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Traumatic game makes dramatic stage material for USC athlete

Last year, an inexperienced Cyrus Hobbi filled in at a key position against Stanford. When the game went south, he got blamed. The theater major wrote a performance piece about the experience.

November 14, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • Cyrus Hobbi was thrust into the starting center position for USC last season against Stanford when senior Khaled Holmes went down with injury. The Trojans line was unable to protect quarterback Matt Barkley and fans directed their anger at Hobbi, who turned that experience into a 15-minute dramatic solo performance.
Cyrus Hobbi was thrust into the starting center position for USC last season… (John Pyle / Associated Press )

As a theater major at USC, Cyrus Hobbi is accustomed to studying dramas. But the burly Trojans offensive lineman never anticipated that he would be at the center of one on the football field and in social media.

Or that reliving onstage his wrenching experience last season against Stanford would help him move past it.

Last December, in a small theater on campus, Hobbi delivered a 15-minute solo performance before an audience of about 100.

Writing and performing the play for a class was a catharsis for the third-year sophomore from Arizona. "It put things in perspective," he said. "It just made me realize that I couldn't let it destroy me so much as a person or a player."

On Sept. 15, 2012, with senior Khaled Holmes sidelined because of an injury, Hobbi started at center against Stanford. A redshirt freshman with less than a half of college game experience, he was charged with directing the offensive line against one of college football's most experienced and aggressive front sevens in the Cardinal's home stadium.

The second-ranked Trojans lost as Stanford pounded the luster off quarterback Matt Barkley's Heisman Trophy campaign and the Trojans' hopes for a national title.

Fans directed much of the blame at Hobbi, the understudy, and the expletive-laced reviews posted to his Facebook page and on Twitter were merciless. Some said he was horrible. Others told him to go back to Arizona. To quit life.

"I was at a pretty low point," he said. "Just thinking horrible thoughts. 'Gosh, the world is over, my life is done. What just happened? I just took the No. 1 team that's supposed to go to the national championship and I screwed it all up.'"

The next week, Hobbi attended team meetings and practices but shied away from classes. "I just really didn't want to see anyone," he said.

Eric Trules, who taught Hobbi's solo performance class, had watched the Stanford game. Trules has been teaching at USC since 1986. Hobbi is the first athlete to take the class, which encourages students to create art from the fabric of their lives.

When Hobbi was absent, Trules sent him an email, encouraging him to draw on the experience.

"I said, 'This how you make art, Cyrus,'" Trules recalled. "I didn't know why you signed up for my solo performance class, but here you are.'"

Hobbi began writing the play that night and Trules helped him work through multiple drafts.

Hobbi's journey had begun at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey after Holmes suffered an ankle injury in the second half of a victory over Syracuse. Hobbi played the rest of the game, and on the plane ride home began pondering playing against Stanford. Hobbi recalled former coach Lane Kiffin walking down the aisle and saying, "You ready, big boy?"

"I was excited," Hobbi said. "But I was like, 'Oh, wow. My first college start: I didn't think it would be ... Stanford.'"

Hobbi watched film that weekend, worked at length with Holmes and huddled with coaches. But on the first day of practice, he was unable to finish the workout.

"They said it was a heat thing, but my nerves were built up," he said.

Hobbi returned the next day and said he had a good week of practice. He was confident going into the game and during the first half, when USC took a 14-7 lead.

But Stanford's front brought constant pressure in the second half.

"I had a few bad plays," Hobbi said. "Once that happened, it was hard for me, not being an experienced player, to move on to the next one."

Barkley was sacked four times as Stanford came back to win, 21-14.

"It's not like it was just Cyrus playing poorly," Holmes said. "We didn't have a good team effort."

Said Hobbi: "I guess the whole world disagreed, and I pretty much took the whole blame for the loss."

Hobbi's play takes the audience through each stage of his journey. The angst-ridden 6-foot-3, 285-pound Hobbi runs and rolls about the stage while performing nine characters, including himself, a narrator, coaches, teammates, an official and fans. In the end, he comes to terms with the experience.

"I was entertained and proud of him for being able to do something like that," said Holmes, who attended the dress rehearsal. "It was a great way for him get something like that off his chest and move on from it."

Offensive tackle Kevin Graf was among about a dozen teammates in the audience the night of the actual performance. "We're all big, tough guys and we don't talk about our feelings much, but I thought it was a great way to show how he felt," Graf said.

Said Trules: "We took his greatest embarrassment and humiliation and turned it around to triumph."

Hobbi was exhilarated. "When I was done, I felt like, "Wow, I don't even know what happened.' It felt amazing," he said. "That's why I like theater and acting so much. It just overtakes you."

Hobbi sat out most of the first part of this season because of a back injury, but he played in the second half last week at California. He is third on the depth chart, but he said he would be ready if needed against fifth-ranked Stanford on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

The experience against the Cardinal last season and the play that grew out of it have strengthened his passion for football and also his goal of becoming an actor.

He has come to grips with the past, a feeling he made clear in the closing line of his play.

"Hey, losing to Stanford might have been a good thing for you, Cyrus. Hell, might have been the best thing to ever happen to you.

"You just don't know it yet."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimes.com

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