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BILL PLASCHKE

Trojans Beat Incomplete Irish : One More Year Here Would Be Awesome

November 29, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

Dear Chris Claiborne:

I was watching you Saturday night, after the clock blinked zeros through the Coliseum mist, after you finished kicking Notre Dame in the echoes.

I saw how, while your teammates ran across the field, you turned toward the stands. I saw how you raised your arms and gestured toward the screams of classmates and fans.

I could have sworn you were waving goodbye.

You remained in the middle of the muddy field long after most of your teammates had left, hugging strangers, signing autographs.

When you finally walked toward the locker room, you stopped in front of the opposite stands, shaking hands with more strangers, playfully smacking the wet banner that read, "Claiborne's Corner."

By the time you finally entered the tunnel, the last USC Trojan to leave the field after the last home game of the 1998 season, hundreds of soggy fans showered you with a chant.

They were speaking for thousands.

Me included.

"One more year . . . one more year . . . one more year."

Please?

Yes, Chris, I know you can make millions next spring by entering the NFL draft after your junior season.

And I know that you have probably already made up your mind to do just that.

"I really don't know, I still haven't sat down and talked about it with my mom," you said Saturday with that great smile. "I'm gonna have to tease you guys for a little longer."

But Saturday was no tease, when you definitely showed the nation you are its best college linebacker, a certain winner of the Butkus Award.

And maybe one year from being voted the best player in the country.

And how did that feel?

"It felt awesome," you said. "There is nothing like college football. Nothing."

Everywhere Notre Dame stepped in your team's 10-0 victory, you stepped first. Every time they wound up to hit, you hit them first.

Twelve tackles, one interception, three pass break-ups, the first Trojan shutout of the Irish in 36 years.

Yeah, they were missing an important player. But this is Notre Dame, a school that recruits so widely and easily, it should be able to score even with a quarterback tied behind its back.

Thanks to that trick you've learned--you know, the one where you turn yourself into three players at once--the Irish never really had a chance.

During the fourth quarter, just for fun, I stopped watching the game and started watching only you.

In one seven-play stretch, you were in the play six times, either collaring a receiver over the middle or crushing a running back at the line or tipping a pass.

The one time you weren't in the play, you were blitzing, rushing five yards toward the quarterback, then turning and sprinting 10 yards downfield after the receiver.

Many fans in this town could not tell you the number of any other Trojan, not even precocious Carson Palmer.

Yet everybody knows 55, seeing as you get more camera time than even the horse.

I wasn't the only one awed.

"It is a blessing to play with Chris," defensive end Lawrence Larry said. "I see him do things . . . they are amazing. It is just a blessing."

But, yes, if you leave school now, you can make millions.

Somewhere around $3.2 million in instant cash, to be exact.

That was the bonus given last year by the Cincinnati Bengals to linebacker Brian Simmons of North Carolina after he was picked 17th overall.

As a fast inside linebacker with great pass coverage skills, you will probably be picked in that general vicinity.

"You have that sort of money, you can do a lot of things," you said Saturday night. "I can take care of my mom like she needs to be taken care of. I can take care of [little brother] Adrian. I also have a nephew. A lot of important things can be done with money."

And you admitted, it's tempting when you call former Trojans who are now in the NFL, guys like Willie McGinest and Brian Kelly.

"I talk to my boys now driving Mercedeses, and I get an idea of what it's like," you said.

You could make a lot of money now, and risk a lot of money by staying and injuring yourself.

It is unfair to compare your situation to that of Peyton Manning, who made more money and became a sort of beloved national figure by remaining in school for his senior season.

"It is different being a quarterback than a linebacker . . . the risk is greater for me," you said. "A quarterback will not take some of the hits that I will take."

It would be inappropriate and selfish for anyone to give you grief over turning pro. To be honest, I would probably do the same thing if I were in your muddy cleats.

But this is sports, and we both can dream.

You can dream of Ricky Williams, who remained in school in Texas and will probably win the Heisman Trophy after completing the season of a lifetime.

You can dream of that happening to you.

"Yeah, but Ricky Williams already had his money [baseball contract]," you said.

OK, then remember before Saturday's game, when the seniors were being introduced, running through a tunnel of former Trojans?

Remember how you ran alongside them, outside the tunnel, because you had to be on the field early for the coin toss?

Remember running into the teeth of the band and a song that you will be humming when you are 50? Remember how it felt when you pumped your fist to the crowd, and everyone pumped their fist back?

(Hint: This does not happen in Indianapolis.)

"Yeah, I was thinking about that," you said. "I was thinking, that is just awesome."

A professional contract: millions.

A night like Saturday's: priceless.

Yeah, I know, I stole that right from the TV, but right about now, I'm as unoriginal and desperate as a certain Irish fight song.

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