Quarterback retreat: as expectations swell, USC’s Sam Darnold finds comfort at home near the beach


The beach city boys used to throw on USC jerseys and run plays in the driveway, all thinking they’d one day make like Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush.

Kids' dreams, the usual.

Except one of them actually became a Rose Bowl hero and frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy. And now he has to figure out what happens next.

“I never knew it was going to get like this,” he says.

Sam Darnold arrived suddenly at fame, and he is puzzling over how to embrace it without losing his identity. So shortly before his 20th birthday, he steers his 2001 Highlander to a house not far from the beach, where on a backyard dirt court four barefoot guys are playing something that vaguely resembles a basketball game.

As he navigates new pressure, outsize attention and vanishing free time, Darnold often retreats to the beach lifestyle where he feels safe, with people he trusts, to remind him of who he is.

Plus, in this case, Darnold, who speaks like he’s paying by the word, seems to be hoping his friends can explain all he’s facing better than he can.

He sits down on the sideline next to a young man named Dean, who tries to explain how his friend handles stress.

Back at San Clemente High, their football team was down 14 points in a playoff game. Everyone was rattled as Dean, a receiver, sidled up to his angry quarterback on the sideline.

“Dude, you good?”

Darnold stared straight ahead and grumbled. He fell silent for a tick. Then he did something that startled his buddy.

“He looks at me and starts smiling,” Dean says.

“And then he goes out on the field and we started winning.”

Dean shrugs and shakes his head. It’s his best shot at explaining the unexplainable.

Darnold says nothing. With a broad chest and wavy reddish-blonde hair, he looks like G.I. Joe — if Joe quit the service to live in a Volkswagen by the beach. He’s dressed in his usual shorts and t-shirt, wearing blue Vans and high white socks. And he’s already lost interest in hearing about himself.

“What even is this game, dude?” he says to the group near the hoop.

“The game is called Boners,” he’s told.

“That’s not a very good description of it,” Darnold says, looking annoyed.

A few of his friends stifle laughs. The easy jokes are part of why Darnold comes here as much as he can.

“I realized with all that stuff happening … that I need to do stuff in San Clemente and with my friends more now, that I’m going to be more and more busy every day,” Darnold says. “It just makes you not take it for granted.”

Overhead, the sun has fried the marine layer, leaving only a few marshmallow-tufted clouds to interrupt the blue. Most of Darnold’s friends spent the night here and are planning to call up some girls, watch a UFC fight, and do it again tomorrow.

Darnold savors these times but can’t stay long. A few receivers are driving in for a pass and catch. As he watches his friends play, he takes orders for a pre-workout meal from his favorite sandwich spot, Board n’ Brew, which has killer secret sauce and an expansive menu.

“Baja Beef, dude!” someone suggests. But Darnold is already contemplating an audible. He knows if he goes into the store he’ll cause a scene. So he calls his parents. “Yeah, can you pick up Board n’ Brew?” he says. “That would be awesome. Because we shouldn’t go down there.”

He pockets the phone and jumps into the game. The rules are fairly straightforward: One team of two shoots jumpers from around the key. The other team tries to tap in the misses.

The play starts casual, then suddenly becomes a real competition.

Darnold would be an excellent poker player, but this is his one tell: His facial features tighten ever so slightly. His brow lowers a fraction of an inch. His lips purse a hair. It’s an expression — The Face — in all his old photos, and it appears most times he touches a ball.

This is what Darnold looks like when he gets serious.

He and Dean are losing, and Darnold mutters to himself after misses. Then, the shots start to fall.

Jake Russell, a high school buddy who is Darnold’s roommate at USC, tries to rattle him. He suggests Darnold is only doing well because visitors are present, taking notes and photos for an article.

Darnold turns to the witnesses.

“Did you hear what Jake just said?” he asks. “He said when the cameras are on I do way better.”

Darnold faces the basket.

“He acts like this doesn’t happen every day.”

The pen is ready. The camera is on.

He shoots. The ball arcs through the tattered net.

Top and right, USC quarterback Sam Darnold shoots baskets with longtime friends at a home in San Clemente. Right, Darnold visits with lifelong friends Dean Licht, left, and Jake Russell after shooting basket's at Licht's home. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In a production van outside the Rose Bowl, the men in charge of ESPN’s broadcast, director Jeff Evers and producer Josh Hoffman, exchanged glances. A gonzo Rose Bowl game was hurtling to a finish, and their expressions said, What the heck is this kid gonna do next?

The broadcast kept cutting to the kid’s face, which was fast becoming The Face — the same one Darnold showed while shooting hoops.

