Sharon Pullard sat in her car last August and watched her oldest son walk away.
She had just dropped him off at school, and as parents often do on their children's first day of kindergarten or college, she let her gaze linger on his receding figure.
Suddenly, she burst into tears.
"I started getting flashbacks," she said.
Her son was no longer a child. He was 21 years old. In his fourth year at USC. It didn't matter.
Sharon thought about the young man who stoically endured in high school after his father's death. She recalled his work to improve his grades at Crenshaw High and in college, his perseverance after 2010 knee surgery and his growing independence away from the football field.
"Look how far we've come," she thought, still crying, as Trojans linebacker Hayes Pullard reported for training camp.
On Saturday, when No. 23 USC meets No. 22 UCLA, Pullard will play at the Coliseum for the final time this season — possibly for the last time as a Trojan.
The fourth-year junior is expected to explore the possibility of making himself available for the NFL draft.
However, his mother is not pondering her son's football future. Nor was she last summer, when she could not stop crying.
"I was thinking," she said, "about all that he has become."
Hayes Pullard III is a team captain, a three-year starter and the leading tackler for a USC defense that has helped the Trojans turn around their season under interim Coach Ed Orgeron.
But there was a time when the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Pullard seemed destined to be a Bruin.
As a young player at Crenshaw, located less than five miles from USC, he watched with admiration as such Cougars players as running back Raymond Carter, linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive lineman Brian Price made their way to Westwood. UCLA was the first school to offer Pullard a scholarship and he spent many hours on campus with the former Crenshaw players.
"During that time, Crenshaw and USC didn't have a great relationship," said Ken Norton, a former UCLA All-American who was USC's linebackers coach. "They were going across town. It was my job and my challenge to change that."
So Norton focused on Pullard.
"He was a guy I could see a lot of myself in," Norton said. "The same passion. He was a field general."
Pullard attended USC practices and was enamored with coach Pete Carroll, Norton and the energy of the Trojans. Then, in early January 2010, Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks. Norton called Pullard and told him he would be joining Carroll's NFL staff.
"So I'm thinking: I don't know what to do," Pullard said.
Pullard asked Norton for advice.
"He told me USC is still a great place and the education was top of the line," Pullard said.
Receiver Robert Woods, who had committed to the Trojans, shared similar feelings when Pullard made his official recruiting visit to campus.
If Pullard needed any more convincing, it came one night when he was studying Scripture with his mother. Sharon Pullard works as a bank office manager, but she is also an ordained pastor.
Pullard focused on a biblical passage that read, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."
"UCLA was my first offer and USC was my last," he said. "I was just like, 'SC it is.'"
There also was something else. "He went with USC," his mother said, "because he wanted to honor his father."
Hayes Pullard Jr. always wanted his namesake to attend USC, where his late brother, Robert, was a record-setting pole vaulter for the Trojans.
Hayes Jr. also was a solidly built athlete who stayed in shape, in part by playing basketball.
"He could still out-run me at 50," Pullard said.
But on Sept. 29, 2008, on his 60th birthday, Hayes Pullard Jr. collapsed on a basketball court and fell into a coma.
As family members sat vigil at the hospital, Pullard refused to go. He recalled a father-and-son conversation from many months before.
"He told me, 'If I'm ever hurt or anything, don't come to the hospital. Just remember me how I was,'" Pullard said.
His father died more than a week later. Pullard, a high school junior, played for Crenshaw the next day.
He decided to honor his father's memory by making a commitment to take care of his mother and his younger brother, Joseph, and to be a role model for other inner-city kids.
Five years later, Pullard remains at peace with his father's death and the lessons about leadership and responsibility that he passed on.
"I don't remember anything negative and I didn't see him struggling," Pullard said. "I'm glad I can remember all the good things."
Pullard grew up in Inglewood, and when it came time to choose a high school, Sharon talked about busing him to the San Fernando Valley. His father wanted him to attend Crenshaw, where sons DeShawn and Ken had played sports.
DeShawn told Hayes that if he was considering football he also might check out Dorsey.
"He was telling me, 'No, bro,'" recalled DeShawn, 44. "'I'm going to Crenshaw, and we're going to change it.'"
Pullard played at Crenshaw under Robert Garrett, a demanding tough-love coach who built the Cougars into a City Section power.
"The best experience of my life," Pullard said of Garrett's influence.
At Crenshaw, Pullard starred as a running back and linebacker, helping the Cougars win the City title in 2009. And he did more than that.
Garrett said Pullard was like "a mother hen" to less fortunate and less focused players.
"He literally took them home and kept them out of the street, " Garrett said. "He provided study sessions with them. He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk by example.
"You can't ask for more from young kids."
During his time at USC, Pullard has played for two head coaches, two defensive coordinators and three linebackers coaches.
"I take the best out of everything that happened," he said, adding, "You get something from each coach."
He also has taken on the role of one, much as he did at Crenshaw.
"Hayes has really been that guy that keeps me in line from being too cocky," freshman safety Su'a Cravens said. "If I'm thinking I'm good, he'll put me back in my place."
Before the season, Pullard was one of several Trojans players featured in larger-than-life portraits on billboards across the Southland.
He is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in policy, planning and development.
"My dad is looking down and saying, 'Man, he's doing everything I asked him to do,'" said Ken Pullard, 42.
Norton still texts from time to time — "To remind him that I'm holding him to that high standard," he said — and Garrett calls Pullard after every game to do the same.
"He'll be a successful father," Garrett said, "a great human being and an excellent man."
Similar thoughts ran through Sharon Pullard's mind as she finally collected her emotions last August.
She did not tell her son about the episode, about the tears that flowed as she watched him walk off to continue his journey.
"He never knew," she said.
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