A time to walk on . . . and walk off

Saying goodbye to a bunch of guys who sustained Trojan football in recent years and now are walking off the stage. USC owes them a great deal . . . but has given them just as much in return.

For tight end Connor Spears, it was an opportunity to be a part of a Trojan family tradition that goes back nearly a century.

For holder/quarterback Conner Sullivan, it was a chance to be all that he could be -- baseball player, track and field athlete, football guy . . . and cutting-edge ConnerSullivanTV videographer.

For placekicker Alex Wood, it was a chance to get in the game with the big guys -- in football and in film.

For all the Trojan walkons, and former walkons, who have mattered so much the past four years for a numbers-weakened USC football program, we say thanks. And goodbye.

That goodbye is just starting to hit right now as those returning for the winter workouts realize so many of the guys on the extensive Trojan group walkon text/email list that has sustained the program are no longer here. They're moving on.

And while we can't talk to all of them here, the sentiment is the same with every one you talk to. This is a band of brothers who were there for the Trojan family. And now . . . .

"My guys are gone," Connor Spears says of the group he's bonded with since his transfer from Columbia two years ago and after a couple of weeks working in the winter with the 2016 team.

After meeting with Clay Helton and realizing there would be no scholarship for him right now, maybe at the end of fall, the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder who carried the tight-end-challenged USC offense through last spring and summer after the unexpected departures of both Bryce Dixon and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, knew it was time.

Time to move on with the rest of his life as a USC student right now and finish up his degree in business, get an internship as a financial analyst or maybe in private equity.

"It's been an incredible opportunity," says Connor, who grew up in Rancho Santa Fe before moving to South Dakota and finishing high school in Sioux City, Iowa.

"I got to play in all 14 games and continue a family tradition that went back almost 100 years," he says, with a great-grandfather getting his dental degree in 1924 and his grandfather a medical degree at USC before teaching there. "My dad, my sister, aunts and uncles all graduated from USC. It's in my blood."

And yes, if he gets his degree after the first semester next fall, he might just use that graduate transfer rule to give the game one more shot somewhere else. "I'm not closing any doors," he says thinking of what might have been for him at USC.

"But I got a chance to be part of something special," he says, thinking back to playing in the Coliseum in that first big game against Stanford, or running out of the tunnel at Notre Dame with 18 family there to cheer him on or ending up against UCLA. "Not many people can say that."

What Connor says he can say now "after working incredibly hard" is that for his time as a walkon, "things worked out all right . . . and in a way, it didn't. I know how college football works. I'm a team guy."

And he knew that USC had to "get freshman Tyler Petite ready . . . He's going to be a phenomenal player." And Oklahoma graduate transfer Taylor McNamara may have been "the most ready to play."

So after running with the ones for the spring and summer, Connor was running behind those two. And now along comes Florida transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe, "a fantastic athlete," Connor says, who by next season will have been expected to learn how to play.

So as it is with quarterback Michael Bowman, cornerback Ryan Dillard, wide receiver Christian Tober, snapper Nick Schlossberg, O-lineman Erick Jepsen, D-lineman Jeff Miller, wide receiver/special teamer George Katrib, wide receiver David Mellstrom, wide receiver Robby Kolanz as well as Sullivan and Wood, Connor is moving on.

Which is the way you notice Conner Sullivan -- moving on in a hurry thanks to his electric cart right now. He's five weeks into a 10-week rehab for foot surgery on his left navicular bone where the combination of throwing the javelin and playing football might have been just a bit too much. "Stress fracture," he says. They picked it up a couple of games into last fall and told him just not to do too much running.

Now he can't run. So he's on the cart and conducting court. "Cut it," a former baseball teammate calls out as he rides by in a tribute to the sound track from Conner's latest "Being Injured . . . It's What You Make It" video on how he's making the most of his rehab. The most fun, that is.

After graduating at the end of the fall semester, Conner thinks the surgery might have come at just the right time after he finished his one and only semester on scholarship with his degree. After two years and 27 games as the regular USC holder, he was there for the 53-yard Andre Heidari field goal to beat Stanford in 2014. He has his degree. And he boosted the team's APR score.

"That's part of it," he says of the USC plan to scholarship contributing walkons as they close in on their degrees. He did his part earning his bachelor's in business.

