USC Football: Like Fathers, Like Sons
by Ryan Reiswig
Picture this: USC's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is packed to the brim. All of its 93,607 seats are filled with Trojan fans standing and cheering, ready for their football team to parade through the entrance and take the field before a big game. Traveler, the Trojan's mascot, darts through the field entrance with the Trojan flag in hand and the crowd's roar kicks up another deafening ten decibels. Then, just as you expect to hear "Fight On" being played by the USC marching band and see the team run onto the field, Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair" blares on the speakers and the Trojans hit the field.
Sound weird? Absolutely.
But if you're one of a certain three members of the 2010 USC Trojan football team, this scene may make some sense. Following in their father's footsteps, current Trojans T.J. McDonald, Kevin Graf and Rhett Ellison made USC their college choice. Their fathers, Trojan alumni Tim McDonald, Allan Graf and Riki Ellison, couldn't have been happier with their son's decision.
For T.J. and Kevin, choosing to attend USC was a no-brainer.
"At the end of my sophomore year was when I got my first [scholarship] offer, then they started rolling in," says the younger McDonald. "Once USC's offer came, I knew that was the place I wanted to be. I took one visit and that was to USC. I didn't want to waste anyone else's time by taking any other visits."
T.J.'s father Tim might have purchased certain items that influenced T.J.'s decision from an early age.
"Did I have a little bit of influence to do with that? Yeah. The first sweatshirt he had as a kid was USC, the first football he got was a USC football," admits Tim, who played 13 seasons in the NFL, making six Pro-Bowls and winning a Superbowl in 1994. "He had so much USC in his blood that it was the obvious choice once USC came calling."
As for Kevin, he was practically born with a USC colors on. Along with his father Allan, who played there 1970-1972, his brother Derek played there 1998-2002 and his sister even attended the school.
"He had a lot of influence in my career," says Graf of his father. "He always took me to SC football games. He always said I'm going to be a great football player."
Like T.J., Kevin wasted no time making his decision once USC made an offer.
"As soon as SC offered me a scholarship I knew that was where I wanted to go. I've been around SC my whole life, and it really shaped out to be a perfect thing for me to come here," says Kevin.
Rhett Ellison's path to USC took a few different turns. Initially, former Trojan head coach Pete Carroll offered Rhett a scholarship after his junior year at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., before withdrawing it in the fall. Carroll then asked Rhett's father Riki to put him in a "grey shirt" situation and join the team as a walk-on. Riki refused, and Rhett committed to play football at Virginia Tech.
Not so fast.
"The Sunday before the signing date, Pete Carroll called and then went back and gave Rhett a scholarship. I told Rhett he has two choices: he can most likely play a lot at Virginia Tech or he'll have to go to USC and have a tremendous amount of pressure. The program is so good that you may never play, and you'll have to follow my footsteps," says Riki, who played nine seasons in the NFL and won two Super Bowls before retiring in 1992. "He made the choice to go to USC, which for me as a dad was one of the most exciting things for me to witness in my life, for my son to make a decision of that magnitude."
While going through the recruiting process, T.J., Derek and Rhett all got scholarship offers from schools around the nation. All three of them also had one other thing in common: their fathers did not want them to play for a rival of the Trojans, a la UCLA and Notre Dame.
"I put a lot of pressure on him to not accept those schools particularly," says Riki. "They weren't on board, not even allowed to go to recruiting trips there. My [former] teammate, Joe Montana, has a son over there at Notre Dame, which is fun for me to be able to banter with Joe about this kind of rivalry."
Rhett acknowledges his father's allegiance to the Men of Troy. There would have definitely been issues had he chosen a rival school.
"I don't think he would've been too excited about that," says Rhett. "I think he'd still wear USC stuff to the games."
Tim has a unique situation because his younger son Devin is redshirting for rival UCLA this season. However, one of his sons attending school in South Bend is another story.
"I would've accepted it because it was my son, but would I have liked it? Probably not. Definitely not Notre Dame. You're a long way from home, plus you're at Notre Dame, are you kidding me?" says McDonald, laughing.
In the case of Kevin, his mom tried to send him to the dark side during the recruiting process.
"It's funny because my mom liked Notre Dame. She's Irish so she was like, 'Go to Notre Dame, it's an Irish school'" says Kevin. "My dad was always saying 'Go where you'll be happy and I'll be happy for you.'"
Allan may have been happy for his son if he chose a rival school, but it would've been a bittersweet moment. After all, Allan has been attending Trojans games since he graduated in 1972.
"I would've accepted it, but I would've had to get rid of my season tickets at SC," jokes Allan, who has been a stuntman and stunt director in Hollywood for 30 years since graduating.
Following in your father's footsteps is not easy, especially after your father already had so much success at that same high level of competition. However, not all three of the current Trojans feel a lot of pressure. T.J. has already had to deal with following in his father's footsteps at a lower level of competition: high school.
"I don't feel pressure at all. It's something I dealt with my whole life because [my father] went to the same high school, and now I'm at the same college," says T.J.. "If I can turn out to be half the player he was, I'll be alright."
If any of these current Trojans feel any pressure, they aren't the only ones. Watching from the stands as your own flesh and blood goes into battle is not easy either, as Allan can attest to with his second son on the gridiron for USC.
"I'm more nervous watching them play. When you're playing it's one thing, when you're watching your son play it's something else. You just hope no one gets hurt," says Allan.
No matter how stressed and nervous they may get, it's still very special for the fathers. Watching their sons play on a national stage, on the same team, and on the same field they did decades ago is something most will never experience.
"Thirty years from when I played in the Rose Bowl, he got to play in the Rose Bowl against Michigan," says Riki of his son Rhett. "We both looked at each other. It was very emotional before the game and then pre-game. It's a special bond that you can't create with very many people in your life, let alone your own children, to be able to help them go down that same path you went down."
Allan remembers the first time he saw his older son Derek play as a Trojan thirty years ago to the day he played, and at the same position, offensive guard.
"The first time I saw Derek play I was tearing up," says Allan. "The people that were sitting around us were high-fiving us. It's a feeling I can't describe."
So, decades later, has USC football changed at all?
"It's a great experience. Same type of atmosphere, the proud tradition of SC is just second to none," says Tim. "The experience, the feeling you get, sometimes I'm sitting in my seat up there and I just feel like running out on the field. I see that Trojan horse run out after a score, and it's the same as back then. I think it's just the feeling that's built and engrained in the USC family."