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Cusano Just Loves Beating the Irish

College football: USC linebacker who yearned to attend Notre Dame has played big role in Trojan victories the last two seasons.


When the first recruiting letter came to Mark Cusano, a running back/linebacker at The Colony High School in Texas, he was excited. It was from USC.

But it wasn't the letter he was waiting for.

Nor were any of the 40 or 50 that followed.

Then finally, it did come, the letter he had desperately wanted, had dreamed of, a letter with a golden dome on it and, in the background, the Notre Dame football team.

Cusano may have been born in San Clemente and reared in Texas, but his heart was in South Bend.

"I just loved the tradition and the history of Notre Dame," he said.

Loved it so much that he proudly wore the jersey of Irish quarterback Ron Powlus around town.

Loved it so much that he had studied every mannerism of then-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

"I watched the way he squatted down on the sideline," Cusano said, "and the way he picked up blades of grass and just looked at them."

But Cusano quickly learned that his love for Notre Dame would go unrequited. While many colleges vigorously pursued him, Cusano never again heard from the Irish.

He got over it.

"There were so many schools recruiting me," he said, "that I didn't have time to worry about the ones that weren't."

After a trip to Los Angeles and a tour of the city and the USC campus, Cusano had a new love among the universities. He agreed to become a Trojan, but he still couldn't get Notre Dame out of his head.

In his freshman season, Cusano made it to South Bend to play in the USC-Notre Dame game.

"When I walked out on that football field, it was an amazing feeling," said Cusano, by then a linebacker. "It just took my breath away. I couldn't believe I was actually stepping on the grass at Notre Dame Stadium. I had butterflies. I looked across the field, and there they all were."

But the mood didn't last. It turned out to be another bitter day in a rivalry gone sour for the Trojans as the Irish won, 38-10, extending their unbeaten streak over USC to 13 games.

"I remember there was this little leprechaun dancing around us," said Cusano. "Guys were screaming at us that we were 'overrated,' and the Notre Dame players were punching us."

And all of a sudden, after spending so many years loving the Notre Dame program, Cusano found he had a new emotion.

"I thought to myself, 'I hate this.' I really started to hate Notre Dame," Cusano said. "I realized that this is the game I want to play every year and these are the guys I want to beat every year."

And thus a true Trojan was born.

USC got its chance to get out from under the crushing burden of that losing streak in 1996, Cusano's second season, and--wouldn't you know it--he had a hand in ending it.

The game, played at the Coliseum, had gone into overtime. The Irish had more than just the pride of that streak on the line. Holtz had already announced that it was to be his last season. His players certainly didn't want to send him out a loser. And certainly not against the Trojans, of all teams.

With USC having already scored in the extra period to take a 27-20 lead, Powlus, starting from the USC 25-yard line, was at the 24 on fourth down. With one more chance, the Notre Dame quarterback faded back to pass.

"I had come up to cover the back," Cusano said. "He thought I was rushing so he turned to block me. I know that Powlus always pump fakes."

Knew from the years of watching Powlus in admiration.

But now Cusano was no wide-eyed youngster seeking an autographed football. He wanted the football in Powlus' hands and he got a piece of it, waiting for the third pump of Powlus' arm to make his move. Cusano knocked down the pass with his right arm and the game was over.

"When I saw it hit the ground, it was a great feeling," Cusano said.

Powlus, who works as a legislative aide to Pennsylvania state Sen. Bob Mellow after failing to make the Tennessee Oilers this past season, said, "It was a hard way to end. I didn't see him [Cusano]. I was looking downfield. But you have to credit him with a great play."

As he joyously went off the field, Cusano paused to look up at the Coliseum video screen and saw the coach he had once studied on the sidelines. Holtz was still squatting, but he wasn't thinking about the next play. Or the next game.

"His headphones had fallen off and his head was down," Cusano said. "He was beaten and it was the end of his career. You could see it in his posture."

And did Cusano feel at least a twinge of sorrow for the man he was once so eager to play for?

"It felt really great," he said.

So great that Cusano did it again last year, coming up with a key fourth-quarter interception of a Powlus pass that led to the winning field goal in a 20-17 USC victory over Notre Dame at South Bend.

Be assured, Powlus will never be found walking around wearing a Mark Cusano jersey.

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