True Grit and Tailback U.

To wistful old-timers, the grand era of John McKay and John Robinson was the Trojan version of Camelot, when legends strode the gridiron in search of the Holy Grail, otherwise known as the Heisman Trophy.  It was a time when powerful, fleet-footed backs followed student bodies to the left and right and USC football became known far and wide as Tailback U.

            Of course, USC had a long history of great running backs before John McKay—Frank Gifford and Jaguar Jon Arnett come immediately to mind–but never before had they come with such regularity over such a long period of time.   They were vastly different in style, but they had many things in common—natural charisma, the stardom that came with playing tailback at USC, a great offensive line in front of them and an important personality trait.

            McKay’s first star tailback was Willie Brown in 1962.  While he didn’t have the mercurial moves or strength of Reggie Bush, the 175-pound Brown had the speed and wasn’t often caught from behind.    He also had the versatility, starring also as a flanker, defensive back and kick returner.  In USC’s run to its first national championship of the modern era, Brown made pivotal plays at each position to help win big games.  He made key runs in pivotal 14-0 win over Washington, preserved a 7-0 win at Iowa with a jolting tackle holding a receiver inches short on 4th and 7, and prevented a UCLA upset with a miraculous 4th down reception.  Against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl he ran, caught passes and made the game’s key interception.

          The tailback who initially put USC in the national spotlight is current athletic director Mike Garrett, a short (5’9”), compact runner with tremendously powerful thighs who won Troy’s first Heisman in 1965.  The dedicated Garrett trained by running up and down Coliseum steps and started a Trojan tradition (now nationwide) by running out every play in practice to the end zone. Iron Mike wasn’t fast, but he made quick, darting cuts and broke tackles like a fullback.  Most like him today is UCLA’s Maurice Drew. While Drew is faster, Garrett was more consistent and broke more tackles.

          Next came the runner by which all other college backs were measured for years.  Orenthal James Simpson, or O.J., or simply, The Juice, arrived  in 1967 and no one had ever seen anyone like him.  Considered big in that era at 6’2”, 210 pounds, he was also a world-class sprinter, timed in 9.4 and a member of world record setting 440-relay team.  Early in his USC career, ironically, he was mostly a straight-ahead runner; when he finally mastered the art of the cut back, he was nearly unstoppable.  He glided through tackles with a smooth and powerful stride, read blocks exceptionally well and then exploded through  holes with ankle-breaking cuts.  Whatever he has become now, O.J. then was a marvel, who, like Reggie Bush, had a tremendous will to win and was at his best at the most crucial moments.  The 1968 Trojans became known as the Cardiac Kids for their heart-stopping, narrow escapes in big games.  Inevitably, it would be O.J. bringing home the victory with some spectacular dash late in the fourth quarter, none more famous then his 64 run against UCLA that brought McKay his second national title in l967. Only Notre Dame stopped him in l968, and they did so not by loading up the defensive line with linebackers and safeties, but by laying back and clogging up his cutback lanes. In two years he ran for 3,424 yards, 36 touchdowns and a 23.7 yard average per kick return. 

           Clarence Davis was short, very shifty and very determined.  He had moves and desire.  Davis could break tackles like Garrett, but wasn’t as strong.  He always seemed to find holes when big plays were needed.  He was great on draws and screen passes.  In 1969, Davis starred in Cardiac Kids, the Sequel, by leading the Trojans on several critical fourth-quarter drives. His runs set up the famous Ron Ayala field goal with no time left to beat Jim Plunkett and Stanford.  Among the great Trojan backs, Davis is probably one of the least appreciated, never quite receiving his due for two great collegiate years.  He went on to a distinguished career with the Raiders and made a legendary touchdown catch in a playoff game snatching winning catch between two defenders, the ball thrown by a tackled Kenny Stabler just before his knees hit ground.

