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Amid breakout season, USC’s Jake Lichtenstein glad he didn’t give up football dream

USC defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein tackles Oregon State running back during the Trojans' loss on Sept. 25.
(Katelyn Mulcahy / Getty Images
)

Almost two years before he burst loose for a long-awaited breakout performance in Boulder, Colo., Jake Lichtenstein briefly contemplated quitting football altogether.

He’d been on the cusp of establishing himself on USC’s defensive line when he strained his calf as a redshirt sophomore in the summer of 2019. Months later, the pain lingered, and by October, Lichtenstein had lost count of how many times he’d re-injured it. It took months for doctors to provide a proper diagnosis, and during that time, the South Florida native sometimes wondered if it was worth continuing.

“I definitely had thoughts of maybe medically retiring,” Lichtenstein says now.

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He was in a dark place then, unsure why his calf continued to fail him, uncertain of what his future held. And for most of the two years that followed, that uncertainty would not abate. There would be more setbacks, more self-doubt and, in 2020, another lost season.

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But now, as he looks back at the tumultuous past three years, Lichtenstein can’t help but grin. So much has changed since, down to his now-signature long hair, which is currently pulled into a messy top bun.

“It’s been a journey,” he said Wednesday. “There’s been tons of ups and downs. But I couldn’t be more proud of myself for being here today, sticking through it all.”

As USC takes on Utah and its potent rushing attack Saturday, the redshirt senior is certainly peaking at the right time. Lichtenstein tallied the first two sacks of his career last week at Colorado, sending his confidence soaring, and on a defense devoid of interior depth, his breakout couldn’t have come at a better moment for USC. His presence even helped unlock Tuli Tuipulotu, as the All-Pac-12 defensive tackle kicked to the outside against Colorado, tallying three pressures and a sack while rushing off the edge for a season-high 30 snaps.

It wasn’t until after the game, when Lichtenstein saw his phone flooded with text messages from family and friends, that the significance of his breakout moment dawned on him.

“It means everything, you know?” Lichtenstein said. “Being away from the game for three years, my last season playing was 2018. So I feel like just being away from the game for that long, it really just builds so much love inside me for it. I just don’t take it for granted.”

USC defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein stands on the field during a win over Colorado on Oct. 2.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

For more than five months in 2019, as USC struggled to understand what was wrong with his calf, Lichtenstein felt the game slipping further away. Eventually doctors diagnosed him with compartment syndrome, which would require surgery that December to relieve the built-up pressure within his calf muscle by cutting into its tissue.

The rehab, Lichtenstein said, was unlike anything he’d experienced before. It took him almost a full year to feel completely right again.

In the meantime, a more significant obstacle complicated matters. As the pandemic shut down campus and the Pac-12 canceled the football season, Lichtenstein left for South Florida amid the uncertainty. When he returned months later, in the middle of a shortened football season, his body was totally transformed, with muscles bulging from places they hadn’t before.

Determined to return stronger, Lichtenstein had spent his quarantine training as much as possible. Every day, around 7 a.m., Lichtenstein would leave for the gym with his mom, Gretchen, a personal trainer and former figure competitor who once participated in events with the International Federation of Body Builders.

A personal trainer at home certainly didn’t hurt. Mornings were spent training, afternoons spent running. Every night, his mom would cook meals packed with lean proteins and organic ingredients. All the while, coaches and teammates followed along with workouts on Instagram, marveling at Lichtenstein’s progress.

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For all the muscle he gained, Lichtenstein actually lost 10 pounds. “I felt like I really got my feet back under me,” he said.

“Just training every day and feeling that and gaining the confidence, it made me work harder,” he continued. “I really felt like I could stay healthy and do this.”

But when the Pac-12 reversed course and announced it would hold a shortened season, he chose to opt out. Asked why he decided not to play, Lichtenstein said he wanted to focus on getting his degree, which was within reach. When his final classes ended in late October, it took just one call from defensive line coach Vic So’oto for Lichtenstein to get on a plane back to Southern California.

“That conversation with him definitely kinda sparked something in me, like, ‘Damn, I need to get back with my team,’” Lichtenstein said. “I have no reason not to be over there.”

Within a week, Lichtenstein had returned . But he never factored in last fall. It wasn’t until this fall that USC’s coaches really began to notice how far he’d come.

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Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando praised Lichtenstein for changing his body and playing “a little bit stouter.” So’oto and interim coach Donte Williams said they’ve seen Lichtenstein battle through adversity he would’ve struggled to push through before.

“He’s been consistent every day,” So’oto said. “He’s been out here. He’s practiced through things that he would usually pull himself out of, and it’s starting to pay off.”

He reaped the rewards last week in Colorado, two years after he’d briefly contemplated giving up ootball. But after all the injuries and uncertainty, there’s no doubting now that Lichtenstein has found his path back.

“It takes a lot,” Lichtenstein said. “You could think your career is over and then just have that mental switch like, ‘Nah, I’m not going out like that, I can fix this.’ And it’s fixed.”


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