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USC’s Drake London made a tough decision, but it has him on the NFL’s doorstep

USC wide receiver Drake London runs to the end zone ahead of UCLA defenders.
USC wide receiver Drake London runs to the end zone on a 65-yard touchdown against UCLA last season.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Drake London is overmatched. He’s not strong enough. He’s not fast enough. After he begs his dad to let him switch to tackle football before sixth grade, the hits land harder than the 10-year-old anticipated.

He dazzles as a flag football running back, envisioning himself as Reggie Bush, his favorite player. Yet in one particular game, he’s tossed around by bigger, stronger defenders. He feels like he can’t hold his own, and he hates that feeling. So London takes his problem to the only person who might know what to do.

London’s father, Dwan, is thrilled. He’s been convinced since Drake started in the third grade that his son could have a future in football. So he’s been training Drake ever since, presenting drills as games, prodding him with playful doubts, knowing full well his son’s competitive side would take over. “I don’t think you can do it,” Dwan would tell him, “but you can try it, I guess.” Now, Drake tells his father he’ll do anything to be stronger, to be faster, to be great, and Dwan is happy to oblige.

Drake will look back years later on that moment and understand it as a personal turning point, one of those crucial junctures that would send him hurtling on a course toward football stardom at USC, where his likely final season begins Saturday against San Jose State. Yet long before he emerged as one of the nation’s best receivers, a freakish, 6-foot-5 supernova with a physics-defying catch radius who single-handedly could influence the Pac-12 title race, the journey started with a pull-up bar.

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He was too young to lift weights, Dwan decided, so they started simply. Just push-ups and the pull-up bar. Some days they headed to nearby Moorpark College to run the hills or around cones. Eventually, they brought a parachute or sled for Drake to pull as he ran.

“I’d get home from work, and he’d already be waiting in the front yard with two water bottles, cones, whatever we were working on that day,” Dwan says. “As a father, you don’t say no to that. So I would run in the house, change my clothes, and we were off.”

With USC football opening the season Saturday against San Jose State, here are three things you need to know about the matchup.

London’s rise from there isn’t so much meteoric as methodical, checking every box patiently along the way. Bit by bit, he gets stronger, faster. Dwan and his wife, Cindi, taught their kids never to skip steps or cut corners, so when Drake wants new football gear, he has to earn it with touchdowns. Later, when touchdowns prove too easy to come by, his parents pivot to rewarding his grades.

The work ethic never wanes; though a nine-inch growth spurt speeds up the process. By his sophomore year of high school, London isn’t just flashing potential in football. Basketball is his first love and it soon becomes clear he could have a future in either. As a senior, he scores 12 touchdowns as Moorpark’s star receiver and 29.2 points per game as the basketball team’s leading scorer. So he keeps working at both, packing most days with practices, tournaments or camps, leaving himself barely any time to breathe.

He excels, rarely complaining. While others tell him to choose, warning that he can’t commit to both, the doubts only fuel his decision. Just two schools offer him the opportunity to play basketball and football, Virginia and USC, and he chooses the Trojans, determined to balance his pursuit of both sports while keeping close to his family.

“The deal was we would pick his senior year what he was going to play in college,” Dwan says. “We got to his senior year, and he still couldn’t choose. Who am I to force him to pick? I don’t want to make him make the wrong decision. So if you have the opportunity to try both at the next level, try both.”

At the time, Dwan confesses, Drake was better at basketball. But his ceiling on the football field was too tantalizing to ignore, a fact that would become clear almost immediately at USC, where he stands out in fall camp as a freshman.

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It takes until midway through the 2019 season for London to make his mark, but on a game-winning drive at Colorado, he reels in a critical 19-yard catch that keeps the drive moving, and from there, his trajectory skyrockets. He scores five touchdowns in his final five games of that season. His family starts to wonder if the NFL might be in the freshman’s future.

If it wasn’t obvious then where he was heading, fate intervenes soon after football season. He’s behind in basketball before an illness holds him out longer. He barely plays as a freshman wing, and he tells himself that if his sophomore campaign goes well in football, he’ll put basketball behind him.

His dad is convinced he could have a future in basketball, but London proceeds to emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top wideouts in a pandemic-altered season, earning a place on the all-conference team, as well as on the radar of NFL scouts. In December, he sits down with his parents, ready to make a decision.

“I didn’t have any momentum in basketball like I did in football,” London says. “I had a golden egg in my hand. If I dropped it, I may never be able to get it back.”

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What he didn’t understand was how much time he’d have now focusing on one sport.

“Life slowed way down,” he said.

Suddenly, there was time for friends and family, time to watch TV, to play board games, to actually relax “and finally be a normal kid,” he explains.

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There was much more time for football. He took part in spring practice for the first time. He dedicated himself to sessions with USC quarterback Kedon Slovis strengthening an already strong bond. Where before he could only dabble, London now threw himself headfirst into training, tightening his footwork, speeding up his breaks, sharpening his routes. The connection with Slovis feels almost telekinetic, their trust so strong that the quarterback says he can count on London to catch anything thrown his way.

“He’s made one of the biggest jumps I’ve ever seen,” says cornerback Chris Steele, who experienced his electric fall camp performance firsthand.

London doesn’t regret the decision to leave basketball behind. He’s at peace with his process. He didn’t need to cut corners to arrive at this latest juncture, with the weight of USC’s offense on his shoulders this season and a bright future as a likely first-round NFL draft pick awaiting next spring.

“When he goes after something and he puts his focus on solely that, things usually turn out special,” Dwan says.

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