With no practice Friday and an open date today, USC players are enjoying a weekend respite from the physical punishment that is meted out on the field.
Few welcomed the revitalizing break more than Ben Malcolmson, a sportswriter-turned-receiver who made the unlikely jump from the press box to the roster of one of the nation's top college programs.
"I'm always sore," Malcolmson said, laughing.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Malcolmson, who had not played tackle football since the fifth grade, participated in an open tryout at USC before spring practice. The Dallas native planned to write a story about his experience for the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper.
To his surprise, he made the team.
"I thought I was dreaming," he said at the time.
Malcolmson, however, suffered a shoulder injury a few weeks into spring practice and had surgery 10 days later. Doctors told him it might be a nine-month recovery, but Malcolmson was determined to come back sooner.
For months, he showed up in the basement weight room at Heritage Hall, lifting light dumbbells to strengthen his shoulder and his resolve.
"There's always that thought in the back in of your mind, 'Is it worth it?' " said Malcolmson, who is taking graduate courses this semester. "It's not that I'm that good of a player or the team really needs me. But you have an opportunity in front of you to get back and potentially play. I couldn't pass that up no matter how much work I had to put in."
Malcolmson, 21, missed training camp and the first four games before he was cleared for contact. He suited up for the Trojans' Oct. 7 home game against Washington and was overwhelmed by the experience.
"It was surreal, it's hard to even remember it," he said. "All I could say all day was, 'Wow.' "
On Wednesday, exactly six months after surgery, Malcolmson was on the practice field against the first-unit kickoff coverage team when linebacker Rey Maualuga, a 6-3, 250-pound Butkus Award semifinalist, barreled through him.
"I just got obliterated," Malcolmson said.
But with starters resting Thursday, Malcolmson achieved a milestone of sorts.
The offense faced a third-and-10 situation when he hauled in an eight-yard pass in the left flat from walk-on quarterback Duron Sylvester. Malcolmson lowered his surgically repaired right shoulder and bulled through two tacklers for the first down.
Teammates and coaches cheered.
"I did it without thinking," Malcolmson said. "I got tackled, got up and was like, 'Wow, that felt pretty good.' "
USC Coach Pete Carroll said he respects the effort all walk-ons put in each year, including Malcolmson.
"I know how meaningful it is to him, how excited he is about it and how much he's poured himself into this return from injury, the rehab and all that," Carroll said. "His attitude has been great. He stays late and works all the time trying to catch up. It's a beautiful thing."
Malcolmson would like to play in a game but realizes the chances are slim of doing anything other than performing for the scout team in practice. Nevertheless, he remains thrilled to be part of the team.
"It's gotten to the point where I'm not in this for me anymore," he said. "If that means working my tail off during the week and coming out of the [Coliseum] tunnel on Saturday, I'm happy with that.
"It's already beyond what you could imagine or ever dream."
Carroll and his assistants are spending the weekend recruiting. Carroll was scheduled to attend two games Friday and at least one today.... Carroll gave players the usual warnings about avoiding trouble during the weekend off. Some players were scheduled to take flights home for the weekend. "I'm in favor of them trying to get out of here," Carroll said. "Just make sure they get back on time. Hopefully, we'll get all that done."