I have been discouraged from telling you exactly what quarterback Cody Kessler said when a photographer asked him about the female students at the University of Southern California, but suffice it to say it was an unabashedly positive endorsement. I was (somewhat playfully) asked not to pass along the specific phrasing (which, I should note, was not profane or disrespectful) in part because Kessler has a girlfriend who is transferring into USC this fall from a junior college, and he doesn’t want to be unfairly accused of having a wandering eye; but I was also told to keep it on the down low in part because Kessler recognizes he has an image to uphold, and that image is based on distancing himself from the glamour that inevitably attends his position.
For a gregarious and winsome 22-year-old who put up some of the best quarterbacking numbers in USC football history last year, Kessler is surprisingly adept at self-effacement. The senior looks and acts a bit like Jimmy Fallon: Modest and naturally likable, with an untamable shock of brown hair, he is quick to remind people that he is of Los Angeles in this moment, but that he is not from it.
Kessler will say, quite frequently, that he is from Bakersfield, a drab inland city that is roughly 100 miles north of the USC campus, and which may be best known in the football universe as the hometown of the late Frank Gifford. Bakersfield is the other California, a blue-collar town replete with farms and oil refineries and about as culturally distant from the beaches of Malibu and Venice as one can imagine. Kessler’s father was a prison guard; Cody grew up in an unsightly part of town known as Oildale, riding bikes and shooting baskets with his neighbors. I get the impression that Kessler likes to bring up his hometown as much as possible because it grounds him in a reality that isn’t always present in Los Angeles, a city where nothing ever feels quite real, a city where certain USC quarterbacks have been known to be engulfed by the illusory nature of everything that surrounds them.
“The way I was raised was [to be] very respectful,” Kessler says. “Your morals were always more important than how people perceived you, or how you wanted to be perceived. I’ve always been very humble. You can’t get too caught up in the success. You can have a bad game or a bad season, and having a big head will make you look foolish.”
There may be jobs in college football that command more immediate attention than quarterback at USC — especially in recent years, following Pete Carroll’s departure and the disastrous seasons that ensued amid NCAA sanctions and Lane Kiffin’s oft-comedic tenure. But if there is a more aesthetically alluring job in college football, I have no idea what it is. Of the three most populous American cities (New York, L.A., Chicago), only one has a major-college football team at its center, and it happens to be the one popularly imagined as a fantasyland. So there you are, the big man on campus, never all that far from the sunshine and beauty, the beaches and the nightclubs, the Hollywood celebrities and, of course, the girls. “The girls do come to you,” says former USC quarterback John David Booty. “I’m sure it’s like that at most other schools. It’s just that ours happens to be in L.A.”
And so there are temptations everywhere, and no one is more cognizant of this than Kessler, which I think is why he keeps harking back to those modest roots: to assure us he can handle everything that might potentially come his way this fall, especially if USC winds up having a playoff-caliber season and Kessler becomes a Heisman Trophy finalist.
That won’t be easy, given USC’s typically loaded schedule,1 but it’s also not at all out of the realm of possibility. Kessler was an extraordinary college quarterback in 2014: He threw 39 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in 452 attempts, he completed almost 70 percent of his passes, and his quarterback rating was 167.1. The only thing that kept him out of the Heisman conversation was the Trojans losing an early game to Boston College and falling off the national radar in Steve Sarkisian’s first season as head coach. A quarterback on a four-loss USC team can pretty easily duck away from the spotlight, but if the Trojans start winning again, there’s no reason to think they won’t become a hot commodity nationwide once more — as they were during the Carroll years, when they were quarterbacked by the triumvirate of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez, when they were winning Heisman Trophies and national titles and losing a total of nine games over seven seasons, when they were unquestionably the sexiest team in town.
No one at USC seems particularly worried that Kessler will get caught up in his own head, or in the extracurriculars attendant to his position. Part of the reason Kessler completed so many of his passes last season, offensive coordinator Clay Helton says, is because he’s a rational decision-maker. And that would seem to translate to his off-field activities as well; sometimes, Kessler says, he and his friends will hang out in Hollywood, and sometimes they’ll hit the beach or a country music concert, but for the most part, he’s here to go to school and play football. When someone at Pac-12 media days asked Kessler how he felt about the Heisman Trophy attention he was already receiving, he responded the way you imagine he would: “I’m from Bakersfield,” he said. “I don’t need a whole lot of anything.”
“When you come to L.A., you have to understand that [the attention] goes with the job,” Helton says. “People are gonna know who you are. But he comes from a great family. He was raised the right way. He’s a kid that can handle pressure.”
Back in Bakersfield, Kessler didn’t grow up watching USC games, or many college football games at all, for that matter. When he did, he often rooted for teams based on quarterbacks he’d heard of and liked to watch. Kessler, who was also a highly regarded basketball player, started working with a private quarterback coach at the age of 12, but he always saw himself as something of an outsider in the elite universe of California quarterbacks, based in part on the geography of his hometown (which also produced former Fresno State and current Raiders quarterback Derek Carr).
Some of this is modesty on Kessler’s part: According to Rivals.com, he was the second-ranked dropback quarterback in his graduating class (behind the Florida-bound Jeff Driskel) and the sixth-ranked player in California, but that he didn’t emerge from a powerhouse high school program south of Los Angeles makes him something of an anomaly. Nearly all of his recent predecessors — Palmer, Leinart, Sanchez, Matt Barkley, and even his onetime competitor for the job, Max Wittek — played high school football in Orange County. “I’m sure people were saying, ‘Who’s this kid from Bakersfield?’” Kessler tells me. “But it took a lot of pressure off me, too.”
