You have been a long-time fan of USC. What about USC made it so special to you and your family, even when you were young?
My dad moved out here from Chicago, and he received his MBA from USC. This made my dad a fan, and I grew up in Huntington Beach watching games with him. Also, just growing up in Southern California in the early 2000’s, all my friends and their families had some type of USC ties, and they were rooting for the Trojans. I think I would’ve probably ended up rooting for them anyways, but it definitely helped that my dad was an alum. Plus it was easy rooting for those championship teams back when I was growing up in the early 2000’s.
At age 12 you had a pretty special experience, spending time with Coach Carroll and the USC Football team, some of the last things you got to see before the surgery where you would completely lose sight in your eyes. Years later now, which of those visual memories stand out to you the most?
Coach Carroll let me see everything. I stayed in a hotel with the team. Seeing what the hotel looked like, what the bus ride looked like to the hotel and to the Coliseum stand out. I did the Trojan Walk with Coach Carroll out on the field, got to see the locker rooms, I even traveled to South Bend with the team. And I definitely, as a player in the same setting, remembered what I saw and would try to recall those visual memories in my mind. Sometimes, when I had a moment, I would kind of picture what everything looked like, and what I remember seeing, which makes it very, very special.
As far as the athletes to, I got to spend time with my favorite player, Kris O’Dowd. Matt Barkley was in his freshman year. Taylor Mays was also really close with me. All of the offensive linemen, like Butch Lewis, were close with my family and me. I remember Joe McKnight, he was a close friend. He loved me. He was a really cool guy. Damian Williams, Ronald Johnson, Bryce Butler. They were really, really cool to me. Blake Ayles was really cool. It was quite incredible just to see those guys take me on as their little brother. So I mean, there was a lot that I was able to see and remember.
With all of that history and connection to USC, were there any other colleges that you even considered going to?
I applied to Harvard, and that was the only other school that I applied to. I found out in early February that USC had accepted me and that I’d be receiving a scholarship. At that time I was getting ready to begin my interviews with Harvard, and so I kind of told Harvard, “Never mind,” that I was going to play football at SC. They understood. It was awesome that I was even going to get to go through the interview process at Harvard, but SC was always my first choice, and it really worked out that they wanted me as well.
You get to USC. Did any particular players take you under their wing when you first got there?
So I did know Cody Kessler and a couple of other players beforehand. But once I got there, as part of the team, it was getting to know the specialists. I got to know Zach Smith. He was the long snapper at the time, and my locker mate. Zach was kinda right there for me. Reid Budrovich was just a year above me. He was a punter. He definitely took me under his wing a little bit. I remember Delvon Simmons, he was really, really funny man.
You’ve talked before about having a strong bond with your special teams unit. Can you elaborate on this bond and what you think sets the unit apart from other position groups on the team?
Well you are with them every part of practice. I mean, there’s not one moment you’re separated. And then I think what makes it different than any other position group out there is that if you’re practicing just by yourselves as specialist, or in a team setting, you’re using each other. I mean, receivers, unless it’s a trick play, receivers aren’t throwing balls to other receivers during a play. They can run routes individually and catch balls, but they’re not relying on each other necessarily to catch the ball. Whereas with specialists, it’s really a unit. It’s a snap, a hold, and a kicker, or the punter. So we all need each other to perform. And so I say if centers and quarterbacks played with each other, practice with each other all through practice, I think that’d be the closest bond. That could be similar to the specialists. But I think that’s what makes us different from any other unit out there or position, is that we absolutely need each other. Kickers can kick, punters can punt, snappers can snap, but if we ever want to practice actual live drills or practice actual reps, it’s definitely using each other.
Let’s move on from your teammates to your coaches at USC. You had a couple in the beginning, Steve Sarkisian, who recruited you, and when you got there. And then ultimately Clay Helton. Can you talk about your experience with both coaches, and what it is that you learned from both?
