One of the annual features of the January dinner for the SGVTC is the presentation of the Jess Hill Award but last year the scheduled recepient, Alex Holmes, was in Alabama getting ready for the Senior Bowl so he returned this year to speak to the crowd.
Holmes, who just finished his rookie year with the Miami Dolphins, was joined at the dinner by his grandmother and his younger brother, Khaled, a sophomore All-League OL at Mater Dei HS. Holmes started off by talking about the differences of playing in the NFL, he called it the No Fun League where football is a job that starts with 7:00am meetings and where all the guys go their separate ways once the day is done. When asked his favorite part of the NFL he answered "the money". His least favorite part "being away from USC. Not just football, being a part of the school, hanging out with the guys". What part of USC did he miss the most "everything. I wouldn't trade my experience at USC for anything". The next question asked if he preferred the 9-0 or South Beach "I don't know, South Beach is pretty crazy. I was the first student to bartend at the 9-0 though, I was pretty tight with the owner." On the topic of his sister, Theodora, being married to Troy Polamalu he said "It's a gift from God. I used to never let her talk with football players but Troy is an ideal human being".
Next to the stage was this years winner of the Hill Award, former QB Matt Cassel, who was also a rookie in the NFL this year with the New England Patriots. Cassel was joined at the dinner by his mother, Barbara, and his girlfriend, Lauren Killian, a former NCAA champion volleyball player for the Trojans.
Cassel walked to the microphone and immediately showcased his easygoing humor and personality. "It's great to be back in Southern California where the sun is always shining. It was 26 degrees when I left the East Coast. I can tell you, it's no fun to have to scrape your windshield in the morning." When asked about his experiences at USC he said "The education was great and the social was good too, thanks to Alex". When asked about the success of the team during his time as a Trojan "what made it all the more gratifying was to go through the struggles that Alex and I went through early in our careers and then to see everyone buy in to Coach Carroll when he arrived". Matt was asked who he would select in the draft if he had a choice, Matt Leinart or Vince Young "I would trade the pick for Matthew Cassel". His favorite memory at USC "the feeling in the locker room after the Rose Bowl when we knew we had accomplished winning the national championship". When asked about life in the NFL he said "we start our days at 5:00am (turning to Holmes) I guess that's why we won more than you guys". When asked what advice he would give to players who find themselves in situations where they don't play much in college " always believe in yourself, nobody believed I would make it but I believed". He turned to his mother and said "I look up to you more than anyone in my life".
A surprise visitor was former Trojan running back Shawn Walters, an area resident who is pursuing a career as a football coach. Walters said one of his first memories of USC was getting hit hard by Willie McGinest during his first practice as a freshman and having Willie say "If you don't run hard, I'm gonna hit you like that every day". Walters also got knowing nods from Cassel and Holmes when he talked about the first day of spring ball or fall camp when you walk on the field and smell the freshly cut grass "you know it's football time". Shawn also discussed the incident that saw him suspended for taking money from an agent, he pleaded innocent at first only to later learn that someone close to him had indeed taken the money. He said he never told that part of the story "because that's not what a Trojan does. A Trojan is loyal."
Klein, who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and was a talented baseball player in his day, talked about being a sports fan in the 60's and going to USC football games at the Coliseum including the victory over UCLA on the Sam Dickerson catch. Klein said he was more of a sports fan that a fan of a particular team and he ended up attending Cal State Northridge. He talked extensively about covering the classic USC vs Notre Dame game this year and "the moment I remember most was when Matt Leinart stepped back from the line of scrimmage to audible a play to his receivers on 4th and 9. Right then, you knew something dramatic was going to happen. Either he was going to make it or the streak was going to end. As a journalist, you're not rooting for any specific result, you just hope for a good story". After the final gun sounded for that game Klein was quick to catch up with Leinart on the field to get his thoughts and he later documented that dramatic ending in an article that ran prior to the Rose Bowl. Klein called that story one of the two favorite he has written along with a story that looked back at the 2003 ASU game. He spent 11 years at the LA Times before being assigned the USC beat and he called it gratifying to cover a team he grew up watching and taking his place in a long legacy of Trojan beat writers for the Times that included Mal Florence.
Matt Cassel signs autographs for young Trojan fans