After Barkley graduated in 2012, the quarterback job at USC became a toss-up between Wittek and Kessler, the first time in 18 years the Trojans didn’t have a clear-cut starter. That season was a dramatic and unruly mess, the end of the Kiffin era and the beginning and end of the Ed Orgeron era, perhaps the most tumultuous 10-win season by any team in conference history, let alone a team that featured three head coaches.2 But by the end of it, Kessler would establish himself as the starter, Wittek would wind up transferring to Hawaii, and Sarkisian, a former Carroll assistant, would be hired from Washington to become the Trojans’ new head coach.
All of that, Kessler says, taught him to take nothing for granted. It taught him to accept change. It taught him he could lose his starting job at any moment. And he would like to think it prepared him for a season in which the expectations are as high for the Trojans as they’ve been since Carroll left: USC was chosen as the preseason Pac-12 favorite in this year’s media poll, in large part because of what Kessler did last season, when he displayed such accuracy and timing and pocket presence. “He reminds me a lot of Mark Sanchez,” Helton says, and this, of course, is meant as a compliment, because before Sanchez became famous for posterior-related miscues — before he became more renowned for his pretty face and tabloid presence than his passing ability — he was an elite college quarterback.
And yet, every so often at USC, these wires can get inexorably crossed. And in those moments, perception dovetails with reality.
Twenty-five years ago, Sports Illustrated profiled Todd Marinovich, the talented young quarterback who grew up in a regimented household with a father who famously never allowed his son to consume a Big Mac or an Oreo. The story opens with Marinovich walking across the USC campus, willing himself to be disciplined and to avoid distractions, as a pair of female students saunter past him. “See what I mean?” Marinovich says.
Those distractions are powerful, and Marinovich, as it turned out, was not built to handle them (for reasons that went far beyond a dearth of processed food). Some 15 years later, another USC quarterback became tangled up in his own distractions: After winning the Heisman Trophy and the national championship, Leinart chose to stay one more season at USC, and, honestly, who could blame him? By then, Leinart was living the life of a celebrity: His college girlfriend’s pregnancy turned heads, he landed on TMZ amid a dalliance with Paris Hilton and began his slow downhill slide from there, dating A-listers and flaming out as an NFL quarterback. It may be unfair to say Leinart was brought down by his own celebrity, but this is the outsider’s view of his career. To this day, the perception remains that he got sucked into the Hollywood vortex and never really reemerged.
“Matt probably would have been fine except for that one Paris Hilton incident,” says Booty, a Louisiana native who inherited the starting job at USC for a couple of seasons after Leinart graduated. “And then when he got involved with another celebrity, that story was blown out of proportion a little bit. But it’s gotten even worse now than when Matt [played], I think. We don’t sit back and think that these are young kids. They’re thrown out there now like celebrities.”
On every computer in the USC football complex, there is game footage dating back to 2001, so Kessler has watched film of Palmer and Leinart and Sanchez, and all of it remains relevant given that Sarkisian was a key member of Carroll’s offensive staff. Sarkisian has attempted to speed up the Trojans offense and to implement more shotgun, but other than that the offense is similar enough to what it once was that Kessler can watch film of, say, Leinart throwing a sluggo route, and recognize the same reads in the offense he’s currently running.
Kessler has befriended several of his predecessors, including Leinart, Sanchez, and Rodney Peete (who starred for the Trojans in the 1980s and wound up marrying the actress Holly Robinson). He recently took a phone call from Booty, who moved not long ago to Orange County to work in the real estate business. Kessler has watched that Fresno State game, when Reggie Bush broke off one of the greatest runs in college football history; he’s run through film from Palmer’s career (“The offense was really similar even back then,” Kessler says); and he filmed a Fox Sports segment with Leinart, who’s working as a TV analyst, in which they went over several similar plays from Leinart’s era and compared them to Kessler’s own film.
Kessler is active on social media, especially on Twitter, but he’s also cautious about it; most of his tweets are football-related in some way. He tells me that Leinart spoke to him about holding himself to a high standard, about being smart, about not getting caught up in guilt by association. The Trojans are now fully recovered from the NCAA sanctions, but they are still dealing with the perceptions of the post-Carroll era: that Sarkisian is essentially a low-calorie version of Carroll, an enthusiastic recruiter with a low ceiling burdened with the nickname “Seven-Win Sark”; that the Trojans’ dormant seasons mean they have fallen behind Oregon (and perhaps even Stanford) in the ultra-competitive Pac-12; that the glamour of those aughts-era Trojans teams is now a mere memory; and that they are in danger of being overshadowed, once again, by crosstown rival UCLA.
“That’s why the expectations are so high, because of everything this program has done in the past,” Kessler says. “And that’s good. It makes guys have to take the extra step.”
And so on a brilliant Wednesday afternoon in early August, Kessler slipped into his uniform for an ESPN The Magazine photo shoot. He was in a rush; he had a final presentation to give in a graduate-school class that evening, and he was nervous about it, and when the photographer asked him to flash a grin while throwing an out route, Kessler replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever thrown a football while smiling.” But these are the kinds of things you have to learn to do when you play football in Los Angeles, and so he did his best to pretend like it was perfectly natural.
Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.