Every college football fan has had the fantasy, “I should’ve walked on the football team. Yeah, I could’ve lifted weights, got faster, stronger, quicker, and maybe I could’ve somehow, through all my hard work and efforts, saw the field on a kickoff or on special teams. (photo left: Tim at the 1990 Rose Bowl) I could’ve made a game-saving tackle or picked up a fumble and ran it into the end zone. I could’ve been a hero, I could’ve been somebody as Marlon Brando said once. Movies such as “Rudy” have romanticized the walk-on football player, though that movie never touched on the subject of Rudy’s mental delusion of Notre Dame’s greatness, instead focusing on the heroic nature of the underdog. The same could be said for Mark Wahlberg’s “Invincible” where he played bartender turned Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale, a layman turned football stud, another theme of overcoming the odds, just like a college walk-on who earns a scholarship.
"Any football coach will tell you that walk-ons represent the backbone of every team," said Steve Berman, an attorney representing players denied scholarships in a lawsuit filed in the state of Washington in 2004. This article isn’t about lawsuits or attorneys, but that quote summed up the feelings I wanted to convey about walk-ons, who (especially at USC) are special. They practice just as hard as the scholarship players (if not harder), lift weights, study film, and they’re doing it while paying their way through schooll.
Some of the favorite Trojans of the recent era; Collin Ashton, Greig Carlson and Mario Danelo were walk-ons to USC who earned scholarships. And it was the tragedy of Mario Danelo that put me in touch with Tim Lavin, a walk-on and USC fullback from 1989-1991. An email was forwarded to USCHerd@aol.com that was written by Tim, entitled “Trojan in the Sky.” It was a very moving piece about Mario Danelo’s memorial service. I emailed Tim and asked if I could print it on the Herdblog, and he gave me permission to put his touching tribute on the web (http://theuscherd.blogspot.com/2007/01/trojan-in-sky.html). As Tim and I emailed back and forth, I found out he was the current secretary of the Trojan Alumni Football Club, and that he had an interesting story to tell about his Trojan football career. I figured a man nicknamed “Mad Dog” would have a few fun anecdotes to share about being a Trojan then, and what it means to still be a very active member of the Trojan family today.
This is the Herdblog’s interview with Tim Lavin, USC fullback, ’89-91.
Since the advent of the internet, recruitniks follow that aspect of college football competition with great intensity. What was your recruiting like? Who recruited you and what sold you on USC?
I was a tailback at Chaminade College Prep in West Hills, CA. Even though I was CIF Player of the Year in 1987 and second in rushing and scoring (both to Russell White of Crespi / Cal) in Southern California, there were only offers to play at the Division I AA and Division II schools such as Holy Cross, William & Mary and CSUN.
Chaminade was a smaller school and no one in its history (since 1952) had ever gone on to play Division I college football. I was determined to be the first. Since no one came looking for me, I had to go looking for them. A friend of mine who worked in a video store made a copy of my highlights from every game my senior year on a VHS tape and made about 100 copies. I sent one to almost every Division I school in the country. I received a letter from most of the schools and about half asked me to "walk-on" to their program.
Since no scholarships were offered, I decided I would "walk-on" and earn that scholarship. USC was one of the schools who asked me to walk-on. At the advice of numerous outside influences, I was told I would never play at USC, that I would not make the team and was even told that I had "rocks in my head." I was told to go to a small Division III school so I could be a Big Fish in a little pond. Hearing that, I decided to walk-on at USC...
Can you do a brief recap of your USC career for us?
In August of 1988, I walked-on and was obviously sent to the scout team. I was told I would play fullback and not tailback. At a staggering 195 lbs, I was curious how I was going to compete with the other fullbacks who were in the 225 to 245 lbs range. On top of that, my tasks were to block the Trojan Defense in practice who was ranked first or second in the country at the time. I had the distinct honor and privilege to try and block guys like Junior Seau, Tim Ryan, and Scott Ross among others. Needless to say, it was brutal. I had to ice down my body daily...
However, the one true advantage I did have was that being on scout team I did go against the best players in the county and I did get better. The starting fullbacks on the other end of the field were practicing against scout team players themselves, and not necessarily getting substantially better on a daily basis.
After my first two years on scout team, most of the defensive players including Seau and Marc Carrier informed me that I should not be on scout team, that I deserved to be up with the first & second team offense at the other end of the field. I took that to heart and approached Larry Smith. I informed him that I felt I had proven myself worthy and had worked myself into a scholarship role. Coach Smith told me to go through spring practice in April and if he felt I was going to be a major player, he would put me on scholarship. If he felt I would not play very much, he would help me find another school. Deal! We shook hands and I hit the weight room.
After three weeks of spring ball in April, we had one final scrimmage, the Cardinal & Gold game in the Coliseum. By days end, I had one touchdown and somehow ended up as the leading rusher for the day, out rushing Ricky Ervins, the Rose Bowl MVP four months earlier.