          In 1972, a converted high school QB named Anthony Davis took the team by surprise, leapfrogging over veteran runners Rod McNeil and Allen Carter to claim the role of star back.  The guys he beat were no slouches–both were good enough to play pro ball.  Davis was stocky, like Garrett, but faster; and of all the Trojan tailbacks of the Golden Era, he exploded through the hole the fastest, faster even than LenDale White.  Once in the open field, he was hard to tackle—heck, with his swivel-hip wiggle moves, he was hard to find.  Davis set the NCAA career mark for touchdown kickoff runs with six, three coming in l974.  He did it the right way– catching the ball and taking off at full speed, without hesitation.  So many returners waste time running sideways, looking for a hole, and allowing the defense to catch up.  If the opening was there, Davis was gone.  If it wasn’t, too bad.  In his collegiate career, he ran back three kicks against Ara Parseghian and Notre Dame, spurring rumors that Davis’ continual torturing of Parseghian’s Irish led to the legendary coach’s early retirement.  Giving credence is fact he scored 11 touchdowns in three games against Notre Dame, including six as a sophomore in the 1972 contest and four in the famous 55-24 comeback victory in 1974. His three-year rushing total was 3,724 yards. He also was an outfielder on USC’s 1973 and 1974 College World Series champion baseball teams.

     A.D. went on to star in the short-lived World Football League, playing with his college QB Pat Haden.  But when the league folded, Davis, who had received big bucks to go to the fledgling league, following a stint in Canadian ball, never got back to real playing shape again. He became a successful real estate developer.

          While Ohio State’s Archie Griffin rode the then-powerful East Coast bias to two straight Heisman trophies during Davis’ tenure at USC, Davis was the superior runner.  When they went head-to-head in the 1975 Rose Bowl, it was no contest, Davis exploding again and again through the Buckeye line while Griffin resembled Run-All-Day in the Orange Bowl. After Davis got hurt, Allan Carter also outplayed Griffin, leading USC to victory on its last drive and another national title.

Carter had speed and power and probably would have been a star had he not had the misfortune of playing with Davis and for McKay, who loved to put the burden of the running game on one man, often quipping that it wasn’t so tough to carry 35 or 40 times a game because the football wasn’t all that heavy. Besides, backs then didn’t take the punishment today’s runners get from waves of bigger, faster defenders.   Carter played two years in the NFL.

          Ricky Bell had the heart of a lion.   McKay once said that Sam Cunningham was the best runner he ever used as a blocker.  Perhaps not wanting to make the same mistake twice, McKay converted Bell from fullback to tailback.  Like Pete Carroll, McKay was a master at finding hidden gems playing in the wrong position.  All Bell did was break C.R. Roberts’ one-game by carrying 51 times for 347 yards in 1976.  Bell was strong, fast, and great at following his blockers.   Once he reached full speed, people in front of him got hurt. He didn’t have great moves, he just ran over people with power. He was the hardest tailback of them all to bring down straight on.   He may have been the most dominating Trojan runner ever on those famous sweeps; those defenders who survived USC blockers did so only to be trampled by Bell.  After McKay made the leap to the NFL in 1976, he made Bell the top pick of the then new Tampa Bay Buccaneers in l977. But with the expansion team’s underachieving offensive line, it took Bell several years to make his mark in the pros and lead the Bucs to the playoffs. Bell became a restaurateur after retiring from the NFL in 1983. Sadly, he died in 1984 at the age of 29 from cardiac arrest brought on by a rare skin and muscle disease. He became a member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997.  Having been involved in numerous community development projects with USC and the NFL Bell was subject of a TV movie of the week.

       Charles White, like our own President Bush (the USC guy, not the lesser known one), was the buddy you wanted next to you in a fox hole.  If you were wounded, he would somehow get you to safety.   He was small, around 185, not as compact as Garrett, yet he, too, could tear through the line like a fullback.  But he could also shake free on sweeps and was dangerous in the open field.  Near the goal line, he scored frequently with over-the-line leaps and ran with determination on every play.  His style was to hit the defender first, then spin out of tackles. He was right up there with Bell and O.J. on student body right.  In his senior year (then players of his caliber played their senior years) he was unforgettable in willing the Trojans on that desperate, last-chance drive to defeat undefeated Ohio State in a classic Rose Bowl.  Robinson called him the toughest player he ever saw.  USC went 42-6-1 during White’s career. He set or equaled 22 NCAA, Pac-10, USC and Rose Bowl records and finished as NCAA’s second-leading career rusher (5598 regular-season yards) and Pac-10’s top rusher (6245 yards).

       When White reached the pros, he made a dangerous discovery—cocaine—that led to a disappointing pro start in Cleveland.  It drove him out of football and kept him out until Robinson and Marv Goux, who had  moved on to the Rams in 1983, signed him in l986.  Little was expected of White. Los Angeles already had Eric Dickerson, the best runner in the game, but Robinson took pity and offered his old tailback a spot on the team, even though they both knew his position would be on the bench.  Then, as usually only happens in the movies, l987 started with Rams going 1-5. Eric then demanded to be traded and was a few days later to the Indianapolis Colts in a 3 team trade in which the Rams acquired 6 draft picks. Robinson turned to his former Trojan warrior, remembering those gallant years they battled together at USC, and asked him to prove that he was still the player Robinson always believed him to be.  The press reacted predictably, calling it the whim of an old coach, a favor to a favorite son.  For White, it was the second chance he feared he would never get.   Once again, the tough guy put on his helmet and returned to the Coliseum gridiron where he had roamed for four years, placing second in the Heisman balloting in l978 and then winning it in l979.  The Rams won the next five games. White ended up winning the NFL rushing title over Dickerson, gaining 1,374 yards, and made the Pro Bowl where he always belonged.

         Marcus Allen cut like OJ, was similar in size, but not quite as fast.  Like all Trojan tailbacks he was his best when the game was on the line.  He was one of the most versatile of all Trojan backs.  A high-school quarterback, he was a great blocker who played fullback his sophomore year and made himself a great blocker before succeeding White at tailback.  He could have played quarterback in college and likely would have been an All-American safety. Like Bush, he was a gifted receiver.  He glided when he cut, and like Bush, could reverse field in a heartbeat. He had to learn the tailback position in his junior year, but by his senior year, he was a load, putting up the best single season—at least statistically–of any of Troy’s  Heisman-winning running backs. Allen set 14 new NCAA records and tied two others, including most yards rushing in a single season (2,432), highest per-game average (212.9), most 200-yard games in a career (11), most 200-yard games in a season (8) and most 200-yard games in a row (5).  He was the first in college ball to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season.  Allen also led the Trojans in receiving with 30 and 34 catches in each of his last two seasons. His all-purpose yards total in 1981 of 2,550 is still a Pac 10 record.   

           In a long and storied NFL career with Oakland and Kansas City that would have been even greater but for some Al Davis tantrums that inexplicably put him on the bench for long stretches, Allen put up Hall of Fame-quality statistics. He rushed for 12,243 yards and 123 touchdowns on 3,022 carries and caught 587 receptions for 5,411 yards and 21 touchdowns.  He was NFL rookie of the year in 1982, Super Bowl XVIII MVP, NFL MVP (1985) was All-Pro (1982,85), Named to Six Pro Bowls 1983,85,86,87,88,94) and was Comeback Player of the Year (1993).

       There were other tailbacks with promise, but somehow they never quite made it to the pantheon of Trojan legends.  Probably the best of these was Ricky Ervins, a freshman star in the famed l987 upset of UCLA. He was a human bowling ball–short, with powerful legs and great spin moves. More often, though, he looked like a pinball, crazily careening off would-be tacklers.   But he faded badly in his senior year, spurring rumors that he was injured, or that he disliked coach Larry Smith (not an unusual complaint in those days). Ervins had an incredible pro rookie year, helping the Redskins win the Super Bowl, and then dropped off again, perhaps to injury.

     When Ervins was out in l990, Mario Royster filled in with 1,168 yards.  He was a slasher-type runner with great promise but left school early. Again, the rumor mill said he left because he didn’t get along with Smith.  He was drafted in the 11th round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a brief  NFL career, he worked as an actor and model, appearing in such films as ‘The Waterboy’ and ‘Any Given Sunday.’  

Sultan McCullough brought back a hint of that old tailback feeling with a 1,000-yard campaign in 2000.  He ran straight but with great speed, reminiscent of Willie Brown.  But he was not strong and often spent too much time dancing around, looking for holes.  When his aggressive replacement, Justin Fargas, started hitting gaps hard and fast, it seemed to trigger a Sultan renaissance.  When he spelled Fargas, McCullough did the best and hardest running of his Trojan career. Sultan’s gifts have him still hanging around pro camps, seemingly forever on the fringe of a breakthrough.  And who was Sultan’s tutor in his brief stay with the Washington Redskins in 2003?  None other than Ricky Ervins.