Well, I mean, it was interesting just getting there. I was introduced at Salute to Troy, and obviously that was kind of a little, I guess a little glitch in the USC history we’ll always remember. And then halfway through the season, Coach Sarkisian gets fired and it’s kind of chaos, and we don’t necessarily know what’s going on. I didn’t get the chance to learn as much from Coach Sarkisian, but from what I could tell he was a great coach. But obviously he was facing some demons in his life and so it was just an unfortunate situation. And looking back on it, obviously I realize every coach at that point then knew their future was uncertain with the program. And so it just made things really interesting. That freshman year was different than any other year. I think obviously we wrapped our arms around Coach Helton. We realized how much Helton cared about the program, cared about us. And really just wanted us to win and would do anything for us to win. We respected him. He respected us. I think that’s what created that real bond that he had with us. That carried us for the rest of that season, and obviously the seasons after.
Now your position coaches. By that same token, I’m guessing you didn’t get to learn as much from Johnny Nansen. Talk about John Baxter who it’s clear you are close to.
Yeah, so [Coach] Baxter is… He’s a philosopher, man. He’s just kind of got one of those minds. He teaches you obviously the details and the necessary tools to perform at your position, but he also teaches you how to learn, and how to assess, and to take yourself and discern what you need to do. It’s more of an approach-based learning program that he teaches, and I think that helps people in their lives if it’s football, or relationships, or school, to take kind of that same thought process and the same approach to solving those problems as well. One of the things is, everything’s a problem and life is just problem-solving. If you got two essays due this week, how are you going to solve that problem? If you try to figure out Oregon State’s defense, how are you going to solve that problem? So for me it was just, I always had that same mindset of having philosophies in life and using principles to get me through obviously what I had to get through as a child, and every day without sight. And so to have someone kind of with that same mindset, we just connected. It was fun having him out there. I know he really enjoyed teaching me football, and just life skills, and it was really fun. He’s become, obviously, a great friend of mine. And I think we’ll have a very deep connection for the rest of our lives.
What is your favorite game?
That Rose Bowl game, I don’t know what can beat that. That day was very fun just from a standpoint of the emotions that came with it and obviously just being there that entire season and pushing through the one and three start and seeing where we could climb back from. It was absolutely amazing to be part of that. And so I don’t know, honestly I’d probably say Rose Bowl and then Western Michigan if I’m being completely honest.
I think I know the answer to this one, what is your favorite play?
Oh, my snap versus Western Michigan. It was awesome. It was fun to finally get out there and deliver and just prove to myself and others again what I could do out on the football field. I thought I was going to be a lot more nervous. I kind of got out there and just was like, “This is really awesome. This is really fun and awesome.” For me, I actually couldn’t care less what happened out there. Just the fact I was out there and doing it, it was just fun. Literally I could not have kept the smile off my face if I tried.
What is your favorite play that you were not involved in?
That would be Chase’s kick to beat Texas. I still had some feelings about Texas from the 2005 loss in the Rose Bowl. And so to be on the team when we beat them and were able to put them down in our own stadium was kind of a redeeming moment. It was very fun. And I’m very, very glad that Chase came through in the clutch.
I hear that you like to play jokes on your teammates. Do you have any particular favorites that you can share?
(Laughs.) There have been many times where I would be with another teammate and he’d have me throw a ball at another teammate 10-15 yards away and then kind of turn around a little bit like I didn’t do anything. And the teammate who got hit would be very confused. Obviously, they didn’t expect it to be me necessarily. (Laughs.) We did that so many times. The other players also had their little ways of joking with me. Daniel Imatorbhebhe would always come and give me a hug and he wouldn’t say who it was. And I always knew it was Daniel because he’d always just come up to give me a hug. Everyone had their own little way of messing with me. I don’t know, it was just fun out there. It was just how brothers get.
Pro day this year you went viral, with your Reps for Retinoblastoma. 17 of them on the bench press raising a lot of money and awareness for it.
