It's been quite some time since I donned a cardinal-and-gold uni to a game. I spent each of the last two seasons watching the games from the Coliseum Press Box, sporting a nice non-partisan tie and dress shirt as part of the KSCR 1560 AM broadcast team.
Graduation meant an end to that chapter of my life, and it also meant that I'm back in the stands watching the game with my Pop in our season seats just above the tunnel.
At the bookstore during fall camp, I eyeballed the cardinal-and-gold numbers ‘8' and ‘10' jerseys, but realized I needed something more unique. I wanted a custom jersey with a number that would stand alone.
The numbers ‘2' and ‘58' both crossed my mind, as each represents a great player who can change a game in a single play.
Still not unique enough for me. I flipped on the television and started watching the first half of the Trojan's Deep South smackdown on my Tivo for inspiration, and it became simple.
I immediately picked up the telephone and called the bookstore. I told the young lady on the other end of the phone that I wanted a number 19 jersey. She told me no one had ever ordered that number. I told her that's because the player that wears number 19 is the kicker…Mario Danelo.
Clearly shocked, the book store employee muttered, "How could the kicker be your favorite player?" I responded that after his big game against Arkansas, "How could the kicker not be one of my favorite players?"
Never was Danelo's growth as a kicker as evident as last weekend in Fayetteville. John David Booty executed the two-minute drill extremely well at the end of the first half, but not well enough to put six points on the board. Danelo, who made his first two attempts Saturday night, was left with a career-long 44 yard field goal.
The Trojans lined it up and Danelo began his routine. "Pick a target out, take nine steps back," Danelo recalled in a phone interview Thursday morning, "Tell McDonald I'm ready and just kick it."
Arkansas called their first timeout, supposedly disrupting Danelo's rhythm.
"I had no idea, I didn't even think about them icing me. They're trying to shove you off your rhythm." Even after the Razorbacks had used all three timeouts, Danelo was unshaken. He delivered a beautiful 44-yarder just inside the right post to give USC a two possession lead.
While certainly not as spectacular as some of the big names he has shared the field with, Mario Danelo has quietly become the steadiest performer on the USC roster -- this season and last.
"Super Mario" has been automatic through most of his career at USC. He hasn't missed a meaningful kick since he slipped a 35-yard extra point attempt just outside the left upright against Notre Dame, leaving us with possibly the most famous final score in the history of USC football. Besides, 34-31 sounds more dramatic than 35-31, anyway.
That missed PAT is one of four extra points Danelo has missed in his last nine games. But anytime he has kicked for three, he's been perfect. He missed his first collegiate field goal attempt, a 42-yarder against Hawaii, and hasn't looked back since.
Since that attempt, Danelo has been sublime, hitting fourteen consecutive field goals. That means that every time he trots onto the field with a chance to get three points, he's more than up to the task.
That consistency could be essential to a USC squad that may often need three points if the red zone offense isn't clicking early in the season, as was the case in the first half against the Hogs. That streak of 14 straight made FGs includes three crucial kicks per game in wins over Fresno State and Arkansas (2006) and a clutch 43-yard kick before the halftime gun in the Rose Bowl.
But Danelo says the importance or timing of the kick in no-way affects the way he approaches it. Danelo believes, "They're all the same. It's up to you guys (the media and fans) to decide which ones are small and which ones are big."
What a unique attitude for a player whose legacy can be decided by one play or one moment. Who will ever forget Adam Vinatieri and the two Super Bowls he won? Who will ever remember Scott Norwood for anything but the Super Bowl he lost?
As the starting kicker for a team that is always in the national championship picture, Danelo recognizes the unique position he's in. If his number is called with the game—or even the championship—on the line, he says that he's more than ready.
"That's been my dream since I was little kid. Those are things you think about every night before you go to bed. I play those situations out in my head."
One would expect that sort of confidence from a kicker whose father, the ‘senior' kicker in the family, paid his bills for ten years with National Football League paychecks. Mario's dad, Joe, spent three years as a place kicker at Washington State, and then played in the NFL from 1975 to 1984 with the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills.
Common sense would dictate that Mario would undoubtedly follow in his father's footsteps. But Mario says his father simply urged him to play sports and never pushed him to play football or place kick. "He didn't steer me towards football. At a young age, he introduced us to many sports. But ever since I was a little kid, I just enjoyed playing (football)."
Danelo, who was an all-L.A. City linebacker as a senior at San Pedro High says he just stumbled into kicking. "I kicked a little my sophomore year, but started kicking a lot my junior year. The team (at San Pedro High) didn't really have a kicker, so I just decided to go with it from there. I ended up being lucky enough to play in college."
This could-be hero remains remarkably humble. He insisted that this article include some "Love for Will Collins, Mike McDonald and ‘the line' because they make it all happen."
While Danelo hasn't had the opportunity to nail a game-winner, he has certainly cemented a legacy in the NCAA record books. Danelo set Division I-A records last season for PAT Attempts and Made PATs. When discussing this record, Danelo toe-punted the praise to his 2005 teammates, saying, "That's pretty cool. I don't think too much of it, that was Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. The easy part was kicking the PATs."
But someone has to put their foot to the ball, right? Danelo insists that no matter the situation, that's what he does; puts his foot to the ball and puts the ball through the uprights. Although the offense was clicking in the second half and put nothing but touchdowns on the board, Danelo was instrumental in establishing key momentum heading into the second half. Just like he did against Fresno State and just like he did against Texas.
Next weekend when the Huskers come to town, I may be the only Trojan fan wearing a cardinal and gold number 19 jersey. But if ‘Super Mario' keeps kicking like he has, there may actually be a handful of Danelo jerseys in the stands.