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USC Sports

USC’s Olaijah Griffin has a spring in his step after surgery on both shoulders

Olaijah Griffin’s freshman season at USC was cut short due to a shoulder injury.
Olaijah Griffin’s freshman season at USC was cut short due to a shoulder injury.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

This past spring, before a barrage of interceptions made him the most buzzed-about defensive back at USC’s training camp, Olaijah Griffin sat at home, doing little else but stewing in his own misery.

Offseason surgery on the labrums in both of his shoulders left him in agonizing pain, with limited range of motion. For weeks, he could barely move his arms. But the pain was only a small part of the self-pity that would come to consume him.

It was the stagnation that proved most maddening. Griffin couldn’t practice. He couldn’t do much of anything. So he sat and waited and thought about how much he missed football.

That pain, Griffin wouldn’t be able to ease until months later, when he first stepped onto the turf at Howard Jones Field for fall camp and breathed a sigh of relief. It would take only a few days for a healthy Griffin, who arrived last year as a five-star recruit from Mission Viejo, to emerge as a potential No. 1 in a crowded group of young, talented USC corners, picking off more passes (five) during the first week of fall camp than USC’s defense had all of last season (four).

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“You see me getting picks,” Griffin said, flashing a grin. “I’m feeling good.”

But he hasn’t forgotten about spring, a time he refers to as “the worst of my life.” Until he arrived at this more joyous juncture, he says, “I went through hell.”

Granted a waiver to play at USC, Chris Steele is one of several young Trojans in the mix for a starting corner spot.

After his freshman season, in which he missed four games because of injuries, he hadn’t expected any sort of surgery. His shoulders felt fine. But medical exams prior to his arrival at USC had suggested that Griffin had “loose shoulders”, which, coach Clay Helton explained Thursday, would have eventually needed to be operated on if he continued playing football. So the staff told Griffin it was best to take care of it right away, while he was still early in his collegiate career.

Both shoulder surgeries carried with them six-month recovery time lines, and each one of those days passed excruciatingly slowly. This was Griffin’s first real surgery, his first time away from the game he’d fallen in love with at 4 years old. It felt as if a part of his identity had been stripped away. That was an unfamiliar notion for a player whom Helton describes as “happy as a lark”.

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As his recovery dragged on, Griffin began to notice the muscles he’d built up in his arms disappearing. He was horrified.

“I started to doubt myself,” Griffin said. “Like, ‘Dang, why do I look like this?’”

Every night, he called his parents, searching for support, and every night, they offered the same assurances. Eventually, they told him, you’re going to get better.

He wasn’t the only one eagerly awaiting his return. USC desperately needed him to make a full recovery. Four major contributors at cornerback had graduated. The secondary needed to be retooled, and Griffin, with his five-star pedigree and his preternatural cover instincts, was an ideal heir apparent.

Although JT Daniels is expected to be named USC’s starter again, the sophomore quarterback still needs to compete for the starting job.

As he eventually regained range of motion in his arms and the pain, emotional and physical, subsided, Griffin began working harder than he ever had. Every day, his father, the rapper Warren G, sent him texts to inspire him.

But now that he was finally able to move forward, there would be no slowing his progress. He wanted to prove -- to himself, to his parents, to his teammates and coaches -- that he could pull himself out of the dark place he’d descended into over spring. Coaches saw his attention sharpen in meetings. They watched him put the weight he’d lost back on.

“He’s made a lot of progress,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

“He had an unbelievable summer,” Helton added.

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And by the time he arrived at fall camp a week ago, the darkness had disappeared entirely. His shoulders are now fully healed. On the first day of camp, Griffin forced a fumble and intercepted a pass. The next day, he jumped a short route, picked off presumptive starting quarterback JT Daniels, and took the interception to the house. Already, after one week, Griffin seems to have a stranglehold on the top corner spot.

“He fought his way through it,” Helton said, “and now, you can see him bouncing around here, and he’s the old OG.”

Griffin, though, understands he’s different now -- perhaps, in a way that no one else could. His spring of self-pity left an indelible mark. He was stronger now. He was better for the misery. Because now, he knew he had the strength to get through it.

“I feel like this camp, for me, is about proving a point,” Griffin said. “You might have a little setback. But you can have a major comeback.”


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