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Adrift in a dream's dark side Injuries, painkillers take toll

Travis Claridge, a high school and USC football star, achieved his goal of playing in the NFL. But injuries took their toll, as did the painkillers.

December 01, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

The low sunlight angling onto Howard Jones Field mimics in intensity the concentration of USC's football players as they hustle through late-afternoon practice. Signal calls, hand-clapping and the bellowing of coaches reverberate against the high walls of nearby Lyon Recreation Center.

The scene would be intimately familiar to Travis Claridge, who once added his voice and muscle to the tableau.

Claridge played four seasons for the Trojans, from 1996 through 1999. He was a starter from his freshman year on, a rare distinction, given the mental and physical demands of playing on the offensive line. "Has there ever been an 18-year-old offensive lineman this good?" The Times' Earl Gustkey wondered when Claridge debuted. At 6 feet 6 and nearly 300 pounds, he became an All-American, and was the fourth offensive lineman taken in the 2000 National Football League draft.

The rituals of college football -- practice, halftime shows, antic fans -- lend the game an illusion of constancy. The heads beneath the helmets, however, know that for them it is ephemeral. Every player now on Howard Jones Field will be gone from USC in four, at most five, years, just as Claridge is gone. With luck, none of them will share his ultimate fate any time soon.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Travis Claridge: An article in Saturday's Section A on former USC football player Travis Claridge erred in identifying Claridge's hometown. It is Vancouver, Wash., not Fort Vancouver, Wash. The name of the high school Claridge attended is Fort Vancouver High School.

Claridge was born in Detroit and spent his early childhood in nearby Almont, Mich. His father, Bill, worked in quality control for Ford Motor Co. and was an assistant football coach at Almont High School.

Travis served as water boy for the Almont High team when he was a second-grader and wore a miniature varsity jacket.

When Bill and Travis' mother, Denise, divorced, Bill went to work for Toyota in Torrance in 1986. Two years later, he and his ex-wife decided that Travis should join him and that his younger brother Ryan should remain in Michigan.

In 1991, Toyota transferred Bill to Fort Vancouver, Wash., and it was there that Travis' football career was launched.

As an eighth-grader, Travis announced that he intended to play in the NFL and began striving single-mindedly for that goal. He started lifting weights daily, and Bill often joined him.

Bill saw his role as taskmaster in football and academics. He was aware that the family in Michigan, whom Travis visited regularly, thought that his task-mastering was an effort to fulfill his own aspirations through his son. Travis, however, had freely set a goal for himself, and Bill believed that it was his responsibility to "just make sure I gave him the right things for his toolbox."

Travis played for the Fort Vancouver High School Trappers, and what he lacked in technique, he compensated for with strength. He was named a USA Today first-team All-American, designated a Parade Magazine All-American and pictured on the cover of the National College Recruiting Assn.'s magazine. He became one of the most highly rated high school offensive linemen in the country.

The first college coach to telephone him -- at 12:01 a.m. on the first day recruiters legally could contact high school seniors -- was Mike Barry, then USC's offensive line coach. After a visit to USC, Travis was sold.

The Fort Vancouver Trappers played their home games at Kiggins Bowl, a tidy stadium with a roofed grandstand that is surrounded by a serration of high evergreens. After his final game there, Travis dug up a patch of the turf and asked Bill to plant it in his front lawn.

"I never want this to end," he told his father. "You've got to plant this so when I come home I can touch the stuff that got me going."


Travis was vain about his physique and never wanted to resemble the stereotypical barrel-bellied offensive lineman. He chose 71 as his uniform number because he thought it accentuated the "V" of his weight-trained torso.

A fan of the stagy melodramatists of the World Wrestling Federation, he imagined joining them when his football days were over. He already had a character he wanted to play: The Preacher, who would enter the ring clad in black, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and clutching a Bible.

When Steve Greatwood became USC offensive line coach in Travis' junior year, he found the star lineman to be a loner, unusual among notoriously clannish O-linemen. The coach made it his business to integrate him with the others, and by the time Travis was a senior, he had developed an easy sociability, sitting among a group at the back of film-watching sessions, cracking wise in pro wrestler voices and emitting digestive sounds.

Travis let few people know him truly well, but to those few he revealed a core of sensitivity, compassion and uncertainty, as well as a tendency to be either buoyant or downcast. His high school girlfriend, Jennifer Johnston, believed that Travis inwardly grieved his parents' divorce, as well as the absence of his mother and brother Ryan from his everyday life.

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