Buck Allen came to the right place.
"The City of Angels," he said. For a young man, Buck has had plenty of them throughout a life that has seen him come farther from Miccosukee, Fla., than he could have ever imagined, to where he's the first in his family ever to graduate from college today.
"As far from LA as it's possible to be," Buck said of his hometown, "one store and one traffic light -- and it's just a blinking light."
And here he was, not just getting his college degree, but getting it from the University of Southern California, where the late-arriving, not-all-that-well-prepared young man from a small town outside Tallahassee, has not only survived, he's thrived.
"We did it," he greeted the USC Athletes Graduation crowd at Galen Center Thursday after having been chosen to be the senior speaker along with women's water polo All-American Monica Vavic.
"But if you'd have told me four years ago that I'd be up here speaking, I'd have said you were crazy," Buck told them. He would not have been the only one to say that.
For back then, Buck didn't much speak to anyone. He was an outsider just trying to catch up after getting here three weeks after the start of his freshman semester. "I cut some corners," he says of his early classwork.
But always, there was someone there -- and there was Buck, willing to work with them. "There's a reason they call this place The City of Angels," Buck said.
Buck knows angels. A number of them were here to enjoy the moment. His grandparents who took him in and raised him. His mother who had the love to give him up. His younger brother, for whom he's trying to be that angel.
And his older brother, who couldn't be here, because "he's in prison," Buck said. His goal with the four-year, $2.75 million contract he just signed with the Baltimore Ravens, is "to find him a good lawyer." Another opportunity to be an angel looking out for the family.
But it doesn't stop with family for Buck. "I want to give a special shout-out to Coach O . . . and Tommie Robinson he said of longtime USC assistant and interim head coach Ed Orgeron. "He believed in me when no one else did." And that carried on "with Coach Sark," Buck said.
But again, there were many more here. Most special would be Alice and Mickey Cullen, who took Buck under their wings when he needed it most. He knew, he said, growing up near a park, how much he wanted to be a football player. But back in the fourth grade, the school bus didn't run after practice and his grandma didn't have a car.
Mickey Cullen, who ran the Boys and Girls Club, saw Buck's problem and said hed give him a ride. And it started there. Alice, Mickey's wife, who "passed away" in 2013 and is memorialized on Buck's shoes before every game, would take him to the grocery store and tell him to get whatever he needed.
"My special angel," Buck called her, "my guide and protector. I know she's been watching me . . . thank you, Miss Alice."
And Mickey Cullen is still driving, Buck said with a smile. He just made the 2,000 mile drive from Florida to be here for Buck's graduation.
There were even "Buck Allen" chocolate bars, special ones with his picture on the wrappers put together as a special surprise for Buck by some of the friends he's made in his time at USC that he was able to give out later. Maybe that's the spirit that also earned Buck the Gimble Award given to USC's "most cooperative athlete."
"We have a good thing here at USC," Buck said to his fellow athletes and graduates. "When you look back, are you going to be someone's angel?" Buck asked them.
But that's not all Buck says hes going to be. "I may be a Baltimore Raven but I'll always be a Trojan . . . Fight On."
*** The Legend of Troy award went to Mark Stevens, a triple degree winner from USC (Electrical Engineering, Economics and Computer Engineering before getting a Harvard MBA) and a member of the Board of Trustees, whose career as a venture capitalist backing the likes of Google, Apple, Cisco and Yahoo has enabled him to endow the %10 million Stevens Student-Athlete Academic Services center in McKay as well as $22 million for the USC Stevens Center for Innovation in addition to another gift for the construction of the USC Caruso Catholic Center. And finally, Thursday saw USC recognize 11 winners of the Stevens Scholar Awards given to athletes with a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or better.
*** Big hit of the graduation walk on stage was Zach Banner with a super-long selfie stick . . . Neatest post graduation moment -- Cody Temple holding his three-week old son, Tyson, who was able to nap through it all . . . And a final tribute from AD Pat Haden for the USC student-athlete grads: "It's hard to be a student at USC," Pat told them, "and hard to be an athlete at USC . . .and it's really hard to be a student-athlete at USC."
You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.