Tailback at USC is not a position, it's an institution. It's an American heirloom, like the cowboy, the plains bison or a place where George Washington slept.
That other American artifact, the Heisman Trophy, goes with it.
The man who put them together, matched them in the public consciousness like apple pie and ice cream, was the unlikeliest-looking candidate for the spot ever to walk onto a Trojan practice field.
Everyone agreed that Mike Garrett was too little and too late--i.e., slow--for the role. Central Casting would have thrown him back. The part called for John Wayne, and here they were getting Montgomery Clift. Dustin Hoffman.
Mike was 5 feet 8 inches, 170 pounds. USC tailbacks ran more to the mold of runaway tanks or bulldozers, guys who could flatten buildings with a forearm.
When Mike showed up with that splay-footed walk and shy grin, they thought he was using somebody else's statistics. The UCLA coaching staff sent Sam Boghosian to break the news to him that he was too little to fit into UCLA's plans.
From the pros, a New York Giants coach watched him field punts in practice, frowned and said, "You're not Mike Garrett, are you? Mike Garrett's not that small."
Houdini was small, too. "I was an escape artist," grins Mike Garrett.
He had to be. Garrett could run the hundred in 9.9 seconds, but in California that got you in the heats and not much more.
Mike's stock in trade was quickness. For the first five yards, he was just a blur. He was like a Joe Louis punch. You never saw it till it was too late.
"My trick was to neutralize the tackler," Garrett says, smiling. He did it so well that tacklers used to get this look on their faces of a guy whose parachute didn't open. "Mike tends to disappear on you," his coach, John McKay, used to say.
Whatever he did was perfect for McKay, who at the time Garrett showed up was perfecting his I-formation attack that would devastate the Pac-10. If he'd had a blueprint, he couldn't have devised a better back to run it.
The I was a derivative of the old single wing formation, except that the backfield didn't shift to line up on one side or the other. The tailback lined up directly behind the center.
"With Mike Garrett in the I, you didn't know whether he was going to go straight ahead, right, or left," Ara Parseghian, then Notre Dame's coach, said. "It was like defending against two men."
Mike established what became a USC hallmark. He was the first Trojan to win the Heisman, paving the way for O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen. He rolled up 4,876 total yards in his college career and rushed for 3,221 yards, breaking Ollie Matson's NCAA mark that had stood for 15 years. He was the first to make McKay's Student Body Right famous.
Mike Garrett is in the news this week because he has come forward as a spokesman for Saturday night's Shrine All-Star football game at the Rose Bowl.
There is a story behind this. This is the game that, in effect, made Mike Garrett one of the most famous football players of his generation.
When Mike Garrett was a young athlete at Roosevelt High, he might have had a career in major league baseball. He led every league he ever played in, in home runs and stolen bases. The big leagues were interested.
But Mike as a young boy used to dream of playing football in the L.A. Coliseum. "I used to see guys like Bob Waterfield and Jon Arnett and Dick Bass and I used to imagine myself out there, doing what they did in front of a full house.
"You know, they used to get 46,000 to 50,000 people there for the Shrine Game in those days, and I yearned to play in it."
So, he persevered with football. His dream came true--sort of. Mike was the City Player of the Year, had averaged 10 yards a carry and broken a 36-year-old scoring record. But in the game of his dreams, Mike Garrett admits, he "played a lousy game."
Buck fever? Coliseum clutch? The old college choke?
"Naw," Mike says, grinning. "The holes didn't open up. The North won."
Does Mike regard the Shrine game as a jinx? Almost his only bad game in a career that included a Heisman and stardom in two Super Bowls, including the original one?
Mike, now studying law and working for a construction firm in Orange County, shakes his head. "How can it be a bad game when it's for crippled children?" he asks. "Playing in it was a highlight of my life."
So, Mike Garrett will be on hand for this Saturday's 36th Shrine game, along with Dustin Craft, the crippled children's hospitals' 1987 poster boy. To Mike, it is not an anniversary of a defeat but of a great day in his life. To play in such a game is a trophy all its own to Mike.
There is only one Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, there is an inexhaustible supply of crippled children. Mike helped them 26 years ago and is doing it again. Mike thinks he picked the right game. If his knee twinges now and again--well, at least, he's got one to twinge.