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Many see similarities between USC’s Sam Darnold and his grandfather, an original Marlboro Man; family sees other similarities

Sam Darnold sits in the lap of his grandfather, Dick Hammer, during a family boating excursion. Hammer played basketball at USC.
(Photos courtesy of Darnold family)

USC quarterback Sam Darnold was doing an interview on “The Dan Patrick Show” in November when he was faced with a series of leading questions.

“Who’s the best athlete in your family?” Patrick asked.

Darnold replied that it would have to be his grandfather, Dick Hammer.

“He went to USC, didn’t he?” Patrick asked.

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“He was a stud,” Darnold said. Hammer in fact was an Olympian in volleyball and a former USC basketball player, a firefighter who, while in his 60s, is said to have destroyed Darnold’s father in a game of one-on-one hoops.

Patrick went on: “Was he an actor?”

He was, Darnold explained. Hammer played Captain Hammer on the show “Emergency!”

Darnold then waited a beat, before adding what Patrick probably already knew would be the most interesting part of the interview:

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“And he was one of the original Marlboro Men.”

This particular morsel of Darnold’s past, probably more than any other fact about him, has come to define Darnold’s depiction in media since becoming USC’s starter and leader. It is mentioned during broadcasts of USC’s games. It has been the subject of incredulous tweets, usually with some addendum on how the tweeter’s mind was blown. It is included in most profiles about Darnold, including one in The Los Angeles Times.

The connection resonates because, despite being tainted by the connection to cancer, the Marlboro Man remains an iconic piece of Americana. And the character fits Darnold’s image: unflappable, capable, cool.

The Marlboro Man descriptor makes Darnold’s mother, Chris Darnold, a little uncomfortable. She’s not ashamed of her father’s work, and it helped supplement his firefighter’s income.

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“But it wasn’t something that he was really proud of, in the end,” Chris Darnold said. “It’s funny, because we don’t talk about it that much. All of a sudden, we’re talking about the Marlboro Man again. And there was so much more to my dad than just that.”

A better comparison, she suggested, is between Sam Darnold and Hammer, the real man. Out of anyone in the family, Chris Darnold said, Sam, with his shyness and obvious athletic intelligence, was most like Hammer.

After Hammer died, the family started calling Sam “The DNA.”

It is not surprising that the family’s genetics, and some of its healthy habits, created athletes. Hammer’s mother, a nurse of Mexican and Native American heritage who also had American roots stretching to the American Revolution, raised her six children to be health conscious. Everything the family ate, she grew herself. Hammer’s father was a massive Danish immigrant who built oil wells on Signal Hill.

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Dick Hammer, right, grandfather of USC quarterback Sam Darnold, in action for the USA men's national volleyball team.
Dick Hammer, right, grandfather of USC quarterback Sam Darnold, in action for the USA men’s national volleyball team.
(Photo courtesy of the Darnold family )

Hammer was an athletic artist. He only picked up volleyball, the sport he’d compete in during the Olympics, in his early 20s. One day, while Hammer was doing laps in the pool at USC, the swimming coach noticed his form and asked him to try out for that team, too. Hammer declined.

Hammer met his wife, Betty, in junior high school, and she worked to help pay for Hammer to attend USC. She also played volleyball for the U.S. national team. Of their six grandchildren, five played volleyball in college, including Franki Darnold, Sam’s sister, who was all-conference at Rhode Island. “She’s the stud, by the way,” Chris Darnold said.

The lone exception was Sam, but he, too was a natural. One day, Franki asked Darnold to play in a doubles volleyball tournament, just for fun. Darnold had never played competitively before. They placed in the tournament.

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Hammer happened into his Marlboro Man role. After USC, Hammer became a firefighter, eventually serving as the captain in charge of protecting all of Universal Studios. Meanwhile, he kept side gigs. On his off days, he worked as a substitute teacher in Long Beach, mostly for students with special needs or in rougher neighborhoods, where he felt like he could make the biggest difference.

To supplement his income, he got a Screen Actors Guild card. Once, Aunt Jemima needed someone to play a firefighter for a commercial shoot. Hammer was available. The shoot went so well that he was cast to play himself in the television series “Emergency!” Someone at Philip Morris noticed his look, handsome and a little rugged, and he was signed to become one of Los Angeles’ four Marlboro Men. He appeared on billboards all over the world.

“I remember everyone saying, ‘That’s your dad?’ ” Chris Darnold said.

This was during the 1970s, when the public was becoming more aware of the dangers of smoking. Chris and her brothers began stealing his cigarette packs and scribbling over the box, “cancer sticks.” After a few years, Hammer was getting older and realized the role was “contradictory to the way he lived,” Chris Darnold said. Hammer had raised his kids to be active and to eat healthfully. The family kept a big garden where they’d grow their own vegetables.

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Hammer was always an attentive father, Chris Darnold said, and he was devoted to his entire family. He would often take his grandchildren to the park and have them pick up 10 pieces of trash, to teach them about protecting the environment. When Franki was in preschool, Chris Darnold would arrive to pick her up only to find that Hammer had beaten her there and taken Franki to the beach to collect seashells.

That was just like her father, Chris Darnold said. But each time it happened, she was still a little surprised. At the time, Hammer was dying of prostate cancer that had spread into his bones.

Hammer died of the disease in 1999. Sam Darnold was too young to remember anything of his grandfather. But family members kept finding pieces of him in his grandson.

All of what he knows of Hammer he knows from stories. He was told that Hammer was humble and didn’t like talking about himself.

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Darnold has a similar reputation at USC.

“You barely can get a word out of him off the field,” running back Justin Davis said.

Early on at USC, Darnold surprised the starters with his assertiveness. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t know Darnold very well during Darnold’s first season, but he’d heard a story that had circulated within the team. Someone had mentioned that USC had brought in another top quarterback recruit in Darnold’s class.

“And Sam, I think he said, ‘The best player plays right?’ ” Smith-Schuster said.

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This season, after Darnold overthrew a pass to receiver Darreus Rogers, Rogers reassured him, telling him they’d get the timing down.

“Yeah,” Darnold deadpanned. “I thought you’d be more athletic.”

Chris Darnold said her father would’ve seen a lot of himself in his grandson. He would’ve liked seeing him play in the Rose Bowl game, too.

“And I’m proud of that,” Sam Darnold said.

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As is his way, he didn’t need to say much more.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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