By Arash Markazi
As Justin Fargas prepares to go to another football practice, he walks through USC's Heritage Hall. Despite spending countless hours in the legendary building, he stops for a moment and once again looks at the four Heisman Trophies sitting in the lobby - staring at each one like a visitor seeing them for the first time.
'It motivates me,' said Fargas, the fifth-year senior who is preparing to play in his first and only season at USC . 'Just to be here and play at Tailback U. with the great tradition of tailbacks that have played here and the great things that they've done before, and to see those four Heisman trophies and the retired jerseys, that's all the motivation in the world for a tailback.'
The first time Fargas walked through Heritage Hall in 1997, he was one of the most coveted tailbacks in the country, breaking records at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. At the time Fargas dreamed of wearing the Cardinal and Gold and breaking records at the Coliseum.
'I always wanted to be a Trojan,' said Fargas, who ran for a school-record 6,357 yards and 82 touchdowns in his three-year high school career. 'I had a good relationship with Coach (John) Robinson and I had committed to him early before my senior year. When they had a coaching change, I had to look at my other options and I pretty much narrowed it down to the two L.A. schools and Michigan. When it was all said and done, I didn't see myself being a Bruin, and Michigan seemed to be the best option after the coaching change.'
Although Fargas surpised many of his friends and family by deciding to leave his warm-weather home for the chilly climate of Ann Arbor, he was intent on showing people that he could be a premier tailback wherever he went. It looked like he was on his way to making his dreams come true as a freshman, rushing for 277 yards and one touchdown on 77 carries, including a 120-yard breakout performance in the rain at Northwestern. But instead of breaking records, Fargas ended up breaking his right leg against Wisconsin towards the end of his freshman season.
The injury would not be just a minor setback in Fargas' career; it would come to epitomize it.
Following an initial surgery that saw two titanium rods and 12 screws implanted in his leg, Fargas was forced to go back to the hospital four months later when his leg wasn't healing properly. Doctors were forced to re-break his leg and insert two metal plates. The surgeries forced Fargas to red shirt in 1999 and, while he was out, Fargas also found time for a third operation to fix tendons in his right big toe.
'It hurt because I wanted to play so bad,' said Fargas, who nearly lost his foot after the initial surgery when doctors briefly considered amputating it. 'I guess in retrospect, I should be glad that I can even walk, but at the time I just wanted to play football.'
By the time Fargas was healthy enough to play football again, he had fallen so far down the depth chart at tailback he moved to safety just so he could get on the field.
'When I finally came off my injuries, I wasn't quite certain where I fit in, so I moved to defense,' said Fargas, who played safety in high school.
'Had I stayed at Michigan, I could still be playing defense and maybe had a shot at playing in the NFL at that position, but in my heart and in my dreams, I wanted more. I'm a natural tailback. I figured that by me making a move from Michigan to USC, I could have a chance at being a top tailback.'
At the same time that Fargas was attempting to transfer to USC, the Trojans made another coaching change, this time bringing in Pete Carroll to replace Paul Hackett.
'Fargas was really big out here, but I didn't know who he was. I had never heard of him before,' Carroll said. 'We had a release on him and eventually got it to the point where he called us and we arranged for him to come to campus.
'When they opened the door and I met his father, I was floored. I had no idea that Antonio Fargas was going to be walking in here.'
While Carroll was surprised to see 'Huggy Bear' from TV's Starsky and Hutch walking into his office, he wasn't as shocked when he saw what Fargas was doing on the practice field every day, as he served as the Trojans' scout team tailback last season, forced to sit out following his transfer.
'He left no doubt from the first day that he would be going a thousand miles an hour every chance he got,' Carroll said. 'He's very tough, very aggressive and very physical. Those are characteristics you don't necessarily place on a running back.'
Fargas' aggressiveness helped him go from the scout team to the first team in the spring as he ran for 139 and 111 yards during USC's spring scrimmages, some of the better spring perfromances by a Trojan tailback in recent memory.
Now Fargas is waiting to put up those kind of numbers on game days.
'I can't wait to put on that helmet and play at the Coliseum,' Fargas said. 'It's been a long journey and a long wait, but I'm finally ready to make my dreams come true.'