Yes, he was a precociously talented baseball player growing up in San Clemente, Calif. He was a taekwondo terror at age 5. He was very good at soccer. He excelled at basketball. And, certainly, the USC quarterback was a brilliant football player.
Oh, and he was a capable student and a nice guy and a loyal friend, too.
But an exhaustive Yahoo investigation has uncovered a smudge on Sam’s gilded lifetime record. For the tawdry details, we turn to Mr. Jeremy Chung.
“He was probably a better athlete than a musician,” said Chung, finding a diplomatic way to say that young Sam Darnold was not the most gifted or diligent viola player in the Shorecliff Middle School orchestra. “He was way more into sports than into music.”
Please take a moment to allow the shock of that revelation to sink in.
Darnold dutifully gave the viola the old middle-school try, after previously playing the violin in elementary school. He even went on an orchestra field trip for a concert in San Diego. He finally left classical music behind in eighth grade.
But consider this: The viola is still stashed in the garage of the Darnold house in Orange County. Maybe, years from now, after winning a national championship and a Heisman Trophy and being the first pick in the NFL draft and enjoying a lucrative pro career, he’ll circle back to conquer the one pursuit that didn’t quite come naturally to the Golden Child.
Maybe, if he ever amends the list of life goals he made in ninth grade, he will add Viola Master to his body of work. Knowing him, he’d eventually play sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl.
Sheet music optional, of course. Because improvisation is the Sam Darnold way.
You can title his quarterbacking style “The Unscripted Symphony.” Darnold can execute a called play just fine, but it’s what he does off the cuff and on the run that makes him so entertaining.
“Sometimes I make the easy plays look hard,” Darnold said with a smile.
But more often he makes the hard plays look easy. Darnold may never be as good as John Elway and Brett Favre, but he’s got a similar freelance flair to his game. He credits part of that to his basketball background and the hundreds of spontaneous decisions made with the ball in that sport – and part of it is simply hard to describe.
“There are times on the headset where we’re saying, ‘Where’s he going?’ “ acknowledged USC coach Clay Helton.
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The answer: He’s going somewhere to make a play only he can see developing. (“Elite anticipation,” Helton calls it.) Darnold will find a Trojan somewhere, deliver the football and restore order to a chaos he created.
Then what are the coaches saying on the headset?
“You’re just laughing,” Helton said.
The Trojans laughed their way to nine straight wins to close the 2016 season, capped off by a 52-49 victory over Penn State in an epic Rose Bowl. Darnold threw for more than 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns during the season, and he produced a few magic-act highlights along the way.
There was the flea-flicker failure against Arizona State on Oct. 1. Darnold handed to running back Ronald Jones, whose pitch back to the quarterback was disrupted by a blitzing Sun Devil. The ball hit the ground, Darnold picked it up and ran for his life to his right. Sprinting sideways, he fired a pass 46 yards in the air to Deontay Burnett.
There was the red-zone fumble-turned-touchdown against Colorado on October 8. Darnold’s handoff fake turned into a loose ball on the turf at the 16-yard line. He picked it up, retreated left, circled back right and finally threw it from the 35 – a strike to tight end and roommate Tyler Petite for a TD.
And there was the throw that made the Rose Bowl victory possible – a combined improv with less than 90 seconds left between Burnett (changing his route on the fly) and Darnold (seeing the adjustment and making a daring throw). Darnold dropped the pass over two well-positioned safeties for the touchdown, and USC won the game later on a walk-off field goal.
“We’ve been watching him do those things since he was 5 years old in the yard,” said Darnold’s mom, Chris. “There’s an element of backyard football to what he does.”
But the Rose Bowl is nobody’s backyard, and Darnold’s performance sealed the new reality for the mellow kid who grew up near the beach: A career-high 453 yards and five touchdowns in a matchup of top-five teams in the Granddaddy of all bowl games.
A few hours after a game that earned a prominent spot in USC’s considerable lore, Chris Darnold and her husband, Mike, were home watching a replay of the Rose Bowl. Sam walked in the house and tossed his mom something: His jersey from the game.
“Don’t ever wash this,” he told her.
