Trojans punter Kyle Negrete gains 35 yards and a first down against Washington… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The ball was snapped to the USC punter and an old football movie broke out.
He tucked the ball high under his right arm. He pumped his legs as if riding a bike. He began running stiff-backed and straight, pumping, pumping through a giant hole in the stunned Washington defense. Only when the punter had covered nearly half of the field did a Husky finally jump in front of him, but the punter kept pumping, flattening his nemesis as they crashed together into 1940.
Knute Negrete, All-American.
His first name is actually Kyle, but you get the grainy picture, a wonderful throwback play that was the turning point in USC's 40-17 romp over Washington on Saturday at the Coliseum. It was cool enough that Negrete's 35-yard gallop on a fake punt early in the second quarter kept alive a drive that ended in a touchdown that started the rout, but there's more.
At the end of one of the most disillusioning weeks in college football history, the USC game turned on a kid who plays for free.
Negrete is a walk-on who has punted all season without a scholarship. His father is paying thousands in tuition to give his son the privilege of calling himself a Trojan.
"But that's how I really feel, that being a Trojan is a privilege,'' Negrete said afterward with a sweaty, bearded smile worth millions. "In a way, playing here without a scholarship defines me."
Amid a college football season that has been all about money and its potentially corrupting power, the Kyle Negrete definition is a startling one.
Negrete has 33 punts and zero athletic dining-hall privileges. He has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 17 times, yet he receives zero housing stipend.
The fourth-year junior is the only integral part of this team who has to work part time to help pay the bills, which means that when he's not booming kicks, he's busing tables as a server at the Jacks N Joe restaurant near campus.
"Yeah, sometimes I have to serve some of my teammates," he said. ''It's OK…. What are you going to do?"
USC specialists occasionally begin a season without a scholarship. Yet it is unthinkable that one would be a contributor for a full season and still not get paid. But because USC signed a freshman punter last winter and faces future scholarship sanctions, Negrete's father might have to pay more than $50,000 next season before Kyle could take the field.
The only thing more compelling than this fact is Negrete's reaction to it.
"Being a Trojan is worth it," he says. "I'm blessed and thankful that my father can afford it, because you just cannot beat this place."
It was never more worth it to Negrete than in the second quarter Saturday when fullback Ross Cumming called for the fake when the Trojans were facing fourth and nine from their 45-yard line. Negrete knew they were probably going to run the play. Before the game, Coach Lane Kiffin had warned him about it while ordering him to slide as soon as he passed the first-down marker.
"He told me, 'No way am I going to slide,' " Kiffin recalled with a laugh.
Sure enough, he didn't slide, running up the middle and into the arms of cornerback Anthony Gobern, whom he promptly turned into a purple and white flapjack.
"No way was I sliding," repeated Negrete. "I haven't seen green grass like that since I was in high school."
Thousands roared for a kid who, like all walk-ons, does not have a biography in the football media guide. The Trojans found their breath, and five plays later Marc Tyler pushed into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown run to give them a 14-3 lead.
"My run felt like a crushing blow," Negrete said. "But it wasn't about me, it was about all those guys on the field who cleared the way."
Oh, c'mon, let's let Negrete feel as though he did a little crushing, just once, OK?
He is a Fresno kid, the grandson of former Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney, a hard-luck player who spent his first two years at the University of San Diego punting and playing linebacker until back surgery ended his defensive days. He decided to be strictly a punter, and decided he wanted to do it at the home of his childhood Trojans heroes.
He was allowed inside the Trojans' doors last year only because special-teams coach John Baxter was a family friend, then he watched for a season, then he won the job over the summer, and even with no scholarship, he says it immediately felt like home.
"I have never been treated different here because I'm a walk-on," he said. "When they talk about Trojan family, they mean it."
Negrete knows something about family. Before every game, he uses a Magic Marker to draw 5/17/2002 on his left forearm, reminding him of his mother, Patty, who died of breast cancer that day. Under his uniform he wears a white T-shirt that he once gave his mom, reading "Mom's the Bomb."
"I've got a chip on my shoulder to overcome all I've been through," he says. "My mom gave me that toughness."
After the game, it's all tenderness, as he will talk about the game in a phone call to his buddy Joel, a 20-year-old from Fallbrook with autism whom he has mentored for several years in a program he founded at San Diego.
"I'm lucky to be playing for USC, and I want to share that with others," Negrete said.
Lucky to play for USC? No, it is USC that is lucky. In a fake far more impressive than anything Kyle Negrete ran on Saturday, the kid who costs nothing is priceless.