When Taariq Al-Uqdah attended a passing tournament held by USC this summer, he might as well have led the cursory campus tour given to the seven-on-seven teams in attendance. He showed the USC coaches he could do everything else. He played offense and defense, scoring multiple touchdowns in the championship game on one side of the ball and defending multiple positions on the other.
The coaches pulled the Harbor City Narbonne High sophomore aside and asked him about the direction he wanted his football career to go. They asked which side of the ball he preferred. Al-Uqdah told them defense, because he plays inside and outside linebacker for the Gauchos. He was notified a few days later USC was offering him his first college football scholarship opportunity.
Al-Uqdah was in disbelief. Receiving his first offer was special. Getting it from USC was astonishing.
“I’m not even going to lie, I wanted to cry a little bit,” Al-Uqdah said. “I wanted to cry a little bit, but I had to hold it in. I had to act tough. But I was shocked, man.”
The thing about the aforementioned tour is Al-Uqdah probably knows as much about the ins and outs of USC’s campus as the person who actually led the group. The South L.A. native has been going to USC for the better part of a decade, beginning with track workouts with his father, Esston, when he was 8 years old. The Al-Uqdahs live a few minutes away from the school, but proximity wasn’t the primary reason Esston chose to train at USC.
“We practiced at SC just because I liked SC so much,” Esston said. “I used to take him up there and we used to train and work out and stuff like that, so we’ve always been connected with SC. I used to hang around SC as a kid all the time. I used to go up there when Chip Banks and Ronnie Lott and all those guys were up there playing. I was always doing things nearby.”
Taariq followed in his father’s footsteps. He and friends often get dropped off or walk to campus where they explore, train and play ball on Cromwell Field and the intramural field or stop by the swimming pool.
“SC is really like, would be like home for me. I go up to SC all the time,” Taariq said. “Like every weekend of the summer, me and my friends go up there and go train and work out by ourselves. Bring a ball, have fun and it’s crazy to just think about playing at the Coliseum. That would be so crazy for me. And when I got [the offer], Twitter, Instagram, started jumping. That day was so unbelievable. It’s crazy.”
The social media reaction was nothing compared to the response Taariq got from his parents. His mother was shocked, but she gave Taariq a speech telling him the offer was the culmination of his hard work. Esston was elated.
“I was happy, proud, excited. All of the above,” he said. He couldn’t contain his emotions.
“When my dad found out I got the offer, he cried a little bit. He shed some tears,” Taariq said. “It was kind of like a heart dropper. But at the same time, it was kind of funny because I had never seen him just cry like that.”
“Is that what he told you?” Esston said laughing, when asked about the moment. “Well, he might have seen something float through the air. I don’t know. I mean it is possible. Showing his daddy, some soft parts of his daddy. He kind of wrong for that one.”
Esston’s favorite USC moment growing up was seeing Charles White flying over the pile and flipping into the end zone against Michigan in the 1980 Rose Bowl. He may have one day dreamed of seeing Taariq do the same. His first five years of organized football Taariq played running back.
But it wasn’t White or Reggie Bush whom Taariq wanted to emulate. He used to watch LaMichael James and De’Anthony Thomas’ highlights at Oregon. His older brother, Esston Jr., played with Thomas at Crenshaw High. They were good friends, so Taariq tracked Thomas’ career and has been an Oregon fan as well.
Other ties with the Ducks have kept that a strong bond for Taariq. A pair of Narbonne teammates are committed to Oregon, including youth football teammate Anthony Beavers Jr. Los Angeles Salesian High grad Deommodore Lenoir, who is in his third year starting for Oregon, has been a role model for Taariq. He was a product of Esston’s track training program.
“That’s one of his little mentors that comes down and works out with him every now and then,” Esston said of Lenoir. “They’ll go train. They’ll go work out, stuff like that. That’s been a big influence on him.”
Taariq was able to do position-specific training with Lenoir when he made the switch from running back to defense because he initially played defensive back. But he grew out of the position, getting up to nearly 220 pounds. He’s now 6 feet, 202 pounds and could still see another growth spurt. His prior training and an aggressive mentality has made him a dynamic hybrid linebacker who can be moved around the field.
“I can cover. I was training as a corner-safety,” Taariq said. “I wasn’t training like a linebacker, so I can do a lot of things that a normal linebacker, per se, can’t do. I can move really well in space. I’m a good open-field tackler. I fill holes. I hit hard. Yeah, I hit hard and I don’t fear nothing. I ain’t going to fear nothing. Never will.”