USC running back Tre Madden carried the ball 18 times for 109 yards for the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Tre Madden's comeback began with a football game, though it was not USC's season opener against Hawaii.
In spring 2012, a few days after Madden left the hospital following major knee surgery, he was bedridden and despondent.
Doctors told Madden that moving his knee around would aid his recovery. But his knee hurt, despite painkillers. He also was in a mental funk.
Curtis Madden, a high school coach who played in college, initially gave his son space. Soon, however, he could no longer take it. He entered the bedroom, delivered a stern message and then exited.
Neither father nor son will recount the exact language of their exchange — "There were some words you can't print," Curtis said — but an hour later, Madden summoned his dad.
They activated machines that iced and moved Tre's leg — and spent the next 12 hours playing a football video game.
"I don't think we really said a word to each other," Tre recalled. "We just picked teams and started playing all day. It brought me out of it."
Madden's comeback culminated last week when he started at tailback for the first time and rushed for 109 yards in the Trojans' 30-13 victory at Hawaii. It was a breakout performance for the third-year sophomore, who began his USC career as a linebacker but comes from a line of talented runners.
Madden's maternal grandfather, Lawrence McCutcheon, starred at running back for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1970s. His father played fullback at Kansas State from 1988-92. And his uncle, Daylon McCutcheon, was a standout on offense and defense at La Puente Bishop Amat High in the mid-1990s before playing cornerback at USC and moving on to the NFL.
So Madden and his family cannot wait for Saturday night, when USC plays Washington State in a Pac-12 Conference opener and he will walk down the Coliseum tunnel and run onto the field for his first home game as a Trojans tailback.
"It's going to be a cool experience," Madden said.
Born in Texas, Madden, 20, was named after his paternal grandfather and father. His given name is Curtis Ray Madden III, but he has been known as Tre since birth.
"His mom and I only call him Curtis when he's in trouble," his father said, laughing.
Madden began playing football at age 6 — "They start young in Texas," he said — and began his career as a fleet-footed and agile center. "I wanted to play running back," he said, "but the coach said I was the only one who could snap the ball to the quarterback."
The coach also took a novel approach to teaching tackling, pinning water-filled balloons to players during practice and instructing defensive players to pop them.
On the season-opening kickoff, Tre clobbered the returner. Madden's mother, Adrian, a former basketball and volleyball player, shuddered in the stands because the boys were so young. "But it was a great tackle," she said. "You thought, 'OK, we're on to something here.'"
A few years later, the family moved from Texas to California and settled in Orange County. Curtis coached Tre in Mission Viejo youth leagues.
"I didn't get to see Tre play in person because I was still playing," Daylon McCutcheon said. "But when I saw videos, wherever the ball was, you saw him making a tackle or an interception."
Madden attended San Juan Capistrano JSerra High before transferring to Mission Viejo after his freshman year. He was the starting quarterback for the sophomore team, but his career changed course when coaches put him in at linebacker for one series during an early-season game.
A running back caught a pass out of the backfield, and Madden chased him down and forced and recovered a fumble. A varsity assistant saw the play and installed Madden as the starting middle linebacker for the next varsity game.
For three seasons, Madden starred on defense and also played on offense as a wildcat quarterback. "He could do anything," said Mission Viejo Coach Bob Johnson, who watched Madden rush for seven touchdowns and throw for two more as a senior.
As a USC freshman, Madden played mainly on special teams and as a reserve linebacker. He started against Colorado and entered 2012 spring practice determined to challenge for a larger role. But a week into workouts, Coach Lane Kiffin summoned Madden to his office. The Trojans were low on tailbacks.
"I kind of knew what was going on," Madden said, adding that when Kiffin proposed the switch he smiled and thought, "sounds good to me."
Madden impressed during his first week on offense, Kiffin saying Madden's speed and size hearkened to former Trojans tailback LenDale White, who rushed for 52 career touchdowns. But during a full-squad drill in early April, Madden's knee buckled when he took a handoff and attempted to turn upfield.
"I knew it was something serious," he said. The next day, USC announced Madden had torn knee ligaments and would miss the season.
"You never really think it's going to happen to you," he said, "until it happens."