No grass growing under his feet
Desmond Reed lay sprawled across the ankle-deep grass at Notre Dame Stadium, the ligaments in his right knee shredded.
Teammates in the know had told him that an unmistakable crackling sound accompanied such implosions. Reed had heard it, loud and sickeningly clear.
“I knew right then my knee was gone,” he said.
Brady Quinn’s near-heroic drive. Matt Leinart’s stunning fourth-and-nine pass to Dwayne Jarrett. The “Bush Push” on Leinart’s game-winning touchdown sneak.
Those moments are etched in lore from USC’s epic victory over Notre Dame last season.
But lost in the subtext was Reed’s career-threatening injury and, more controversial, the gamesmanship that might have caused it.
During one of Charlie Weis’ first news conferences, in January 2005, a reporter noted USC’s and Oklahoma’s speed during the national championship game and asked Notre Dame’s new coach to assess his team’s speed.
“I think the grass needs to be longer,” he said. “Next question.”
The response drew laughter.
No one laughed nine months later when Reed turned to field a kickoff and then crumpled onto the nearly four-inch turf without so much as a tap.
“I really don’t think I would have got hurt if the grass wasn’t long,” Reed said last week.
USC coaches did not expect Reed to play this season. Not after surgeons repairing the ligaments also discovered nerve damage that left the rubber band-bodied Reed with a drop foot.
But Reed was back for the season opener and will return punts on Saturday night when USC plays Notre Dame.
“He’s a competitor with a will,” running backs coach Todd McNair said. “Des is a survivor.”
In more ways than one.
Desmond Eric Reed spent his early childhood in Alabama, the oldest of five children born to a mother who has struggled with substance abuse.
“l could tell what was going on,” Reed said. “Dealing drugs, on drugs. You could always smell it.”
A chaotic home environment -- his father had another family and wasn’t around much either -- made Reed self-sufficient at an early age. By age 8, he said, he had taken on the role of protector and helped look after his younger step-siblings.
“There were some nights we would all be on the couch and I would have my arm around all of them,” he said.
His maternal grandmother, Frances Reed, stepped in to care for Desmond, 9, and the rest of the family when her daughter was incarcerated. But when Frances Reed was diagnosed with cancer, she sent Desmond to live with his aunt, Caren English, in Temple City.
“She thought he deserved an opportunity to grow up and be something,” English said.
The transition was tough. Reed missed his family. He spoke with a heavy Southern accent and there were only a few black children in his new school and community.
“I don’t remember seeing too many white people or Asians before I came here,” he said.
Reed gradually adapted and flourished with a network of role models, many of whom still call him Eric.
His aunt and her longtime companion, Ray Hussa, provided stability and guidance at home.
Classmates Dana and Kelly Weaver and their family embraced the affable Reed, inviting him to hang out at their house, introducing him to extreme sports and encouraging him to attend church and lead by example.
“The first time we took him snowboarding it wasn’t even a thought: He was going to get the biggest air and if he crashed huge it was because he was doing a flip,” mother Denise Weaver said. “The first time he went water skiing, he got up. He had no fear.”
Marty Dattola saw the 9-year-old Reed doing back flips in the park and later coached him in Pop Warner football.
“He was like the Eveready battery, you couldn’t shut him off,” Dattola said. “He was all over town, on his bike, running around. Even when his reputation as a great athlete started to get around, he always stayed humble.”
Reed credits Temple City High football Coach Mike Mooney, a former USC player, for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
“He took me in like his son, stayed on me and made sure I didn’t get big-headed,” Reed said.
Reed’s past and future coalesced on graduation day in June 2003.
Despite his athletic prowess -- he was a four-year starter and two-way star for Temple City -- he struggled to achieve a qualifying score on the SAT.
The night before commencement, his mother, father and other relatives arrived in town to attend the ceremony.
The next morning, he said, he awoke and went online to check the score of his final SAT try. However, the Internet connection was down, forcing him to go to a friend’s house to find out he had qualified.
“I was just like, ‘Yeah! I did it! I finally made it. Nothing can hold me back now. I made it to SC. I made it to college,’ ” Reed said.
Later that day, Reed received his high school diploma before a large group of teary-eyed relatives and friends.
“We both just cried,” Reed said of the reunion with his mother, Paula. “I knew if she could do it all over again she would change everything. I still have a lot of love for my mom. It was just a great moment in my life.”
USC players and coaches chuckled when they arrived at Notre Dame stadium for their walk-through the day before last year’s game.
