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Linebacker Small Came Up Big at Just the Right Time for USC

October 21, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the space of half a minute last Saturday in Palo Alto, USC executed what could arguably be called its three best plays of the season.

With about 4 minutes 30 seconds left and USC leading Stanford, 20-13, the following transpired:

--Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom completed a short pass to Anthony Bookman, and USC cornerback John Herpin knocked him into yesterday with a jarring tackle.

--Two plays later, Stenstrom tried the same pass but USC linebacker Errol Small made a leaping, one-handed interception from a range of about 12 feet.

--One play later, USC tailback Shawn Walters swept around Stanford's left side on a 61-yard touchdown run, the longest run from scrimmage by a Trojan back in three years.

But for pure athleticism, Small's interception at point-blank range has to be the leader for USC's play of the year.

Is this guy in the right sport? Shouldn't he be playing third base for someone?

Fact is, Small is grateful to be playing any sport.

He and two 1993 Trojan teammates narrowly escaped death in an auto accident last Feb. 14.

Small's remarkable interception Saturday was yet another big play by a big-play player, defensive coordinator Don Lindsey said.

A 6-foot-2, 240-pound senior outside linebacker, Small is making up for lost time. He's had two knee operations and one on his shoulder since USC recruited him at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High and never did crack the starting lineup last year.

Now, he's starting ahead of heralded junior college transfer Izzy Ifeanyi and playing the kind of football Lindsey says can get him into the next NFL draft.

"Errol's big assets are that he plays hard, he's very aggressive and he's fast," Lindsey said. "Guys like that tend to make big plays and that's exactly what he's doing. If he plays the rest of the season like he's played the last couple of games, he'll attract some NFL attention."

Of course, as Lindsey points out, good coaching has something to do with all this, too.

"When our outside linebackers are being blocked on a pass play, and when they see a (right-handed) quarterback's left hand come off that ball, we want them to get their hands up in the air. If they can't block it, we at least want them to force the quarterback to put more hang time on the ball."

Or, best of all, catch it.

"The ball came point-first right into my palm, and I just hung on to it," said Small, describing his Brooks Robinson play.

Coach John Robinson, after reviewing the play on video Sunday morning, noted that everyone on the field--including Small--was stunned by the play.

"As soon as he caught it, I'm yelling: 'Run! Run!' " Robinson said.

"But he went stationary, like everyone else. Errol turned a 30-yard return into a plus-four."

Errol Small came to USC as a running back. At Notre Dame High, he ran for 275 yards in the season opener of his senior season. He was also a 200-pound free safety.

He gained 1,567 yards his senior year, averaging 7.7 yards a carry and scored 21 touchdowns. Yet always, he knew he'd be a college defensive player.

"Nearly everyone who recruited Errol pegged him as a safety or linebacker in college," said his prep coach, Kevin Rooney.

"He was a big, tough physical runner but didn't have that burner speed to be a running back on the major-college level."

Small was recruited principally by USC, UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington and Colorado.

"When I was 12, I played Pop Warner football for the East Valley Trojans," Small said. "I always wanted to be a Trojan."

Small is the son of a retired video editor and electronic engineer, Errol Small Sr. His grandmother, Small said, named his father after actor Errol Flynn, and it was handed down to him, too.

Small's mother, Saundra, is a credit analyst for a department store.

*

Errol Small's parents got the most unsettling kind of phone call parents can have early in the morning of last Feb. 14.

He was calling from West Hills Regional Hospital.

"Mom, I've been in a wreck . . . they're hurt, please come," Small said."

Small and two teammates from the 1993 USC team, Jason Oliver and Michael Jones, had just survived a frightening Ventura Freeway accident, near Calabasas.

It happened at 3:30 a.m. Small, the driver, saw a car coming onto the freeway from an on-ramp, moving erratically. Later, it would be learned, the car had just broken its axle.

The car spun out of control and Small turned hard right to avoid it. His car skidded, then flipped 7 1/2 times. It slid, wheels up, for 300 feet, then tumbled into a drainage ditch. "I blacked out, but I wasn't out long," said Small, who was the least injured of the three.

There was blood everywhere, from deep cuts on Oliver's hand and arm. Oliver screamed from the pain. Jones was quiet.

"I got out of my seat belt upside down, and got out and got the back door open to get Michael," Small recalled.

Jones, who had been sleeping in the back seat, was unconscious. An asthmatic, he also was in respiratory arrest.

Small, who had never had instruction in CPR, brought his teammate back to life, in a concrete-lined ditch.

"I pulled him out of the car and was blowing into his mouth, and he started breathing again," Small said, adding that at that moment an ambulance arrived.

Small, Oliver and Jones are close friends. They had come in together to USC's football program in the summer of 1990.

Oliver was hospitalized for three weeks. His cut hand became infected and doctors briefly considered amputating fingers. Jones has more than two dozen pins in his right arm, which was broken in seven places. He faces further surgery.

Small had minor cuts and bruises.

Jones and Oliver today are junior varsity coaches at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys.

And Errol Small is a football player with a new attitude.

"I have a totally different outlook on life, since the accident," he said.

"I mean, who knows how long I'll play this game? I enjoy one day at a time. I go out to practice every day and do the very best I can, and try to appreciate everything I used to take for granted."

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