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A bit of Trojans cultural literacy in Football 101

Foreign-born USC students get a crash course in the big sport on campus.

September 21, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Some USC fans may be more passionate than others, but understanding what all the fuss is about is a lesson in itself for some USC students.
Some USC fans may be more passionate than others, but understanding what… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Imagine getting two dozen USC students together and none of them knowing the name of the Trojans' starting quarterback. That's what happened the other day on campus over at the Lyon Center, I swear.

"Anyone know the name of the starting quarterback?"

Nothing. Silence. Which, in itself, is a bizarre reaction for most of today's college students.

Surely, they must be impostors, or UCLA plants, but really that's what happened, and USC's Don Ludwig was there to help.

Ludwig has one of those great jobs you never knew existed, executive director of spirit and traditions at the school and a 38-year USC veteran overall.

Today, he is bringing some two dozen foreign-born USC students into the cultural hothouse that is USC football. Yep, it's Football 101 here in the Lyon Center: one German, one Malaysian, one Pakistani, a couple of Koreans and the rest Chinese.

"Are you mostly grad students?" Ludwig asks of the Chinese, and many of them nod.

In fact, 27% of USC students hail from other nations, the highest such proportion in the country, according to Alexandra Bitterlin, a USC director of development.

This two-hour football primer is all part of making them feel at home, a voluntary pit stop in the Living in the United States series put on by the school. Courses include "Life Without a Car in Los Angeles," "Stress Management" and "Accent Reduction."

The longest of the classes — tied with "Understanding U.S. Culture, Values & Religion" — is this football class.

Presumably, if you understand the theological overtones of USC football, you have a jump-start on religion.

Athletic department types lead the gridiron class every fall term, and in the spring will take some of the braver ones — the students still wanting more football — out onto the field to throw the ball or run a pattern (they'll stop at actually tackling each other or scalping tickets).

Honestly, it's an interesting process to watch, the world opening up to these students in one vital area of campus life. Because to not know the quarterback's name at USC is to not quite be fully Trojaned.

"O.J. Simpson went to USC?" one of the students gasps at one point.

"Yes, he was a very, very good player," Ludwig says.

"Now he's famous for something else," the student notes.

The session is broken into several sections. Instructor Frankie Telfort explains the defense. Kevin Bolen explains the offense.

"Your center needs to be really smart," Bolen says. "He's the one calling out who to block and how to adjust."

Ludwig jumps in to explain a lot of the lore of the program, how the Trojans were once known as the Fighting Methodists, how the mascot before Traveler was a dog named Tirebiter. How the addition of Traveler was inspired by the Rose Parade.

"You know, Traveler has a 3.2 GPA," Ludwig says, then explains that he was joking.

Then the really tough stuff.

"BCS stands for Bowl Championship Series — very, very confusing," Ludwig says before turning the specifics over to Telfort.

When you think about it, football might be the most difficult sport to explain, right after baseball. There are more positions, more formations, more ways to score.

Then you get the jargon: icing the kicker, coffin corner, forward progress (as opposed to backward progress?).

Much of it makes no sense unless you've grown up with it, and even then it's all a bit arcane.

And to be fair, no one is ready to try out for wide receiver after spending a couple of hours listening to PowerPoint presentations. (Me, I blacked out the last 20 minutes of class, as usual, which is why to this day I confuse words like flounder and founder and remember only the first four digits of pi.)

Yet, these bright-eyed kids soak up every minute.

Muse Tan, a freshman psychology major from China, says the class helped clear up a lot of the questions she had after attending USC's season opener.

"Anyone know what an extra point is?" one of the instructors asked.

"When they kick it through that huge thing?" Tan answered.

When the lecture portion is done, she and her classmates head for the Friday pep rally at Heritage Hall, where young men the size of minivans wander in, surrounded by the Trojan Marching Band.

It's loud, it's insane, it's a tribal, shoulder-rubbing intro into USC football. You either "get it," or you walk away holding your head and screaming for pharmaceuticals.

"They made it very good," said Jorn Kobus of Germany, one of the kids who got it. "You see how they are burning for the culture. You get the fire."

Kobus, who is studying business, also mentioned how interesting it was to watch, a week earlier, when students parked on the street the night before the game, then sold the precious spots to fans the next day.

"That was impressive," he said. "Now I get America."

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