USC was up 13 points on Penn State. Then, in a flash, it trailed by 15. Darnold was in the process of throwing for 453 yards. Near the end, he capped one of the storied bowl game’s most memorable comebacks with one of its most memorable touchdown passes — his fifth of the game. And the Trojans won, 52-49.

But until the final whistle, Darnold remained stoic, brow lowered a hair, lips slightly pursed.

One friend said he thought the cameramen were waiting for Darnold to crack. Evers, the ESPN director, said he found the quarterback’s dispassion compelling. Where had it come from?

Was it a facade?

What the cameras didn’t see was that the night before the Rose Bowl, at the team hotel downtown, Darnold’s teammates cycled through stages of excitement, anticipation and anxiety. Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe didn’t sleep. In the morning, Porter Gustin, the musclebound outside linebacker, lay on his back in the tub and used the showerhead to spray water on his face. Helps the nerves, he said.

Darnold woke to his alarm, well rested, then calmly gave a shake to his suitemate, linebacker Cameron Smith. He passed the rest of the day watching “Law & Order” on television.

No USC coach or player recalls a moment last season when Darnold appeared agitated. No friend or family member recalls many moments ever when Darnold appeared nervous. (“Besides maybe getting in the car to go to prom,” his older sister, Franki, says.)

Yet, Darnold says he was nearly overcome with nerves early in the Rose Bowl. It’s apparent on film: He rushes his first few throws. But this is what separates Darnold: Within a series or two, he settled in, just like that.

During games, Darnold often stands alone on the sideline. When losing, he privately stews. He learned the benefit of composure in high school, after a basketball game. San Clemente blew an eight-point lead, and he threw a fist into a locker door. A broken finger caused him to miss much of the season.

“He doesn’t get flustered now, he gets mad,” says Tyson Helton, USC’s quarterbacks coach. “And that’s a good thing.”

Says tight end Tyler Petite, who shares an off-campus duplex with Darnold: “He doesn’t like to mess up.”

The day after the Rose Bowl, Derek Winokur, a childhood friend, found Darnold sitting on the couch, watching a replay of the game. Darnold was grumbling about his misreads and bad throws.

“I was like, ‘Sam, you had one of the most incredible Rose Bowl games of all time,’” Winokur says. “‘Just relax.’”

Clay Helton, USC’s coach, says his favorite Darnold memory from the Rose Bowl wasn’t the quarterback’s improvised, gut-dropping raindrop throw between three defenders for the touchdown that tied the score. It was what happened right after that pass.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all 19-year-olds would’ve dang-gone absolutely crazy,” Helton says. “Instead, his first thing after doing it, and you could see it on the TV copy, he turns his head and looks at me. And it's, 'Coach, one or two?'”

After the game, Darnold declined offers to party on campus and instead drove to San Clemente. Arriving home, he tossed his uniform toward his mom, Chris, and said, “I need you never, ever to wash this.”

Then he went to Dean’s.

Top, USC quarterback Sam Darnold at a spring workout with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer, left, at San Clemente High School. Left, Mike Darnold snaps a photo of his son with teammates and workout partners after a spring workout at San Clemente High School. Right, Darnold hauls in a pass. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Rifling through piles in his messy bedroom, Darnold surprises himself by discovering ancient treasures, as if an archaeologist stumbling upon a cache of artifacts. His bed is the same bare mattress he threw on the floor as a kid. He still has a poster for the 2003 USC football team on the wall. A science project on lizards hangs nearby. On his dresser sits a plastic musical instrument from his early childhood.

“I have so many clothes too, just laying around,” he laughs. “A bunch of college clothes.” His eyes scan, then widen. “And then clothes from freaking elementary school!”

Darnold doesn’t like change.

His parents say he’s a movie buff, but his girlfriend counters that he mostly watches the same 10 or so, over and over. He has recorded one voicemail greeting, ever. He was in fourth grade.

“I think I need to do that,” he says of changing it. “Or should I not? Probably not for a while.”

Recently, Darnold’s parents have contemplated downsizing once they retire. Darnold doesn’t want to hear it. “One of the few things he has an opinion on,” says his father, Mike.

Darnold and friends always frequent the same beach, Lausen’s, a narrow strip of sand sheltered by a single railroad track and a scrubby hill. A Beach Boys’ song come to life.

Lausen’s is Darnold’s favorite spot, and the place he made his first comeback of sorts. He was 5, boogie boarding on a day when a big swell smashed huge, hollow waves into a far-out beach break. His mom wanted him to come in. He refused. The shore looked smaller and smaller. A rip current was pulling him out to sea.