School let out a few weeks later in May and I called Coach Smith every day. First, he was in a meeting, then he was not in, then he was on vacation. (photo right: Tim in the Notre Dame golden helmet running scout team) Then I got a letter in the mail and it was from the USC Athletic Department: "Due to your efforts, we are putting you on scholarship." That was a good day...
The next two years I was placed on every special team and alternated at fullback. Not known as "Fullback-U," I finished with 3 carries for 22 yards during my career.
Who were some of your favorite teammates? Do you still keep in touch?
The guys I was closest to were actually the kickers. Our punter, Marc Preston and our kicker, Grant Runnerstrum, would watch our scrimmages from the sidelines and cheer me on. They knew I was trying to either earn a scholarship or a starting spot and knew I was going 100 MPH on every play which caused many on-field fights with the defense.
The most memorable was with Junior Seau who had a cast on his wrist all taped up. We fought for a good 15 seconds which is a lifetime when you are getting hit by a cast. I did what I could but, let's just say the coaches had a hell of a time breaking us up. I knew I was going to lose, but Junior was going to be one tired SOB when it was done. In the locker room after practice, Junior came up to me and shook my hand and said; "way to go Mad Dog, don't ever give up."
Our Special Teams Coach, Bobby April, nicknamed me "Mad Dog" after I knocked a Washington Husky player on his back during a game at the Coliseum. From that point forward, everyone called me Mad Dog and the kickers had a field day with it during practice to fire me up and "upset" the defense. The kickers were my cheering section and it was very comical.
I appreciated Rodney Peete who was all class. Even though he was “THE” QB and up for the Heisman Trophy, he treated everyone with respect, even us freshman, unlike many other upperclassman. Today, I stay in touch with Runnerstrum, Preston, Shane Foley (QB) and Bob Crane (TE)...
You played fullback at "Tailback U." Who were the tailbacks you blocked for, and what was it like to have to live up to those expectations, since USC had some famous fullbacks also: Marcus Allen and Lynn Cain? Who was the running backs coach at that time, and what kind of pressure was he under to deliver the next great American running back?
The tailbacks were Ricky Ervins, Scott Lockwood, Aaron Emmanuel, Mazio Royster and Deon Struther. My first two years, the running back coach was Clarence Shelmon (now with the Chargers) and then Wayne Nunnly (also now with the Chargers).
I'm sure the pressure was overwhelming but, it is not something you think about at the time. They both just wanted to get the best out of you and they both wanted to win.
You played for Larry Smith. What did you like and dislike about his coaching style? He made some famous quotes, to paraphrase, that "USC isn't what it used to be, and players don't come to the school just because of its traditions anymore." If I remember correctly, Smith was a very good game coach, but he didn't like to recruit or didn't do well recruiting and that was his downfall. Can you elaborate on Coach Smith?
Honestly, I don't remember his quotes or how he recruited. I was only concerned with improving as a player and getting in the game and kicking ass. I was really only concerned about the things I could control.
A lot of Trojan fans and Herdmembers enjoy the open practices of the Pete Carroll tenure. The Huddle is 20K strong. Pete encourages fan interaction with the players and coaches, and Pete has especially embraced the Herd. What were the practices like under Coach Smith, and what did you feel his relationship to the fans and supporters of Trojan football was like?
Practices were mostly closed and only open to special guests before the big games against UCLA, Notre Dame and the Rose Bowl.
I do like the fact that in my second year while playing scout team, I asked Coach Smith if I could wear a Gold Helmet in practice before the Notre Dame game. (photo left: Tim in the Domer gold helmet) He said, Yes! Our equipment manager, Dino Dennis, had a 49ers helmet in the equipment room. I took the helmet and pealed the 49ers stickers off the sides and hit the field singing the Notre Dame fight song over and over and over again.
I set a record for most fights in a week and managed to really irate both the defensive players and the defensive coaches. However, the kickers had a ball and the crowd of spectators all came down to our end of the field. That was fun.
What was the Rose Bowl experience like for you? You were on the team that beat Michigan on January 1st, 1990. The next year you lost in the John Hancock Bowl. Your final year was 3-8? Most fans look back at that 1991 season as the start of a horrible decade of Trojan football. How can you compare going from a Rose Bowl victory down to 3-8 within 2 years?
The Rose Bowl was obviously very exciting. Everything leading up to the game is a major event and every player is treated like a star. Even though I wasn't a star, it was a blessing to have some little kid ask for your autograph, want a photo with you, or just watch him smile because he met a player for the Trojans.
In the hotel lobby, there were several kids in wheelchairs asking for autographs and photos and telling us how proud there were of us. At that point, I was just blessed I could walk and had the great, heartwarming moment to make that kid happy for just a few seconds. It puts life in perspective and I walked away in tears.
You've seen the Trojans go on major streaks against their rivals the last few years, the 2006 UCLA game doesn't need to be included in this conversation. What was it like to play UCLA? And on the other side, what was it like to be on the team that never beat Notre Dame during the Irish's 14 year streak?
