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Winners on the Field, They Found Life Harder to Tackle

After sharing a day of glory, USC's players took divergent paths -- some to the NFL, others to business or education or coaching. One became a Buddhist; another got life in prison. Are there lessons for today's Trojans?

January 01, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

On New Year's Day 1990, the young men of the USC football team won the biggest game of their lives.

Led by first-year quarterback Todd Marinovich, the Trojans fought their way past the University of Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. The score had been tied until the final two minutes, when Ricky Ervins, the diminutive tailback from Pasadena, ran in the final touchdown for a 17-10 victory and was named the Rose Bowl's most valuable player in his hometown.

After the victory, senior cornerback Ernest Spears reflected to a Times reporter on what the game might mean for the players.

"A game like this gives you confidence to go out into the world," said Spears, who made four tackles in the game. "You go out a winner, and hopefully you will be a winner in life."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
1990 Rose Bowl -- An article in Sunday's section A about the USC team that played in the 1990 Rose Bowl said team member Yonnie Jackson is now a lawyer. Jackson is a law school graduate who has yet to pass the state bar exam.

Up to then, the players had been hailed as winners in life because they were winners in football.

But whether they realized it on that day or not, most of them were soon to face life without the game and its glory. Football might have been what they did best, but most would quickly have to learn how to win in life without it.

There were 119 men on USC's 1990 Rose Bowl roster. Twenty-seven of them were later drafted by National Football League teams. Ten played five years or more in the league. Eight were still in the NFL at age 30. Today, only two remain in the NFL -- Junior Seau of the Miami Dolphins and Johnnie Morton of the San Francisco 49ers. Two others, Pat O'Hara and Mark Tucker, play for teams in the indoor Arena Football League.

What happened to the rest? And can the lessons of their lives offer anything to this year's USC players, as they face Wednesday's national championship game and, inevitably, life after college football?

The Times sought out members of the 1989 USC team and found 86 of them. The players now are in their mid-to-late 30s. Enough time has passed for them to reflect soberly on their football experiences and to take stock of how their time in the game shaped, inspired or hampered them.

Their life experiences form a mosaic of expectations fulfilled and frustrated.

Most followed the same paths as other successful young men from their communities or backgrounds: Those from well-off suburban families now are mostly well-off suburbanites themselves. The two who became doctors were the sons of medical professionals -- a doctor and a pharmacist. Many who came from more modest, blue-collar backgrounds used USC as a path to the kinds of decent-paying jobs common among first-generation college graduates.

Twelve of the former players are coaches or teachers, the most popular career choice. Others own their own businesses, such as private coaching services, catering and printing companies, and health clubs. There are police officers, mortgage bankers, insurance salesmen, and real estate and securities brokers. Also a minister, a bus driver and several felons, including one who is serving a life sentence for robbery and kidnapping. Another player, investment analyst Alan Wilson, died in 2002 of diabetes.

A few are well-known, like Seau, a perennial All-Pro linebacker. A few others, like Marinovich -- who has struggled with drug addiction -- are more famous for their personal trials than their football performances.

Many of the team's stars never made it in the pros, but some who were overshadowed at USC went on to successful football careers. Matt Willig, a lineman who was a backup at USC, played in the NFL until this season.

Some players surprised their teammates in other ways. Spears made it to the pros, but no longer has any interest in even watching football. He instead is devoted to studying Tibetan Buddhism.

Race -- a hot-button topic in sports -- seems to have had little influence in determining the players' post-USC careers. The team was almost evenly split between black and white players, with a smattering of Latinos, Samoans and Asians.

Unlike many Division 1 football teams, where a disproportionate number of black players do not graduate, there was little difference in the graduation rates of black and white players on USC's 1989 team.

The same equality applied to their career paths. Five players, for example, became police officers -- two of them white, two black and one Samoan. There is one black lawyer, one white; one black actor, one white.

Many of the happiest former players are those who never expected to play in the NFL. Eddy Chavez, a backup fullback on the team, transformed the T-shirt business he started at USC into a multinational firm, something he said might not have happened if he had made it in football.

"Some of the guys who went big-time have a hard time in the real world," he said. "They're always trying to find something comparable to what they were doing, which is not reality."

Nearly every player who saw significant action on the field was injured in some way. Some have undergone arthroscopic surgery seemingly as often as other people have had cavities filled. Several have had pins, screws or rods implanted in them.

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