An Interview with Greig Carlson, 2001-2005
When I was going to write this introduction about Greig Carlson, the former USC wide receiver, who walked on to the USC football field at a very opportune time in USC’s football history, I remembered I had mentioned Greig’s name when I introduced a Herdblog interview with former USC fullback Tim Lavin, who also walked-on at USC (http://theuscherd.blogspot.com/2007/02/catching-up-with-tim-lavin-usc-fullback.html).
In the introduction of that article, I wrote, “Every college football fan has had that fantasy, I should’ve walked on the football team. Yeah, maybe I could’ve somehow, through all my hard work and efforts, saw the field on a kickoff or on special teams. 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. “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. Walk-ons 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 school. 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 luckily Herdmember Dipwad Ed is friends with the Carlson family and was able to get Greig to agree to do an interview with the Herdblog. After the arrangements had been made, I told TroBob that I was doing an interview with Greig Carlson, and TroBob emailed me back, “I loved Greig's attitude. He was an ultimate team player, who worked hard and did his job on the football field as he was asked to do it. On his punt returns, he always made sure that he caught the ball and did not make mistakes. Greig seemed to save his best returns for the big games as well. He had good returns against Notre Dame and Iowa in very important games.”
Not to belittle any achievements of USC walk-ons in the past or those to come in the future, but not many have had the college football experience that Greig Carlson has had. He came in the USC at the opportune moment, as stated above, in the year of 2001, which was Pete Carroll’s first year and coincidentally the first year of the Herd. In Greig's tenure with the Trojans, he was a member of the traveling squad that lost to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, and his career ended with the devastating loss to Texas on January 4th, 2007. Between those two losses, Greig was a part of a NCAA football team that almost made NCAA history. (photo left: Greig and Dipwad) He was a member of two national championship football teams, on teams that won three (3) straight BCS games, and he played with three (3) Heisman trophy winners. Not many college football players have that level of accomplishments to list on their resume, and even fewer were walk-ons who earned a scholarship.
We are proud of Greig Carlson and his achievements as fellow Trojans and Trojan fans, and we greatly appreciate that he has given us the time to do this Herdblog interview. Fight On, Greig.
My High school experience was good. I played with a lot of talent and learned good football from a good coach. (photo right: Greig and his younger bro Patrick) I played at Taft for three years and then I finished up with my Sr. year at Pacific Palisades. I walked on at SC because my coach at Palisades knew Norm Chow and Chow invited me to walk on. I also wanted to stay in LA. I had no scholarship offers my Sr. year. SC was never a favorite school of mine growing up but it is now.
In the past decade, Taft has sent six players to play for the Trojans including yourself: Gregg Guenther, Brandon Hance, Steve Smith, Jamere Holland and now Malcolm Smith. What is it about Taft that qualifies it as a Division 1 football factory, and what is it about USC that intrigues so many Taft players?
I guess you have to give all the credit to Coach Starr at Taft and the football program he put together. I went to some coaches in the off-season and worked on different skills. Travis Hannah of USC and Steve Clarkson ran workouts I would participate in. SC goes after good players and they just so happened to be from Taft.
I read a past article where you stated, "You get treated differently (when you're a walk-on)," Carlson admits. "And not just by other players. Equipment staff, trainers, and the coaches. You're kind of starting out at some sort of disadvantage." Without calling out anybody in particular, can you expand on those statements? Do people say things to your face? Do you hear things behind your back? And how did that effect you? Did it make you more motivated? Conversely, once you won a scholarship, what was that feeling like?
I think that all the staff, trainers and coaches have a lot of players to work with so they focus on the players that play. More often than not the players with scholarships play before walk-ons do. As a result, walk-ons don’t really get equal treatment until they "earn a few stripes". (photo left: Greig and his mom Sylvia) No big deal, it was actually motivation for me. People say things to your face and treat you differently. When i got my scholarship it was such a relief. I was happier for my mom since she no longer had to pay for school. That was the biggest reward for me.