Chris ran to a lifeguard. A huge set was rolling in. The lifeguard couldn’t do anything until it passed. Chris sobbed. He’s not a great swimmer.

Hopefully he’ll catch one of those waves, the lifeguard said.

The set hit the shallows and rose. Darnold settled into a wave, a big one. He glided in on his belly and strutted across the sand with a huge smile.

Darnold was always like this — a Buddha child, calm and almost silent. Chris, worried about his reticence, asked a teacher friend to test him before first grade. He’s fine, the friend said. He’s just shy.

Chris and Mike always figured their children would be little surfers. The beach was always there and always free.

“Our kids never went without,but we never had affluence or anything like that,” Mike says. “They never expected stuff or wanted stuff.”

Chris was a physical education teacher, the daughter of a two-sport USC athlete, an Olympian and former Marlboro Man named Dick Hammer. Mike worked construction. They bought their house, a former drug spot that went into foreclosure, for the price and for what they saw from atop the garage: ocean views.

Chris was pregnant with Franki, and Mike gutted the place and renovated it himself.

As a kid, Darnold boogie boarded, but he never surfed much. He was always playing — baseball, basketball, football. He was a receiver and linebacker his first two seasons at San Clemente High, but he came in at quarterback one game as a sophomore.

San Clemente faced a double-digit deficit against Tesoro High and Darnold hardly said a word as he led a comeback to tie the score, then won the game with a two-point conversion in the final seconds.

It was some time after this that his teammates came up with a nickname for him: “Our Lord and Savior.”

Darnold’s USC roommates later revived it. It was clear he rescued the program last season. USC started 1-2, and Helton was on the hot seat in his first full season as head coach.

The Trojans fell to 1-3 with a loss at Utah in Darnold’s first start, but in the post-game news conference, Helton glowed. He was … happy? The coach says now that he knew USC had found its quarterback. The Trojans had been saved.

The nickname mortifies Darnold, and he wishes it wasn’t known. “I don’t know where that comes from,” he says.

But earlier, his mother had showed off a scrapbook. On one of the first pages was a photo of Darnold in a preschool Christmas play. His role: baby Jesus, The Lord and Savior.

He had to laugh.

“There you go,” he said.

Top, Sam Darnold stands in his bedroom, where he finds "a bunch of college clothes. And then clothes from freaking elementary school." Bottom left, Chris Darnold recalls an apparently embarrassing moment from her son's early childhood as they flip through a family album at home. Bottom, right, Darnold flips through a family photo album, stopping on a page featuring him as a fourth grader. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Fame is strange, Darnold says. People ask him for things all the time. Recently, he received fan mail at home.

“It is scary when you don't know who the guys sending you a bunch of pictures of yourself are,” Darnold says.

He has told his girlfriend, Claire, that he appreciates that she doesn’t “yes” him all the time. Such people are in short supply.

He tries to steer clear of crowds. Shortly after the Rose Bowl, Darnold was mobbed when he went to watch a cousin play volleyball at Concordia University in Irvine. On the way there, he stopped for chicken in Aliso Viejo. He sat down: Selfie. Photo. Autograph. A bartender came over to join him. After his dad paid the bill, the waitress approached. “I hate to do this, but …” Another photo.

Darnold was home on break for the rest of the week and didn’t go out in public again.

He is a natural introvert. Claire met him last fall and was drawn by his lack of pretense and a humility that surprised her. He liked her too, but it took some time before he opened up. When he met her parents for the first time, he hardly talked. They thought they’d scared him. “And I'm like, 'No, that's just him,’” Claire said.

Though he is a member of a fraternity, and is known to practice dance moves with his roommates for hours, Darnold prefers to keep his circle small.

Earlier this summer, he and his mother got into an argument when she asked him to visit his old teachers at her school. They would love to just say hi, she told him.

Visiting the school unannounced would cause chaos, he told her.

She had to concede that point. “My, things have changed,” she says. “I have to remember, part of my job is to protect him a little bit. I didn’t even tell people he was here. Because they’ll just come over. On Easter. It’s unbelievable.”

Darnold watched another quarterback go through a similar experience.

“I’ll use [Josh] Rosen as an example,” Darnold says. “He had so much attention on him since he was in eighth grade, you know? … He had media coming to his house his sophomore year in high school when he was the huge recruit. I never really had that until last year. It’s been kind of an adjustment for me, obviously, but for my family too.”

Speaking of Rosen, the UCLA quarterback, Chris asks whether Sam has heard his father’s story. Right now, Mike is working a graveyard shift doing plumbing and gas work.

