Within the USC football program there are certain players for whom the term “Trojan Family” means just a little bit more.
Such has long been the case for right tackle Kevin Graf, who grew up with a father, Allan, who won a national title for the Trojans in 1972 as an offensive guard and a brother, Derek, who started on the line for USC in the 2003 Orange Bowl victory over Iowa.
So when the disappointing 2012 season finally came to an end, and with Kevin having the option of leaving school early to turn pro, it really wasn’t much of a decision at all. Even though Graf had already earned a degree in communications, his strong feelings for the program wouldn’t allow him to leave.
“I was definitely wavering with the thought of coming out early,” Graf said. “But I didn’t want to leave on the note of where the program was at the end of last season. It’s too special of a place to me, it means way too much. This program last year didn’t do what this program has done before. We’re known for Rose Bowls, national titles and Heisman winners. I wanted to help bring that back.”
With the Trojans set the play Fresno State on Saturday in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, it’s obvious that there will be no Rose Bowl or national title for this year’s USC team but that is missing the big picture of what this team accomplished in 2013. The Trojans withstood an early-season coaching change to go on a run that will forever endear them to USC fans.
“This year was definitely a grind,” Graf said. “It was stressful but this team found a way to pull through, especially after Coach O took over. We showed how special this team is and how we can fight through anything. What we did this year is bigger than a Rose Bowl because we brought a program back to where it should be.”
The Trojans were a team under Lane Kiffin that was consumed with talk of roster restrictions and depth issues. But Ed Orgeron turned around the attitude and it resonated with the players in terms of attitude and performance. It was also the return of a familiar feeling for Graf.
“I got one year as a redshirt freshman under [Pete] Carroll where I got to see that USC and then it didn’t feel like SC for a couple years,” Graf said. “That first week when Coach O took over, against Arizona, it felt like SC again. The practices, the meeting rooms, the way we played, it felt like SC again. You saw guys hitting hard, talking trash, making long runs, great catches. It was the SC people knew and liked. It felt good to be a part of that.”
Instead of focusing on the negative impact of the NCAA sanctions, Graf thinks the reduced numbers might have actually helped the Trojans go on a 6-2 run under Orgeron to finish the season.
“The sanctions gave us a chance to get better,” Graf said. “We didn’t take reps off. First-team guys were out there the entire practice going hard against each other all day. That’s what helped us, I think, in becoming a physical team because we became accountable to each other.”
As the momentum picked up for the Trojans during the season, not only did the fans show their appreciation but the former USC players made it clear that they approved of what was going on.
“When you have Marcus Allen coming down on Thanksgiving morning to talk with us, you know what this program is all about,” Graf said. “He woke up at 6 in the morning to drive down from Santa Barbara so that he could tell us how proud he was of us. We had guys like Carson Palmer, Ron Yary and Anthony Munoz come around. That means a lot to me and a lot to this team. It shows a lot about what we did for this university in a short amount of time. For them to single you out and say “Hey, I’ve watched you play and I like what you’re doing”, it just makes you want to scream because you are so excited.”
As his USC career prepares to wind down, Graf, who will take part in the East-West Shrine Game in January, can know that his decision to come back for his senior year to help restore the program was a success and, in the process, his feelings for the program were re-affirmed.
“Coach O really made me believe in this place again, he really did,” Graf said. “I think he made a lot more people than me believe in it again too. It’s getting hard to think it’s coming to an end. I don’t think it’s really hitting me yet. It’s still hard to think that I’m never going to play in the Coliseum again. That’s weird to say. For me to know that I only get to wear that cardinal jersey one more time, that’s weird to say.
“I know it’s going to hit that emotional spot in me so I’m just trying to enjoy the time that I have left with these guys. I can’t wait to see what these guys do next year, they are all such special players and special guys that they’re going to do things SC is known for.”