“Nice,” middle linebacker Oscar Lua said. “It looks like my frontyard.”
Asked if Notre Dame had intentionally let the grass grow to slow USC, a Notre Dame spokesman watching the Trojans squelched a grin and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
More than a year later, Steve Sarkisian, USC’s assistant head coach, said, “You knew it was long, and you knew it was long intentionally. It wasn’t like the guy forgot to mow the lawn that day.”
After Notre Dame returned a punt for a second-quarter touchdown, Reed and Reggie Bush took their places to receive the kickoff, Bush to the kicker’s left, Reed to the right.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Reed already had a 31-yard return, but he knew the Fighting Irish would take their chances with him rather than kicking to Heisman Trophy candidate Bush.
As the ball sailed toward him, Reed began backpedaling from the 13-yard-line. At the four, he turned and planted his right foot.
“The grass was real long and mushy, that’s why I think my foot got stuck in the grass,” he said. “My knee had nowhere to go.”
The ball rolled into the end zone as Reed fell onto his left side, pointing to his right knee. Then he rolled onto his back and took off his helmet before calmly crossing his arms across his chest.
“Since I wasn’t in any pain it really wasn’t too bad for me,” he said. “It was just like, ‘Man, I can’t believe this just happened.’ I never thought in a million years I would get hurt.”
When team trainer Russ Romano rushed onto the field, Reed did not wait for an evaluation.
“My knee is broke,” he told the trainer.
But his spirit wasn’t.
Reed never doubted that he would return this season. When he spoke to his high school coach the next day, he was typically optimistic.
“He was already talking about, ‘I’ll be back by this date,’ ” Mooney recalled. “There was no ‘woe is me’ situation.”
After the swelling subsided, Reed still could not flex his right foot. Doctors discovered during surgery that the peroneal nerve had been stretched, leaving him with a drop foot -- because of that damage, his foot actually drags some when he walks.
Despite the condition, Reed attacked his rehabilitation with the same vigor he displayed as a special-teams standout during his first three seasons. Meanwhile, the coaching staff planned for a 2006 season without the fourth-year junior.
“As I went on, month by month, I felt as long as I was able to find something that would give me enough ankle support I would be able to play,” Reed said. “I was just hoping the doctors would clear me. No one knows my body like I do.”
Each day before practice and games, Reed jumps onto the trainer’s table for a two-part, 12- to 15-minute tape job that requires him to pull on his toes so his right foot remains flexed.
After an initial wrap, he inserts a plastic shield into the tongue of his right shoe, then puts on the shoe and places around his ankle a cuff that clips into the shield and keeps his foot flexed.
He was cleared to play before the opener at Arkansas -- a game his parents came to see -- and has served mainly as a sure-handed punt catcher.
“It’s a miraculous comeback, and it’s extraordinary that he’s able to play college football at this level and contribute based on the existing condition,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “He has the power to move mountains with his will. It showed.”
On the Monday following last year’s USC-Notre Dame game, Weis was asked during his weekly news conference if the grass had been left a little too long at the stadium.
“No,” the coach said. “It was a little long, but that’s the way it is around here. It was long at the Michigan State game too. I don’t cut the grass.”
Once again, laughter followed.
Reed said he was not bitter at Weis or Notre Dame and would have nothing special to prove on Saturday. “It’s nothing I have to show their team or their coaches,” he said. “The reason why they grew the grass long was to shut us down as a team, not specifically for me. But it’s definitely going to be exciting and a happy moment just to be able to play again against Notre Dame.”
Though he once held aspirations of playing pro football, Reed’s goals are now more modest.
“My main thing is hoping my nerve fully comes back and I’ll be able to walk regular again someday,” he said.
In 2008, Reed intends to walk onto a stage at USC to receive his diploma. The sociology major has aspirations of working as a children’s counselor.
Reed’s grandmother, who sent him to California for an opportunity at a better life, died a few weeks ago. At her funeral in Alabama, the family reunited -- mother, father and siblings -- with Desmond missing an important game against Oregon so he could attend.
“Desmond has made me very proud,” his mother, Paula, said. “Regardless of what I’ve been through, he never disrespected me. My mom saw potential in Desmond.”
Caren English, the aunt who opened her home to Reed, said her mother would be there in spirit when Reed graduates.
“When he marches up there, I’ll be thinking, ‘This is what his parents, relatives and people that stood by him and that love him have always wanted for Desmond,’ ” English said, crying. “It’s going to be an exciting time.”