I also read this quote from you in regards to learning how to catch punts. "I learned a lot from "Flash" (Frank Candela)," Carlson explains. "He used to play outfield in baseball, so he knew where the ball would be every time, and he helped me a lot with that. You have to watch the tail of the ball and figure out where it will fall. If you do that every time, the rest is easy." What other players influenced you during your time at USC? Who were some of your best friends? Do you still keep in touch?
I was influenced by a lot of players at SC in different ways. John Cousins played with a hearing aid. I respected that a lot. Troy, Carson, Malaefo Mckenzie, Keary Colbert all had big impacts on me. I learned a good work ethic from the upper classmen. Those guys in particular were the most inspiring. Keary was always the grandfather figure in terms of football. I thought the way he approached the game mentally was amazing. Always focused and confident. I looked up to him for that. My closest friends on the team were David Kirtman, Leinart, Brandon Hance, and Buchanon, I'd say. I still keep in contact with them. More Kirtman and Hance though.
Following up on that last question, you played with some pretty big "stars" or "icons" or "legends" during your time at USC. Carson and Matt and Reggie won Heismans. Troy Polamalu, Sean Cody, Mike Patterson, Lendale White, all guys that are still big names in the NFL. What was that like being a "peer" of future NFL superstars? What was it like being in the midst of the Heisman campaigns and all that publicity?
It was an amazing experience playing with all the great players that have come through SC. When I first got to SC it was an average PAC-10 team and by the time I left it was the best team in the country and arguably a dynasty. The hype surrounding the team changed drastically from one end of the spectrum to the other. The media was everywhere at all times but it was a blast. I wouldn’t change it. I played with 3 Heisman winners. Not many people can say that.
Again, talking about your past teammates, what was it like to play and practice alongside NFL great receivers such as BMW, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett? What did they teach you? How did you get along with them? You were a talented receiver in your own right, but there's not much you can do if you have NFL receivers playing in front of you. Even Chris McFoy signed with the Raiders. That's a lot of talent at one position.
I was good friends with all the receivers. It was fun playing with all of them. There's a bond between you guys since you go to "war" with them everyday. I think we all taught each other all the time. (photo right: Greig and SCKid's niece Shelly) When we watched film or saw something on the field we would coach each other up. Steve Smith and I talked all the time about route running and defenses. I thought he matured as a receiver a lot his Sr. year.
We get a little nostalgic when speaking of 2001, not only because it was Pete's first year, but it was also the Herd's rookie season, so we've ridden along with this surge of Trojan success also. What was it like playing for Pete that first year, which was your first year, and what changes did you see taking place as USC came into its own during 2002?
My first year was lost if you will. I was trying to figure things out as a freshman, still finding my way. New to college football and college period. Didn’t know how to work out, didn’t know the game well enough, wasn’t prepared physically. Mostly the changes that took place over the years was that the team was starting to gel and play together, we got better players, and I started to figure things out. I got stronger, smarter, and prepared better so my take on the game was more clear. We grew more confident as a team each game and winning was expected by everyone associated with the team.
What was the bowl experiences like for you? Were you on the traveling squad for the Las Vegas Bowl? What was the difference of going to the Las Vegas Bowl one year to the Orange Bowl the next year. For one, what happened at the Las Vegas Bowl? We've heard that the team was more interested in the Vegas experience than prepping for Utah? On the other hand, the Orange Bowl was a completely different experience. That 2002 team was the start of the current dynasty. What was it like to be a part of that Trojan turnaround? And following up after that, what were the following Bowl experiences like? The Rose Bowl in 2004 when you beat Michigan to claim the AP Championship? The BCS Orange Bowl against Oklahoma?
