”

Light glows through an open screen door. Darnold sits in the house he doesn’t want his par­ents to sell, near the jersey hang­ing on the wall that bears the same stains as the af­ter­noon he wore it.

“I re­mem­ber it,” he says, “but it was just … I just re­mem­ber them be­ing up and me think­ing, ‘Oh shoot, we’re go­ing to lose.’ ”

His face is serene, his brow un­furled, his eyes star­ing straight ahead.

The feel­ing lasted maybe a sec­ond or two, he re­calls.

Then he re­laxed, and the thought of los­ing was gone.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

Pho­to­graphs by Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

USC QUAR­TER­BACK Sam Darnold looks over his fa­vorite spot, Lausen’s Beach in San Cle­mente. Darnold grew up boo­gie board­ing, swim­ming and hang­ing out with friends there, although when he was 5, a rip cur­rent al­most pulled him out to sea.

DARNOLD WORKS OUT with pri­vate quar­ter­backs coach Jor­dan Palmer, left, at San Cle­mente High, where Darnold be­gan as a re­ceiver and line­backer be­fore tak­ing over as a sopho­more.

THE HEIS­MAN TRO­PHY front-run­ner poses with his fa­ther, Mike, and mother, Chris, at their home. Sam was usu­ally quiet as a child.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

SAM DARNOLD RARELY gets flus­tered on the field, but he ex­pe­ri­ences an em­bar­rass­ing mo­ment with his mother as they flip through a fam­ily al­bum.

DARNOLD FINDS a pic­ture of him­self when he was in the fourth grade. Co­in­ci­den­tally, that’s when he recorded his first and only voice­mail mes­sage.

Robert Gau­thier Los An­ge­les Times

DARNOLD PLAYS BAS­KET­BALL with long­time friend Dean Licht, right, in Licht’s back­yard. With his new fame, Darnold ap­pre­ci­ates time with his friends more.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

DARNOLD LED the Tro­jans to a No. 3 rank­ing and nine con­sec­u­tive vic­to­ries to end the sea­son, in­clud­ing a stir­ring 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

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