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Bill Plaschke

Booty puts the finishing touch on a fine body of work

January 02, 2008|Bill Plaschke

After he threw his first touchdown pass, he stayed in the backfield to slap pads with one of his tackles.

When he threw his second, he stayed back to hug one of his guards.

When he threw his third touchdown, while the rest of the offense danced and bounced around the end zone, senior John David Booty simply walked toward the sidelines and disappeared.

And, so, goodbye.

We hardly knew you. We rarely appreciated you. But, goodness, college football is going to miss you.

Having arrived at USC five years ago with the potential to be the most starry quarterback in Trojans history, Booty left Tuesday as simply one of its most solid.

It wasn't what he dreamed. It wasn't why he came here. This wasn't who he was supposed to be.

But he grew into solid, accepted solid, and ultimately embraced it enough to deliver a second consecutive solid Rose Bowl whipping Tuesday in USC's 49-17 victory over Illinois.

"The last five years have been the best years of my life," he said, quietly, lyrically, in his trademark southern lilt. "That's the only way I know how to put it."

He won't win a Heisman Trophy like his two predecessors. He won't win even one national championship -- much less two -- like the guy he replaced.

Yet in the early evening chill, he won the words of his father, John, who carried his son's offensive-player-of-the-game trophy while following him across a confetti-strewn field to where the USC band was waiting for its senior quarterback to direct one last fight song.

"There are times it's been tough for him here, but he's never wanted to be anywhere else," said John. "He's hung in there, and seen it through, and I am so proud of him for that."

Solid never scored Booty a date with Paris Hilton, but on Tuesday it helped him throw three touchdown passes that gave him a Rose Bowl career record seven.

"I don't think fans truly appreciate what he's done," said tackle Sam Baker.

Solid will probably never buy Booty an endorsement, but on Tuesday he was stamped as one of USC's best tough-game quarterbacks by completing his record against top-25 teams at 9-0.

"People around town never really bought into his style or approach," said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. "He just goes out there and gets the job done."

Solid never earned Booty a standing ovation or prolonged name chants, but on Tuesday they earned him respect from his most important of fans.

"The guy has been great for us," said Matt Leinart, standing on the sideline. "People have no idea how tough it's been for him."

Indeed, when he finally left the field Tuesday after completing 25 of 37 passes for 255 yards, a towel wrapped around his shoulder and a gleam in his eye, it's a wonder he was upright.

In the last five years, nobody has been beaten from practice field to newspaper rack like Booty.

He left his Louisiana high school a year early because he hoped to eventually compete with the shaky-starting Leinart.

But Leinart became great. And Booty became injured. Then Leinart won a Heisman Trophy and decided to stay in school for one more year.

At any time, he could have transferred. Instead, he kept quiet and kept working and finally became the starter last season.

Just in time to get ripped.

All this waiting, and Booty walked into a media horde -- me in particular -- that quickly criticized him for too small, too quiet, too complacent.

I even called for Mark Sanchez to replace him this season after he suffered a broken finger against Stanford. A brilliant opinion. After Booty's return from that injury, the Trojans went 5-0 and outscored opponents, 165-68.

I kept waiting for Booty to scream at me, to scream at a TV guy, to scream at somebody.

He never did. The amateur handled it like a pro.

"You've got a job, and I've got a job, and there's nothing I can do but keep working at it," Booty said, rubbing his hand over his familiar old-fashioned black crew cut. "I just want to win football games. Nothing else matters."

He truly did just want to win football games, and never did the Trojans lose because he was unprepared or unmotivated.

And, really, if it wasn't for two tipped passes and a broken finger, they might never have lost under him.

"He has handled this whole thing perfectly," said Coach Pete Carroll.

Typically, last weekend, Illinois defenders said they were going to focus on the Trojans running attack and put the ball in Booty's hands.

Typically, Booty shrugged.

"I don't blame them," he said.

At halftime, he had thrown for just 87 yards, and tossed an interception when his receiver fell, and looked completely beatable.

Then in the third quarter, he threw for 156 yards, hitting spots everywhere, checking off receivers left and right, finding Ronald Johnson down the sidelines for a 15-yard completion on third-and-12 during what became a game-clinching 80-yard drive.

"He's able to really work the offense," said Illinois safety Kevin Mitchell.

And then he's able to give it credit, turning his back to the camera while receiving his post-game trophy to thank his offensive teammates.

"I'm nothing without those guys," he said. "Those guys should always get all the credit. I'm just here."

Here, and gone, two years that sometimes felt like 20 years.

Two years that, on Tuesday, felt like two minutes.

"How do I want to be remembered?" said Booty. "As a Trojan."

On the field in the fourth quarter Tuesday, former athletes and officials were inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.

Several years from now, I can imagine them bestowing the same honor on John David Booty.

I hope I am there. I want to see him hear the cheers. I want to know that he understands their meaning.

No, the last five years have not made him into who he was supposed to be. They have made him into so much more.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. For previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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