USC’s ‘Captain America’ Tackett Curtis pushing to improve after realizing his dream

USC linebacker Tackett Curtis stands with his hands on hips and looks up the field during the Trojans' win Saturday
USC freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis looks up the field during his first college game against San José State on Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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Before he was USC’s “First Avenger,” Tackett Curtis was the first pick in almost every family pick-up game.

In Many, La., a town of fewer than 3,000 people about 20 miles away from the Texas border, there’s sports and there’s hunting. The Curtises aren’t into the latter, which meant older brothers Gunner and Carson regularly assembled their friends in their parents’ activity room for whatever game they could cook up that day. From football to Wiffle Ball, Tackett, four years younger than his closest brother, was never far. The kid who was eight years younger than some of his competitors did more than just tag along.

“He was one of the first picks all throughout growing up,” Gunner said. “He was never like, ‘Oh, I’m the youngest brother, I’m not supposed to be able to score.’ It was like, ‘I’m supposed to be able to tackle everybody, I’m supposed to be able to score on everybody.’”


Now a freshman linebacker at USC, Tackett is playing beyond his age again. The 19-year-old was the first true freshman to start a season opener for USC at inside linebacker since Cameron Smith in 2015 and just the second since 1978.

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound prospect dazzled coaches and teammates immediately and earned the nickname “Captain America” for his relentless effort in practice. Gunner, 7½ years older than Tackett, was “rolling on the floor” laughing when he heard the kid who used to pump out push-ups and pull-ups before playing PlayStation had earned a superhero nickname already. But, he acknowledged, it fit.

Tackett Curtis is here to rescue the USC defense.

“He came out there to help them,” said Jess Curtis, Tackett’s uncle and coach at Many (La.) High School. “He felt like the defense improves, they can win a national championship and that’s why he’s there.”

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A coveted four-star recruit, Tackett chose the Trojans over Ohio State and Wisconsin. Gunner marveled at the mature young adult who navigated the stressful recruiting process. His youngest brother was not swayed by flashy facilities or special social media graphics. Instead, Tackett grilled coaches on defensive schemes, how they envisioned him fitting and requested special meetings with strength and conditioning coaches and nutritionists to ensure he could build his body and get faster as his career progressed. He evaluated each school’s need at linebacker.

The Trojans had a big one.

The inside linebacker position was one of USC’s thinnest last year. The Trojans bulked up by scooping former Oklahoma State stalwart Mason Cobb out of the transfer portal to push returning starters Shane Lee and Eric Gentry. With Lee and Gentry nursing injuries, Tackett, who graduated from high school early to participate in spring practices at USC, staked his claim to the starting role, relying on his unwavering energy on each play.


“Tackett, man, he’s always running, he’s always going hard,” Cobb said. “It does remind me of myself when I was growing up, but man, he’s much more talented, much faster, quicker, stronger.”

Tackett worked to join the starting lineup during preseason camp, pairing with Cobb in the top group. Between updates about enjoying the beach during his limited time off or trying new restaurants in the big city, Tackett gave Gunner the rundown of each practice. Gunner, a law student in Ohio, grew more excited with each message.

He couldn’t wait to see Tackett live out his dream.

The son and nephew of football coaches, Tackett took to the sport immediately. He began a strict training regimen in middle school, doing individual workouts, going to a speed clinic and working in the weight room with his dad, all building up toward the goal of playing in college. His uncle brought college posters from coaches who were recruiting at his school and Tackett hung them up in his room.

As he ran out of the tunnel before the game Saturday, Tackett paused to soak in the rare experience of getting to take the field at the Coliseum in front of tens of thousands of fans. He had a few nerves.

“It’s a good nervous,” Tackett said. “I love that type of stuff, just being able to feel that and have a little bit of pressure on you. That’s what makes it fun.”

Tackett logged two tackles in his debut but acknowledged several mistakes. Gentry, who is still returning from a lingering ankle injury, came off the bench to notch two tackles and affected the game with his unique 6-foot-6 frame, fueling more competition at the position.


With the shock of the first game fading, coaches expect the freshman will quickly rise to the occasion.

“His first reaction is hit somebody. The second reaction is maybe going in the right direction,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “But that just comes with reps. … Of all the guys we’re worried about, it’s not Tackett.”

Even as a kid, Tackett never shied away from contact on the football field. He was “a man among boys” playing youth football, Jess said. In high school, he blossomed into a dominant linebacker/safety, do-it-all quarterback and dynamic kick returner who helped Many to four consecutive state championship games, including two titles. He became the first Many player to win Louisiana’s Mr. Football award.

They called him “Rambo,” Jess said, because “he was kind of quiet and didn’t say a lot, he just kind of kicked a lot of butt out on the football field.” The “Captain America” moniker is fitting as well.

“He’s built like a superhero,” he said with a laugh.

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As Tackett matured at Many, Jess tried to coax out a more vocal leadership style, but his nephew preferred to lead by example. He always showed up early for practice and stayed late in the weight room. His star in the small town grew, but his ego never followed.

“At Many, he was the best player, big man on campus,” Jess said, “and you’d see him with the young freshman.”


When Gunner thinks about his little brother, he still imagines the 9-year-old wrecking ball running around in the yard. Tackett has grown into a chiseled force in the middle of USC’s defense flying across the field to make a tackle.

This is one superhero who doesn’t need a cape.