The first bowl game was fun. I was redshirting that year and wasn’t going to play in the game so I had fun in Vegas. I'm not really sure why we lost that game. Maybe we didn’t prepare well and took them lightly. Couldn't say. The bowl games after that I was playing in so I treated them more like business trips. It was a lot of fun traveling and staying in hotels with all my friends. We got to see Miami, travel first class, it was unbelievable. I couldn’t think of a better place to be during the last 5 years in college football.
Let's talk about your last two games, which was probably a pretty amazing experience for you, and yet they were pretty seminal moments for USC football since if USC had beaten Texas, you would've been a part of NCAA Football history. What was it like having that last home game against UCLA at the Coliseum, where USC destroyed UCLA? And then to follow that up with the let-down game against Texas. What were your emotions? What are your thoughts on that Texas game?
Its always a good day when we beat ucla. That victory was especially great since it confirmed that I would never lose to ucla. The Texas game was surreal. We never thought we could lose that game. We thought it was over down the stretch and we ended up losing. I couldn’t believe it, I was in shock. It would have been amazing to finish on a good note but the experience was top shelf nonetheless.
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 be a part of the team during those streaks? Especially since you had a special relationship with some UCLA players, your roommates David Koral and Manual White for one. Did that make the UCLA streak more special to you? And what were your feelings about beating Notre Dame so decisively year in and year out? Finally, what was that special Notre Dame game in 2005 like? The Bush push game? (photo right; Greig and D. Koral)
I guess you take all the victories for granted after a while. Every game against ucla and notre dame I felt we would win. The last game (Notre Dame 2005) I was a part of at their place was a game I don’t think I’ll ever forget. The emotions went up and down every play. The finish to that game is one of the best in history and I cant believe I was there to experience it. Living with Dave and Manuel didn’t add to the rivalry. We were friends before football. We shared stories all the time about our teams. No rivalry issues came up just a little smack talking here and there.
We haven't really interviewed a punt returner yet, though Darrell Rideaux did return kickoffs. Can you give us some inside knowledge of that position? What's in your mind as you line up for the punt? What are you thinking about when the balls in the air? When do you make that decision to fair catch it or to run with it? And how soon do you realize if that was a good decision or not?
Punt returning is a special position. Its a great feeling lining up for a return. you count the players on the field to make sure there’s the right amount. I always get a little nervous when the ball is kicked. You have an internal clock that tells you when to fair catch. You see how high the ball is kicked, the trajectory of the ball, and where you are on the field all tell you when to fair catch. You know immediately after the catch if it was the right decision or not. I think I only had one fair catch that I shouldn’t have done.
Following up on that last question, what was it like to share the same position as Reggie Bush? You must've gotten a lot of practice time together with him fielding punts? How did you get along with him? And what were the situations when Pete sent you out to return punts instead of Reggie? Were they scripted situations or spur-of-the-moment decisions? And did Reggie ever get a little miffed if you were sent out for a punt instead of him?
Reggie was fun to play with. We got along just fine. I tried to help him learn flight of the ball and how to catch punts. He's an unbelievable athlete so he learned a lot on his own. Running after the catch was all him, you cant teach that stuff. When Reggie first got there he wasn’t returning punts just yet but as he developed as a player he expanded his role. When a guy like Reggie wants to return punts you let him. I was always anxious to see him run with the ball. He usually did something you didn’t believe. I went in when we were in backed up situations and looking for a secure catch more than anything, and when we were out in the field and had more room Reggie would go in and do his thing. I doubt Reggie ever got upset if i went in. I think there’s much respect between us and besides, he played enough. Im sure he was happy about the breather when I went in.
What did you do after you graduated from USC? What are you doing now? Did you have any thoughts of a career in football? Playing? Coaching?
After I got done with SC I went to work for a small games company and a few months later it was purchased by a bigger games company. So now I work for konami in Manhattan Beach. I would have loved to play pro something after college but I got hurt and the timing was wrong so I got a job instead. I’ve thought about coaching but its a lot of your time so maybe after I’ve worked enough.
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?