Then the family did what they’d done for years and years: They sat around and talked about the game, reliving the ups and downs. It was a last moment of normalcy in a life progressively becoming less normal. On the second day of 2017, Sam Darnold had officially blown up, becoming a full-fledged star.
“Inside the house, everything’s the same,” Chris Darnold said. “But outside the house …”
Outside the house, it’s gotten crazy. The Darnolds have been the most-interviewed family in college football this offseason, with story upon story about their athletic lineage. Sam’s grandfather, Dick Hammer, was an Olympic volleyball player and also a member of USC’s 1954 Final Four basketball team; Mike Darnold was a college offensive lineman; Chris was a college volleyball player, as was Sam’s older sister, Franki.
(Dick Hammer also was an actor in the 1970s show “Emergency!” and was a Marlboro Man who appeared on billboards nationwide. But that’s a whole other story.)
Darnold’s upbringing had been such an organic thing: public schools, playing whatever sport was in season, no early specialization, not fixation on future stardom in his early teenage years. It had all just happened, instead of adults forcing things to happen.
As a high school sophomore, he played linebacker and receiver. Darnold grew up a huge USC fan – Jeremy Chung, the orchestra teacher, recalls Sam wearing a Matt Leinart jersey to school – but for a long time he thought he’d play college basketball. Even after his football ability superceded everything else and he committed to USC, Darnold decided against enrolling early to finish his senior season of hoops at San Clemente High.
But the Rose Bowl rewrote the rules of engagement. Here was a fresh quarterback star with an interesting backstory starring for one of the glamour programs in college football. Here was a story with legs.
“It was overwhelming this summer,” Chris acknowledged. “You’d think he was playing golf or something, with all the attention on him. It should be more about the team.”
Sam happens to agree. Especially since the 2017 USC team has a chance to be really good.
“We’re focused on the national championship, to put it in simple words,” Darnold said. “That’s what we’ve been focused on ever since we won the Rose Bowl.”
Funny thing is, USC might have had a shot at the national championship last year – if Darnold had been the starting quarterback all season. He lost a close preseason competition to junior Max Browne, a decision that could have haunted Helton if he let it.
“It was probably one of the hardest in my career,” Helton said. “You had a redshirt junior quarterback who had waited his time and had the respect of the entire team – they voted him captain. And Max was really good in the spring and in August.
“And then you had this brilliant thing, this redshirt freshman who was a scout team legend. The one thing was, I didn’t know how he’d react to a live game.”
So Browne started the season, and USC was annihilated by Alabama, 52-6. It didn’t matter who started that game – the Trojans were overmatched against the defending national champions. Darnold played a bit off the bench, but Browne remained the starter going forward.
Both quarterbacks performed well in a blowout of Utah State, but that was followed by a loss to Stanford in which the Trojans only scored 10 points. Something had to change. Darnold became the starter thereafter.
USC lost his first start, at Utah. USC hasn’t lost since.
That’s why Sudden Sam is now the Heisman favorite, and in the minds of some NFL scouts has rather amazingly supplanted crosstown QB Josh Rosen of UCLA as the top 2018 draft prospect. Rosen was anointed a can’t-miss NFL star out of high school but has an 11-8 record as a college starter and is coming off shoulder surgery. Darnold wasn’t anointed as anything out of high school, and now everyone is trying to project which NFL team will get him next spring.
Which may be wildly premature.
Remember that jersey Darnold wore to middle school? Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy and turned down the NFL when he first could have been drafted, sticking around for his senior year at USC. Some people suspect Darnold may be thinking along similar lines.
“The fact of the matter is, he’s had nine (actually 10) starts,” Helton said. “His ceiling is so high, and he’s not a finished product. He knows that. So my thing is, let’s capture the moment. Let’s capture the now. Then in five, six, seven months, people can talk about whatever they want.
“He told me, ‘I grew up dreaming of being the USC quarterback. I don’t know whether I’ve even dreamed past that.’ “
The world outside the Darnold house is trying to fast-forward those dreams. They’ve seen enough of the Golden Child to believe he can do it all – and they might be right.
With the exception of the viola, of course. For now. There might still be an Unscripted Symphony in Sam Darnold’s future.