Yeah I just put a number out there that I wanted to raise. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But it was just cool to see the support around me. I think we ended up raising somewhere around about $70,000, which was just really cool. I know that realistically, for the FDA to give us a clinical trial and to go through that stuff, it’s going to take millions of dollars. What was really cool is that there is a special grant given by the Canadian government up in Toronto where any kid who comes to Sick Children of Toronto can get that procedure done and it only costs around a $100,000. We were actually able to really help with getting that grant. They’re working on getting that grant now. Once they do, any kid around the world can travel to Toronto and get that procedure, that again, has affected two kids tremendously. Hopefully this treatment will be the new standard and cure Retinoblastoma for good.
Shortly after your first snap against Western Michigan, you were quoted as saying, “If you can’t see how God works things out then I think you’re the blind one.” Can you talk about your faith and how important that is to your life?
Yeah, it’s the reason why I’m still here and it’s the reason why I played football and am the person I am. Imagine how difficult it is growing up with cancer and becoming blind. There is a lot of uncertainty with that and a lot of sadness with that. And I think the peace and the courage that I found to continue to push on through life and to just achieve the goals that I had in life, and to continue to live a fulfilling life, came from my relationship with God and the peace and understanding that Christ gives you. The quote at the end of the Western Michigan game that you quoted there, I think anyone’s hard pressed to look at my situation and say, “Okay, how did God not have a role in this?” Again, it’s an awful thing to let a 12 year old go blind, but to see what happened with me going from a 12 year old who was just visiting the team as an honorary member, to six years later joining the team and then 10 years later now graduating from that same school and being able to play on the team, I mean, that’s just a really, really special plan that he had for me. He had a plan for me this entire time. It’s just awesome to see that come to fruition.
So let’s move on to after USC. You graduated this past May with a business degree. Can you talk about the new startup that you’re involved with called Engage?
Daniel Hennes, my roommate and manager, and I came up with an idea of just trying to digitize the process of booking talent. It came from all the requests that we were getting. We wanted an easier way of kind of sorting them out and not going through the same process every time, and so we came up with this idea that you can have an online platform digitize the whole process of someone finding me submitting request, and booking me. We raised money from a couple investors and built our platform, Engage (letsengage.com). As we started investigating the market and industry a little more we found that a lot of talent and agents wanted a better, more transparent way to book talent. We have over 170 guys on right now, and it’s growing. We book a lot of speaking engagements, but we are finding a lot of people want more customizable experiences. So a lot of our talent can offer anything on the site, any experience that can be booked. I know for my profile, you can book me for a round of golf.
Family is obviously very important to you. I see your family is involved in Engage as well, even your guide dog Quebec has a profile.
Yeah. Another reason why I’m here is just my support from my family. My mom and dad obviously were there for me. My dad pushes me at sports. I mean, he’s out there helping me snap. They’ve helped me with golf. My dad’s out there literally pushing me and helping me at golf every single day. My sister has helped me tremendously with obviously being there for me in school and with friends, and just being my best friend. She’s also helped with Engage and helps us edit different things, press releases, being a creative writer for us and making sure everything runs smoothly. So it’s been really, really awesome to have my family with me. And yes, even my guide dog Quebec, is always there.
You have an event coming up with Matt Barkley. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. So, I’ve known Matt since his freshman year of college. And I’ve known Matt for a long time. And he’s one of the speakers you can book on Engage. So one of the cool things we can do through Engage is a pop up event. And that’s just if our talent wants to have an event where they want to sell tickets and have a cool experience they want to share with people, they can absolutely do that through our site. I wanted to create a USC pop up event, and so I took [Coach] Baxter, who’s on our site, and Barkley who’s on our site, and we are doing a cool thing at the Lab right there at SC. We’re selling tickets here, and it’s going to be a really fun night.
Do you have any last words for Trojan fans as you move on to the next stage of your life and career?
Yeah. I think the attitude that I brought along to overcoming blindness and doing things I love is something that everyone can have in their own life to overcome their own challenges. I hope that throughout my time at SC I was an inspiration to a lot of people in that regard. I’d encourage them to continue to follow me and just be part of my teambecause I’ve loved having the Trojan fans there with me throughout this entire ride. I hope they can continue to be there with me throughout the next steps in my life and to be a support base that I can rely on.