Desmond Reed lay sprawled across the ankle-deep grass at Notre Dame Stadium, the ligaments in his right knee shredded.
Teammates in the know had told him that an unmistakable crackling sound accompanied such implosions. Reed had heard it, loud and sickeningly clear.
"I knew right then my knee was gone," he said.
Brady Quinn's near-heroic drive. Matt Leinart's stunning fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett. The "Bush Push" on Leinart's game-winning touchdown sneak.
Those moments are etched in lore from USC's epic victory over Notre Dame last season.
But lost in the subtext was Reed's career-threatening injury and, more controversial, the gamesmanship that might have caused it.
During one of Charlie Weis' first news conferences, in January 2005, a reporter noted USC's and Oklahoma's speed during the national championship game and asked Notre Dame's new coach to assess his team's speed.
"I think the grass needs to be longer," he said. "Next question."
The response drew laughter.
No one laughed nine months later when Reed turned to field a kickoff and then crumpled onto the nearly four-inch turf without so much as a tap.
"I really don't think I would have got hurt if the grass wasn't long," Reed said last week.
USC coaches did not expect Reed to play this season. Not after surgeons repairing the ligaments also discovered nerve damage that left the rubber band-bodied Reed with a drop foot.
But Reed was back for the season opener and will return punts on Saturday night when USC plays Notre Dame.
"He's a competitor with a will," running backs coach Todd McNair said. "Des is a survivor."
In more ways than one.
Desmond Eric Reed spent his early childhood in Alabama, the oldest of five children born to a mother who has struggled with substance abuse.
"l could tell what was going on," Reed said. "Dealing drugs, on drugs. You could always smell it."
A chaotic home environment -- his father had another family and wasn't around much either -- made Reed self-sufficient at an early age. By age 8, he said, he had taken on the role of protector and helped look after his younger step-siblings.
"There were some nights we would all be on the couch and I would have my arm around all of them," he said.
His maternal grandmother, Frances Reed, stepped in to care for Desmond, 9, and the rest of the family when her daughter was incarcerated. But when Frances Reed was diagnosed with cancer, she sent Desmond to live with his aunt, Caren English, in Temple City.
"She thought he deserved an opportunity to grow up and be something," English said.
The transition was tough. Reed missed his family. He spoke with a heavy Southern accent and there were only a few black children in his new school and community.
"I don't remember seeing too many white people or Asians before I came here," he said.
Reed gradually adapted and flourished with a network of role models, many of whom still call him Eric.
His aunt and her longtime companion, Ray Hussa, provided stability and guidance at home.
Classmates Dana and Kelly Weaver and their family embraced the affable Reed, inviting him to hang out at their house, introducing him to extreme sports and encouraging him to attend church and lead by example.
"The first time we took him snowboarding it wasn't even a thought: He was going to get the biggest air and if he crashed huge it was because he was doing a flip," mother Denise Weaver said. "The first time he went water skiing, he got up. He had no fear."
Marty Dattola saw the 9-year-old Reed doing back flips in the park and later coached him in Pop Warner football.
"He was like the Eveready battery, you couldn't shut him off," Dattola said. "He was all over town, on his bike, running around. Even when his reputation as a great athlete started to get around, he always stayed humble."
Reed credits Temple City High football Coach Mike Mooney, a former USC player, for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
"He took me in like his son, stayed on me and made sure I didn't get big-headed," Reed said.
Reed's past and future coalesced on graduation day in June 2003.
Despite his athletic prowess -- he was a four-year starter and two-way star for Temple City -- he struggled to achieve a qualifying score on the SAT.
The night before commencement, his mother, father and other relatives arrived in town to attend the ceremony.
The next morning, he said, he awoke and went online to check the score of his final SAT try. However, the Internet connection was down, forcing him to go to a friend's house to find out he had qualified.
"I was just like, 'Yeah! I did it! I finally made it. Nothing can hold me back now. I made it to SC. I made it to college,' " Reed said.
Later that day, Reed received his high school diploma before a large group of teary-eyed relatives and friends.
"We both just cried," Reed said of the reunion with his mother, Paula. "I knew if she could do it all over again she would change everything. I still have a lot of love for my mom. It was just a great moment in my life."