“He’ll be able to tell you when he gets here,” Chris says. “I think it's a funny story.”

USC quarterback Sam Darnold speaks at Pac-12 media days in Hollywood. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
(Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Darnold didn’t care for recruiting, viewing it as a distraction from the games. And during the winter and summer recruiting seasons, when there were seven-on-seven tournaments, it interfered with basketball.

Plus, he didn’t think seven-on-seven qualified as real football anyway, so he refused to partake until injuries during his junior season forced him to hit the circuit.

“I just think it's a lot of the coaches trying way too hard,” Darnold says of recruiting. “And I think it can sometimes ruin careers. If a player's super good, super talented, they might not think that they have to work as hard as they should because all these coaches say, ‘Oh yeah you're going to start right away.’”

Lightly recruited early on, Darnold relied on his own evaluation of himself and rival quarterbacks. His keen perception formed the bedrock of what everyone close to Danold describes as an uncommon confidence. Eventually, he trusted Helton because they seemed to value the same things.

USC already had a solid commitment from another quarterback of the same age: Ricky Town, who at the time might have been the nation’s most touted high school passer. Helton was then USC’s offensive coordinator, and Darnold’s high school coach, Jaime Ortiz, swore to him that his quarterback was legit.

Helton watched film and agreed. He studied Darnold’s body language and noted that teammates took their cues from him. Helton saw Darnold’s athleticism and instincts where others might have focused on his unpolished mechanics.

Ultimately, head coach Steve Sarkisian gave Helton the go-ahead for a second quarterback scholarship. Helton recruited hard. He visited Darnold’s house often. He ate Chris’ cheesecake.

Sarkisian didn’t fare as well. The coach’s one in-home visit went poorly enough that Darnold made up an excuse and left early.

Darnold: “Sark is weird.”

Chris: “He said 'phenomenal' so many times. I remember that.”

It didn’t matter. “I knew I was in good hands with Helton,” Darnold says.

Other coaches sometimes used mysterious evaluation methods. Toward the end of Stanford’s recruiting camp there was a longest-throw competition. Darnold’s best was around 67 yards. Another quarterback threw 71. “And they made a big deal about that,” Mike says.

UCLA invited Darnold to a camp, but the staff hardly gave him a look. The coaches showered attention on Rosen. Afterward, Darnold asked his dad, What's so special? I don't get it.

Which brings the Darnolds back to Rosen, and Mike’s story.

Mike is a medical gas plumber and has often worked at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange for more than 15 years. Recently, a general contractor friend sought him out.

“He goes, ‘Mike, your kid’s the quarterback?’” Mike says. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Dude, you’ve gotta come look at this.’”

The contractor led him down a hall on one of the upper floors until they came upon a nameplate: “Charles Rosen.”

“He goes, ‘That’s the other quarterback’s dad!’” Mike says.

Dr. Charles Rosen, an orthopedic surgeon once on a short list to become surgeon general of the United States, is also the father of UCLA’s star quarterback.

The contractor who made the revelation offered to tell Rosen too. Mike declined.

“I don’t know him,” Mike says. “And I don’t think he cares.”

As for their sons, Darnold says he and Rosen are friendly enough: “He’s a lot different than me, but we can definitely just click on a lot of different things just because we’re going through the same stuff.”

Sam Darnold with his mother, Chris, and father, Mike Darnold at their home in San Clemente. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As Darnold slips into his room to change for his throw and catch, his parents lower their voices and discuss ways to shield their son from the attention that makes him uneasy.

There is some concern among people close to him that the pressure of great expectations might change him. For the first time, he has lots of people telling him how good he is.

Darnold isn’t worried. “I just want to play well just because that’s what I want do,” he says. “It’s not because I need to play well to win the Heisman, you know?”

He says if he plays hard and prepares, he’ll do well. He shrugs. “But you never know what’s going to happen.”

His equanimity baffles his parents. They want to know where it comes from. “I’ve always wanted to ask you this,” his mother says. “Like your comeback, that fourth quarter, do you even remember?”

Light glows through an open screen door. Darnold sits in the house he doesn’t want his parents to sell, near the jersey hanging on the wall that bears the same stains as the afternoon he wore it.

“I remember it,” he says, “but it was just … I just remember them being up and me thinking, ‘Oh shoot, we're going to lose.’”

His face is serene, his brow unfurled, his eyes staring straight ahead.

The feeling lasted maybe a second or two, he recalls.

Then he relaxed, and the thought of losing was gone.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand