The money would have been nice. Nate Guertler won’t lie. After four years of paying for the privilege of playing football at USC, an actual scholarship would have made things easier.
Teammates wouldn’t have to sneak him food from the athletic dining hall. He wouldn’t have to stay up late after practice figuring out how to pay overdue rent. He wouldn’t have to summon all the courage in his aching body to call family and friends to borrow $5,000 in overdue tuition, as he did recently.
“There’s this little voice in the back of my head that occasionally pokes at me about that,” he says. “It’s been like, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
But then Guertler looks at the scrawled elementary-school assignment hanging on a wall in his apartment, and he knows.
It is from his 10-year-old brother Aaron, who has autism. A couple of years ago, Aaron was asked to write three things about someone in his family. He wrote about his favorite football star, his best friend, his hero. He wrote about Nathan.
He plays football at USC. He’s tall. He’s happy.
“Almost every day for two years I’ve looked at those three sentences, and I don’t even think about playing for that scholarship anymore,” Guertler said. “I’m really just playing for my little brother.”
During a season in which USC’s longest-suffering walk-on finally cracked the starting lineup, this redshirt junior tight end has indeed realized that in the futile chase for a scholarship, he will earn a great deal more.
He is scheduled to graduate this spring with a degree in psychology. He will do so with the admiration of a team that has watched him relentlessly toil in obscurity. He will have at least one start — two weeks ago against Utah — and vital late-season playing time on his resume.
And then there’s Aaron Amitoelau, the little brother with whom a USC football-forged connection has been priceless.
“My little brother is my strength,” Guertler said.
You perhaps hadn’t heard of Nathan Guertler before now, but Aaron can’t stop talking about him. Aaron sleeps in his brother’s bed in their home in Corona. Aaron waits patiently for Nathan to come home and play video games with him. When Aaron is agitated, he calms down when he is told that Nathan would disapprove of his behavior.
Aaron misses his brother so much, he has worked on controlling his fear of crowds and loud noises so he can attend USC games at the Coliseum. He attended Nathan’s first collegiate start against Utah, and celebrated their bond by grabbing and eating Nathan’s postgame hamburger as if he had just played.
“Aaron doesn’t want to let Nathan down,” said their father, Rex Amitoelau. “He lives to make Nathan proud of him.”
During those few moments when Guertler has thought about abandoning his quest, he thinks about living up to that pride for the sake of not only Aaron, but also his father, his mother, Lillian, and sister Nikki.
“I want to show everyone that all my work — and all my family’s work — has been worth it,” he said.
He thinks about Aaron wearing a Matt Barkley autographed jersey, bragging to his friends at school, and summing up much of Nathan’s life in those three sentences.
Yes, Guertler is tall, 6 feet 5, 280 pounds, and looks even bigger with his shoulder-length black hair. Yes, Guertler is happy, a guy who says he faces his challenges with nightly Bible readings and twice-daily weightlifting sessions.
And, of course, finally, there can be no question, the world has seen it, Guertler plays football at USC.
“What a great, great story,” interim Coach Ed Orgeron said. “He is one of those kids who dreamed it, and worked for it, and now he gets to live it.”
After an all-county high school career at Norco, Guertler showed up at USC as a walk-on tackle simply because he wanted to be a Trojan. He figured if he worked hard, he would have a scholarship in two seasons. He figured wrong.
“Every fall they would announce the walk-ons who got scholarships . . . it was never me . . . it was heartbreaking,” he said.
He virtually disappeared for three seasons, which included his initial redshirt season. He played in just small bits of four games during that time while enduring hamstring injuries in both legs and undergoing knee surgery.
The Trojans’ NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, combined with injuries to starters, finally cleared the space in recent weeks for him and several other walk-ons. He had to change his position to tight end, he had to change his uniform number from 76 to 82, but when he took the field for his start against Utah, one person spotted him immediately.
“Aaron knew his walk, knew his hair, pointed him out right away,” Rex said. “It was a really big moment.”
Guertler hasn’t caught a pass, and probably will never even be a target, but he’s a powerful blocker, and the Trojans are 2-0 since he became a contributor, and he’s thrilled. Good thing, because he estimates that even with grants, his USC experience will cost him and his family about $100,000.
He and his father have had several conversations over the last few years about whether it was worth it to play even famed USC football at that cost. The conversations always end the same.
“I would tell him, ‘It doesn’t matter what other people are getting, you only look at yourself and see what you are getting,’” Rex said. “And by hanging in there and working hard for all these years, my son has gotten a lot.”
The love of a special brother. The support of an understanding family. The respect of a giant football program. By the looks of things, a full ride.