Ghosts of Game Times Past: That Other Wide Receiver
…Continued from the previous post.
Boy, are we glad it’s finally here – the first weekend of the Los Angeles pro football season. To those who might quibble that we don’t actually have a pro football team in Los Angeles, I would agree, and counter that we actually have two teams: the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins. If you don’t believe these to be pro franchises, you may want to think about signing up for a remedial econ course. And try just thinking of the players as interns.
We USC fans in particular have been kicking around for weeks now, waiting to get this show on the road. There’s only so much time you can spend patrolling balconies in search of youngsters to save from drowning. While stocking the cooler and prepping the grill for tomorrow’s home opener against Fresno State though, I found my thoughts drifting back about four years, as they are inclined to do of late.
It was December, 2010, and I had been salivating for days at the prospect of attending an epic California Interscholastic Federation football playoff game between arch-rival high school powerhouses Oaks Christian and Westlake. But salivatus interruptus reared its ugly head when I was turned away from the gate of the sold-out contest. It was my 75th event on the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, and the very first that I’d failed to weasel my way into.
More than a little disappointed, I made a hurry-up detour to another CIF playoff game, chosen primarily for proximity purposes. Usually when sportswriters offer up pre-game analyses and predicted scores, they tend to keep the margin within reason. So when previews of my backup game between the Junipero Serra Cavaliers and the Arroyo Grande Eagles had Serra running off with the title by almost three touchdowns, it didn’t portend edge-of-seat drama. But I needed to check a high school football game off my list…and did I mention that this one wasn’t far from home?
Serra was well-positioned to repeat their previous 15–0 season, one which culminated in winning the Division II California State Championship. In stark contrast, Arroyo Grande had snuck into the playoffs as a wild card, and it was a month-long Cinderella run that had eventually delivered them from their central coast enclave to L.A.’s south side, where they came off the bus and stared across the field at a team that outweighed them by an average of 30 pounds a player.
I wasn’t expecting a barn-burner.
Mismatch aside, the game did offer the opportunity to witness a coronation. Junipero Serra had a reputation for producing an assembly line of talented receivers, and the previous year’s undefeated team had featured Robert Woods, who had gone on to start as a true freshman for USC. But hold on!…There were those that insisted that Woods had been the second-best receiver on that Serra team. One year his junior, George Farmer was putting the finishing touches on a senior year that had made him one of the best college prospects in the country. In fact, the pre-game buzz that floated around me in the grandstands was that Farmer had, that very morning, ended months of speculation by committing to USC as well.
By the time the game started, my notebook, my camera, and my Flip video (remember, this was 2010) were all at DEFCON 1 alertness, ready to capture the inevitable heroics of Farmer for posterity. And he did impress, particularly on an electric punt return that was called back on a penalty. But there was this other kid…
Opposite Farmer was a real speed-burner, who, despite being a senior, was in his first season as a starting wide receiver. He’d backed up Woods and Farmer for three years, while starring at safety on defense. Oh, and he’d also won CIF championships in basketball and track. So he was talented. But mostly he was annoying. Because every time I had my camera trained on Farmer in passing situations, the ball went to this kid. And every time it did, he took it to the house. Three catches, three touchdowns—all scored without a defender laying a hand on him. Who knows what he would’ve done if the score hadn’t quickly become lopsided enough for Serra’s coach, Scott Altenberg, to dial his offense back to mostly handoffs between the tackles.
Prior to the game, Altenberg had been asked to compare Robert Woods and George Farmer. “I don’t know,” he said. “They’re different. George is more physical. Robert was quicker. They’re both crazy talented.”
The funny thing was, neither he nor the press even mentioned that other kid, the one that caught the three TDs—Marqise Lee.
Sometime shortly after that game, Marqise Lee, without fanfare, signed on to join Farmer at USC, thus reuniting the three high school teammates on a bigger stage.
Robert Woods eventually played three years as a Trojan, becoming a consensus All-American and setting a fistful of both Trojan and Pac-12 pass-catching records. The Buffalo Bills selected him in the 2013 draft, and he caught 40 passes—three of them for TDs—in last year’s solid rookie NFL season.
George Farmer, on the other hand, became perhaps the world’s unluckiest college football player, experiencing a string of injuries capped by a torn ACL that cost him an entire season. He is back at USC this year for a fourth shot at the glory that seemed his destiny.
And then there was that third wheel—the one that played safety at Junipero Serra while Woods and Farmer started at wideout. During his three-year career at USC, Marqise Lee had 248 receptions for 3,655 yards, the most ever for a USC receiver—by more than 500 yards. He set or tied 18 USC records in his 2012 season, earning unanimous All-American status and winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. No Trojan had ever done that. Not Mike Williams, not Dwayne Jarrett, not Keyshawn Johnson. Not even Lynn Swann.
Lee was rewarded for his efforts by the Jacksonville Jaguars [insert your own joke referencing “Jaguars” and “reward” here], who drafted him with their second pick in the 2014 NFL draft, making him the 39th overall selection.
And to think that I saw Marqise Lee before he was…well, before he was Marqise Lee. I’d have the pictures to prove it…but it never crossed my mind to take any.
To be continued…