It was last September that I wrote a story for WeAreSC.com that had been planned for quite some time. Under-the-radar ‘stars' who have a profound impact on the team, but don't receive enough credit, are a cornerstone of my writing. Mario Danelo epitomized that philosophy. He did so with humility and class, unlike any player I have ever covered at USC and beyond.
Before I wrote the story, I did a phone interview with Mario and I'll share with you my thoughts from that interview and, in addition, the feelings that I was having while putting that story together.
The most important thing a coach, a fan, or your average ‘Joe', wants from a kicker is consistency, and that's what Mario gave me in this interview. No matter what the question, nor the situation that we were discussing, he brought a willing attitude and a level-headed answer.
Mario saw kicking as a huge responsibility to his team and, as a result, a job that was a major part of his everyday life. Who could ever ask for more from a football player?
Mario missed his first career field goal attempt, a 42-yarder wherein he launched his collegiate career at Hawaii during the 2004 campaign. Following that miss, he made 26 of the other 27 attempts in his USC career. I asked him if he was a little rattled by that initial attempt.
"Not really, it didn't do anything (to rattle me). All kicks are just as important. No one kick is bigger than another; they are equally important from the first field goal to (the) last PAT."
There was Mario, not defensive, but as matter-of-fact and as consistent as an athlete could be when asked about a difficult situation.
Then I moved on to perhaps the brightest spot in his first season. A crucial, career-long 42 yarder in the 2006 National Championship game against Texas that put USC just one score down before halftime.
I asked if that kick helped him build confidence for the coming season; he reassured me that there was never a lack of self-confidence. "Not really; that's why I'm a kicker. That's why it's fun for me."
Mario allowed me to further probe into his psyche, sharing his motivation for doing what he did, and giving me clues as to why he was so darn good at it.
"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 through my head. I don't care about my stats or any of that."
Playing in such a pressure-riddled sport for a program that has refused to leave the national spotlight, Mario never let exterior pressures become an issue in his kicking. It was always about him and his routine.
This was never more evident than in one of college football's toughest environments: SEC country at Arkansas. Danelo nailed two first half field goals and was left with a career-long 44 yarder to end the first half. Arkansas used all three timeouts to make Danelo think about his career long attempt. He was unfazed and certainly not intimidated.
Mario told me, "You always have the same routine. I didn't even think about them (Arkansas) icing me. They're trying to shove you off your rhythm. Pick a target out, take 9 steps back. Tell (holder Mike) McDonald I'm ready and just kick it."
And that's what Mario did for two years, as well as anyone who has worn the Cardinal-and-Gold threads. Danelo was remarkably efficient when kicking for three points, making 26 of 28 field goals in just two seasons.
As far as extra points go, Danelo was a record-setter. In 2005, he hit an NCAA-record 83 extra points. When I discussed this with him, he would take no credit whatsoever. Classic Mario.
While I was never able to order the Danelo #19 jersey that I discussed in my initial September story, (money is always tight for a recent alumnus), I wish I had. I wish I had watched every extra point he kicked instead of running to the restroom or flipping through a program. I wish I had concentrated on each and every movement when he trotted out for a field goal, whether it was in the national championship game or in the rain during a Wednesday afternoon practice. If I had known that his last kick would have been on January 1, 2007, I would have watched every moment.
Danelo's impact on this program and this writer reach just as far as the elite names that he, himself, credited for the team's success, names like Bush and Leinart. While his jersey may not be permanently displayed in the Coliseum's peristyle end zone like USC legends of the past, it very well should be. Mario epitomized the characteristics that make Trojan football so special: passion, dedication, focus, and determination.
He will be missed by this writer, who had the rare privilege of getting to know him first hand. Most importantly, the Trojan Family will miss Mario, who will continue to have a profound impact on all of us.