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USC linebacker Michael Hutchings knows how to play through pain; he's been doing it since his father died

USC linebacker Michael Hutchings knows how to play through pain; he's been doing it since his father died
USC linebacker Michael Hutchings celebrates after a play against Alabama in the season opener. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

Michael Hutchings, known as Big Mike, would have loved nothing more than to see his boy play linebacker against Stanford on Saturday, across the bay from his home in Antioch, Calif.

It's a good bet he would have been breaking down film all week, calling his son, also named Michael Hutchings, with observations from USC's practice. Maybe he would have floated an idea or two about slowing  down Stanford's All-American running back, Christian McCaffrey.

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A sergeant and 24-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Dept., Big Mike worked the graveyard shift so he never had to miss one of his son's games. Before each, he'd call Michael with last-minute advice.

That phone call is one of the many voids the Hutchings family has been trying to fill in the 2½ years since Big Mike died.

"We've just learned to live with it," said Joyce Hutchings, his wife and Michael's mother.

The Hutchings are a family of cops and municipal workers, so it's little surprise Michael turned into USC's rock, a model of stability in a program that has been anything but stable. Even if, privately, at his lowest, he wondered if could ever love football again.

Michael isn't sure what he loved first: the game, or sharing it with his dad. They seemed to communicate through football. Big Mike coached teams around town, and he kept Michael close. When he was young, Michael received urgent calls from the station, usually on Sunday mornings. His dad wanted to discuss his fantasy football lineup.

Father and son were so alike, Joyce said, scuffing up her walls with errant passes, never staying quiet, rarely not smiling. Like "twins when it came to football."

Michael was a big kid, like his dad, and the coaches usually paid him gushing compliments for his work at practice.

"OK! OK! That's good!" Big Mike would say afterward, trying to wring out every detail. "What were his exact words?"

Then, Big Mike got sick, with fast-developing, late-stage pancreatic cancer.

Big Mike moved Michael into USC in 2013, a few months after the diagnosis. He saw his son play for the Trojans in person just once, though they talked on the phone after every practice.

After he checked into the hospital, even though he was queasy or weak, he'd pull up USC's practice tapes on his computer. In the evenings, he'd call his son and break down the film, and he wouldn't feel as bad.

Big Mike turned 49 on New Year's Eve that year, so when Hutchings returned from the Las Vegas Bowl, the family bought gifts.

"And he couldn't . . . he didn't have the strength to rip off the wrapping paper of his presents," Michael recalled, "and he just kind of broke down and cried."

Big Mike became unresponsive early in January, though his heart was strong enough to continue pumping for almost a week.

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Michael returned to USC on Jan. 14, 2014, the day his father died. He even made it to class that night. Joyce had asked linebacker Hayes Pullard, then-interim Coach Clay Helton and Michael's best friend, safety Chris Hawkins, to keep an eye on him. Michael thought he was OK, but his support system wasn't so sure.

Around that time, Michael began telling family members he was going to quit the team, Joyce said.

"The thing is," Michael recalled, "I honestly didn't really have too much to play for anymore."

To him, football wasn't nearly the same without his father.

His role on the team was changing for the worse anyway. When Steve Sarkisian took over as coach, Clancy Pendergast was replaced as defensive coordinator and Hutchings was at the bottom of the depth chart. It didn't help that Hutchings wasn't showing up to team meetings, or that when he did he was often late.

Hutchings began seeing a therapist after a coach asked if he'd like to talk to someone. He spent much of the first session in tears.

But slowly, Hutchings began to feel less burdened. At practices and during meetings, he put his head down and toiled, "a shut-up-and-work guy," Helton said, despite Hutchings' natural loquaciousness.

This summer, Hutchings felt rejuvenated. Pendergast had returned and it was "like he found new life," Hawkins said.

Teammates who respected his quiet work ethic now look to him as a leader. When USC chose its four team captains, Hutchings and quarterback Max Browne were the only ones who had not already been regularly starting.

Before a recent practice, Hutchings recounted all that's happened since his father's illness, noting it was the first time he had been able to talk about everything without crying.

He said one memory sustained him when he thought he was done with the game: The first time he saw his father in the hospital, both knew they had but a few days left together. For one of the first times, they talked about anything but football.

"He said he was proud to see where I had made it already," Hutchings said. "He was proud of where I was."

He paused.

"He was proud of me," Hutchings said again.

He said it made him feel free.

There's still a void, he said, but the family is learning to cope. Two weeks ago, before his first game as a captain, Hutchings was relaxing in his hotel room when Joyce called.

Joyce has been making these calls since Big Mike died. Hutchings said his mother mostly offered encouragement, but she had picked up some football, too. "How could you not?" Joyce said, laughing.

So, on the phone, she told him what Big Mike might say: "Don't get tied up with those linemen. . . . Get your stance together. . . . Hit the swim move."

At the end of each call, she includes a final reminder.

Just play, she tells him, "like your dad taught you."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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