For me personally, it was just more people in the stands. I got up for every game. I played with the same emotion and intensity against Notre Dame as I did against Oregon St. To lose against Notre Dame didn't hurt me any more or any less than to lose to anyone else. Losing is awful.
What did you do the year after you graduated USC? Did you have any thoughts of a career in football? Playing? Coaching? What takes up Tim Lavin's time these days?
When I graduated, I was told by one coach to go out into the real world and get a job. I told him I was going to try out for the NFL... He laughed at me and said; "Tim, you had a great career here, but you're not going to make it in the NFL. Use your degree and go out and make some money in the real world."
OK, so here I go again, doing it myself. I joined a league in 1993 that was supposed to be the "New Minor League" to Pro Football. There were some 12 teams and the only one on the west coast was the Palm Springs Heat. I drove there twice a week for four months for practice. I played FB, TB and TE and played well. However, after 4 games the team ran out of money and our season was canceled. So, I sent my films and articles to the Player Personal Director of the 49ers. When Tom Rathman hurt his shoulder in mid-season, the 49ers called me in for a tryout. I didn't make it.
In 1994, the Canadian Football League looked to expand into the United States with five new teams. After sending my tapes and info out to every team again, the new team, the "Baltimore CFL Colts" of the CFL called and offered me a contract. I signed a two year deal and was waiting for mini-camp to start when I got a call from my agent who told me the Colts had signed 80 guys and could only bring 60 into training camp. They eliminated 20 guys and I was one of them. That hurt. Not the fact that I got let go, but the fact that I got let go on paper rather than on the field...
I heard about a league overseas, The Professional League of American Football of Australia. I sent my information and the Brisbane Bulldogs in Brisbane, Australia signed me on to their team. I went to Australia and played the 1994 season for the Bulldogs where I collected more film and articles.
When I came home to the States, I wrote a personal letter to every head coach in the NFL. One coach called me. It was Mike White, Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders. He said he got my letter and wanted to bring me in for a tryout. My 40 yard dash time was clocked at 4.7 and Coach White said they wanted their fullbacks at 4.6 seconds. So, because of 1 tenth of a second, I was sent home. They said to be ready for another invite in case someone got hurt in training camp, but the call never came.
As a fierce competitor, I was bitter. I was hurt I didn't get to fulfill my dream of playing on Sunday's, but I guess I went a little further than most people thought I would ever go and I am proud of that. However, I did need to walk away from the game for a while. I didn't enjoy watching it for several years. I just needed time away before I could take a new perspective and watch football as a fan. It took more than five years to let it all go...I would say over 90% of all football players know exactly what I am talking about.
I submerged myself in the business of selling promotional products and started my own company calling it; Mad Dog Promotional Products or www.maddogpromos.com. That takes up my time these days and I always look to work with fellow Trojans.
What is your current relationship with Trojan football?
After I had closed the door to all football for many years, I moved to Orange County about a year and a half ago. I got a letter from the Trojan Football Alumni Club. I went to their tailgate parties and meetings and became an active member. Today, I am the club secretary and help in the planning of club events. It is very enjoyable to plan and implement our activities and try and make a difference in raising money for the football program through scholarships.
We raise money for the Marv Goux Scholarship Fund which provides money for football players and we also have a program called TFAConnect which is our way of “Connecting” players recently graduated with finding a job with Trojan owned or operated businesses. It is a great way to help these young guys right out of college in landing that first job.
What's your opinion of the sold-out Coliseum and the seeming frenzy of the fans compared to the angry level of support that USC fans gave to Smith in the 3-8 year at USC?
The support is fantastic these days, although it makes it harder to get tickets. But, it is wonderful to see the stadium rocking with 90,000 Trojan fans. I was not worried about that stuff 16 or 17 years ago. I had a uniform so I was in and I got 4 tickets so my parents and family were in. That is all that mattered to me. That was all I could control, so I was happy.
Finally, can you sum up your feelings about your time at USC, about being a part of Trojan football history, and of your feelings about the Trojan family?
A player like me goes through a wide range of emotions. As an 18 year old you don't always understand the way things are done. Sometimes you are confused by your playing time, sometimes you are upset by the decisions coaches make. Other times you enjoy the atmosphere and the thrill of playing in the biggest stadiums in the country and playing in the biggest games on National TV. Every serious, competitive player who has donned the 'SC uniform has wanted to do more, wanted more of a chance, wanted more of an opportunity to really shine and prove themselves. Sometimes players would get angry and frustrated. Every player has their own story.
In the end, I got to play football at the University of Southern California. I got to play for the Trojans with over a century of historic traditions. I got to do something that millions of others dream about. And thanks to the support of my brothers but, especially my parents who gave me that opportunity to go and earn that scholarship I wanted so badly. I am proud of the storied tradition I was a part of and if I could, I would do it again. It's a Great Day to be a Trojan. I am so grateful....