         Speaking of Fargas, what do you say about a guy who squeezed an entire college career into a half-season? After a wrenching knee injury his freshman year at Michigan, coaches there wanted Fargas to switch to safety.  He refused and came home; giving up a year of eligibility and gambling that one big season at USC would get him a ticket to the NFL.  But if it wasn’t for bad luck, Fargas wouldn’t have any luck at all.  At the beginning of his senior season in 2002, a hamstring injury kept him off the practice field and out of the coaches’ minds.   But McCullough started drifting again, and Coach Carroll finally started Fargas against Oregon mid-season.  Old-time Trojan fans watched, nodded their heads and surely some shed a few tears, seeing, after several dry years, a true Trojan tailback.  He was a tough guy, a la Charles White, but he had his own style.  Like White, he ran every play as if it was his last, always delivering the blow, not taking it.  His determination in that drive late in the first half against Notre Dame is hard to forget.  Fargas may not have brought back Trojan Tailback U. on his own, but he jump-started the tradition’s dead battery and took enough heat off Carson Palmer that the quarterback could and did win the Heisman.

         So who is best back of all time?  O.J. was the winner in Greg Katz’s Fall poll in this magazine.  But with this bunch, pick your own and defend him vigorously.  You’re probably just as right as anyone else.  Well, unless you picked Sonny Byrd.

      But maybe the all-time Trojan tailback is not a single person now but a tandem known as Thunder and Lightning, two superheroes who, when in street attire, are known as LenDale White and Reggie Bush.

      White stirs memories of Ricky Bell, big and now fast.  Like Ricky, tacklers in his way regret it.  Of course, defenders weren’t as big and fast as in Ricky’s day, and USC’s batch of future All-Pro offensive lineman could usually mow the lawn with sweeps left and right. Of all the Trojan greats, White best combines great vision going through the line, comparable to Allen, with the best explosion through a gap since A. D.  But White adds an incomparable lateral speed, especially for a 235-pound behemoth, enabling him to dart sideways in search of a hole and then explode through it.  He is a living paradox—how can a man that big shoot through a gap so small? LenDale, if he returns next year–and Bush doesn’t–would undoubtedly be a leading Heisman contender and high draft pick.  He could finally emerge from Bush’s considerable shadow (although Sports Illustrated says he already has). After a few years in the pros, LenDale will make the Bus (Jerome Bettis)  remembered as an overachieving Volkswagen. 

       Reggie Bush is really the first of his kind; a prototype that cannot be compared to anyone before him.  Reggie, like O.J. or Barry Sanders, is one of those iconic backs, the kind that inspires college, high school and sandlot wannabes to try and imitate his every move. He has the speed of an O.J., more twists than Ervins, more reverse-ability than Allen, the gymnastic art of Jaguar Jon and more pass-catching skills than Willie Brown.  It is not known if he leaps tall buildings or races with speeding bullets. This year, he has added strength, keeping his promise that he would run between and through the tackles.  Clearly the most versatile running back to play at Troy, he also boasts plenty of what all the other great ones had,  that personality trait I mentioned at the beginning of this article, what Troy alumnus John Wayne would portray on film—True Grit.

      When the games are on the line, Lendale and Reggie make the big plays, and have been doing it since they were true freshmen.  Their heroics led to big bowl wins over Michigan  and Oklahoma.  More recently, White and Bush gained more than 300 yards on the ground against Arizona State, turning Wildcat quarterback Sam Keller’s dream of football glory into something that would be more comfortable on filmdom’s Elm Street.   Bush played his best game ever in the incredible Notre Dame battle in South Bend and his best punt return for Washington in Seattle.

         During the Orange Bowl, announcer Bob Griese made a point of telling the audience that it had been over 20 years since a Trojan led the Pac 10 in rushing.  But before suggesting that Tailback U. is no more, Bob, combine  the statistics of Thunder and Lightning—you come up with one helluva storm.  Tailback U. is not only back, it’s back-to-back with two great backs. 

     So here’s to all the great tailbacks who built Tailback U. yard by bloody yard, backs that combined skill, charisma and True Grit. And at least on that last count, you can throw in Sonny Byrd, too.