Nov. 2, 2001
Back East, there's an old stereotype about people who live in Southern California. Mostly, it comes from those beach movies of the 1960s: bleach-blonde, blue-eyed surfers and bikini clad models hanging out by the ocean, enjoying life and not caring about much. As the thought goes back East, anyone from that culture is too laid back to play a sport like football well, much less in the physical style that it is played in places like Pennsylvania and Indiana.
That's why the sight of Trojan tailback Sunny Byrd lining up in the I-formation under the blue-gray sky of Notre Dame stadium on the first series of the USC-Notre Dame game a few weeks ago must have been quite a sight to those watching. Here was that West Coast stereotype-one who really did know how to surf-going up against the Irish defense. Those folks back East were surely licking their chops, looking forward to seeing the surfer wipe out.
Turns out that Byrd was the one delivering the hits and teaching those Easterners a thing or two. Before the game was over, he had lowered his shoulder and attacked the Irish defense for 62 tough yards, most of it gained through sheer determination. For Byrd, it was quite an experience, especially the game's first series.
'It was crazy just knowing that I was going to be getting the handoff on the first play of the game against Notre Dame,' he said. 'I told myself that it was just like junior college, to just go in there and shove it up their throats. We got nine yards on the first play. It was pretty good.'
Byrd's flight to prominence has been nothing short of amazing. Five weeks into this season, the 6-0, 220-pounder had never before carried the ball while serving as a reserve fullback. His playing time was confined mostly to special teams. Then, injuries hit the backfield and Byrd got the call as the tailback in the second half against Arizona State. He responded with 63 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. He followed up his first career start at Notre Dame with a career-high 67 yards against Arizona. In the three games he has played at tailback, he has 192 rushing yards, is averaging 21 carries and has scored three touchdowns. Suddenly, a guy who was all-but anonymous, both to the public and to many of his teammates, is in the spotlight.
'It's really overwhelming,' said Byrd. 'I don't know what to think about it. I'm just out there doing it. It has taken me a while to realize I'm the starting tailback for USC. It's an amazing opportunity.
'Last year, I was kind of quiet. This year, I'm getting noticed more. People who I've never seen before come up to me and say 'Great job, you really run hard.'
'I'm very shocked by it all. It (playing tailback) seems like just a temporary thing, though. I'm not one who's going to go out and gain big yardage. I try, but I pretty much just go and pound my way for a few yards at a time.'
The ability to pound for yardage has been missing at USC in recent years, but it's a skill that Byrd has had for a while.
'In high school, I developed earlier than the other guys because I'm a little older than most people in my class,' said the 23-year-old junior, who went to Mira Costa (Calif.) High. 'I was able to out-physical people. Then, I went to El Camino Junior College. I only weighed about 175 pounds. So I tried to gain weight and play some strong safety, but I didn't really have the speed for that. One day, I was playing scout offense against the starting defense and my coach liked how I ran, so he switched me over to fullback.'
Being a surfer, Byrd-the son of parents he calls 'hippies' who named their other children Jade, Coral and Niaja-is used to taking the pounding that being a fullback demands. He was seven years old the first time he surfed and he remembers fondly his father pushing his board out into the waves. No doubt, Byrd developed a lot of his balance from riding those waves, which is something that has served him well as a runner. It's a skill that Byrd tried to teach some of his teammates this past summer.
'I took Charlie Landrigan, Carson Palmer and a bunch of linemen down to San Onofre one day during the summer before training camp,' said Byrd. 'We surfed all day then went to a barbecue at Carson's house. It was funny watching the guys paddle and get hit by the waves, especially the linemen. But Carson and Charlie seem to really like surfing. They told me the other day that they are going to buy themselves long boards.'
Sunny Byrd may be laid back, but he plays football like there is no tomorrow. Heck, maybe more Trojans should learn how to surf.
By Chris Huston
Assistant Sports Information Director