"I had a pretty good GPA," he says. And an even better time of it with his videos that have been downloaded many thousands of times over the past year.

"All me," he says of the around-the-world, around the campus, around LA and behind-the-scenes looks at USC football he's put up that were done via drones, Go-Pro, helmet cam, cart, you name it, Conner has probably done it.

And it's all good. Well, except maybe for that lady who lives near the Hollywood sign who wasn't terribly thrilled about his scaling the letters for a better shot. "She's not very happy," he says of the possibility of copy cats.

But with the rehab time he's taking now, Conner is happy for the breather. "This is the best thing that could have happened to me," he says. Otherwise I might have gone somewhere (as a graduate) and tried to play football as a quarterback." He still might. Just not right now. "

And he'll keep on meeting "great people," Conner says. That's the same thing the man he held for the past year, placekicker Alex Wood, says. Wood has just two night film classes to finish for his degree in business with a film and cinema arts minor. As a former walkon who was scholarshiped right before the fall, Wood didn't get his bio in the media guide, just a photo in the "non-scholarship players" section -- like Spears.

But next year, they'll be in the "ALL-TIME LETTERWINNERS" section along with Dillard, Tober, Jepsen, Miller, Katrib, Mellstrom, Sullivan and Kolanz.

"Most people guess baseball," when they find out the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder from Mercer Island, Wash., is a USC athlete. "Then I tell them I'm a kicker," Alex says. As a kicker, he converted 74 of 76 PAT tries over three years in his career and 13 of 17 field goal attempts this past season.

But kicking isn't exactly non-contact. Wood missed the Oregon game with a concussion from the Colorado game. And he got his first chance as a walkon freshman at Met Life Stadium against Syracuse in 2012 when Heidari was hurt.

"Coach Baxter told me on Wednesday," he says of the moment he may have "freaked out a bit." But he went out and hit all six PATs. And this past season, his two field goals and three extra points in each of the Cal and Colorado games that USC won by three and six points respectively were the difference.

"We're using USC for what normal students do now," Conner says. "It's really cool." Although "we haven't missed anything," Alex says of their time-consuming football duties. In fact, they've gotten a heck of a deal as part of playing football.

"Time management is probably the first thing you get, then learning to execute under pressure," Alex says.

"Competition," Conner says. "You wake up with that mindset. You're not fazed by much."

And now that he's out interviewing with employers about how to best combine his interests in film and business, Alex says he pretty much "relates a lot of answers to football . . . coming in as a walkon, trying to project yourself" and yet knowing you're not completely one of the guys until you show you are. It's a delicate balance.

The future could be exciting for the pair, who just might team up on a proposal as to how USC could use the Conner Sullivan videos as recruiting tools -- for athletics as well as academic prospects. Conner's behind-the-scenes video of the first day of August practice was downloaded 6,000 times before the coaching staff said no more.

And yes, they're already missing football. "I had to clean out my locker the other day," Alex says. "That was a sad day. But at least I have all my gear -- cleats, helmet, jerseys, t-shirts." Although the coolest thing Alex says he'll take away is the award USC gives all departing seniors.

"It must weigh 45 pounds," Alex says. "That'll be on my desk . . . when I have a desk some day."

And they both have to pick up their bowl participation gift. For Conner, it was the Beats wireless headphones. For the more practical, moving-on Alex, a set of 12 pots and pans. "I'm an adult now," he says.

"The Cooking Kicker," Conner says could be his Food Channel monicker. "Or maybe the Kicker in the Kitchen."

For all the walkons who are part of the USC family, that family extends to their actual family, says Pasadena's Tom Bowman, whose son Michael has decided, after two years of giving USC a fourth strong-armed quarterback for practice, to walk off. After "a good, good deal of time weighing the pros and cons of continuing, his decision is to move on with all that this university offers," Tom says. "I will miss him out there. But so grateful and full of memories from the last two seasons. Wow, time went quickly. Darn."

But as the walkons, and former walkons make clear, they walk off with memories -- and an education -- for a lifetime.

Asked about what it feels like to make his school look so good in his videos, Conner says it's no big deal. "USC is the greatest place in the world. Just look around."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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