Malaefou MacKenzie feature

"Before I left, I really didn't think I was going to play again," said MacKenzie, a 23-year-old Capistrano Valley High graduate whose career as a Trojans tailback has been decimated by physical and personal pain. "It was the Arizona State game, and I looked up in the stands and thought, 'Man, this is the last time I'm going to see this place. It's the last memory I'll have of being a USC Trojan."

courtesy OC Register

Blades of grass and a final glimpse around the stadium he called home for so long were the final carry-on memories he packed for the journey back to his roots and away from the school and sport he loved.

He said goodbye with hugs instead of words, and his red-streaked eyes made a plea for understanding and revealed depths of pain no one should have to endure.

The player who made a promise his body never let him keep and buried his jersey along with his father had no choice.

He had to leave, even if it meant he never could come back.

Life once again brought Malaefou MacKenzie to his knees, but he had to rise and be the man his family needed. And it needed him in Western Samoa, not in the USC backfield or the trainer's room where he spent so much time fighting so many injuries.

"Before I left, I really didn't think I was going to play again," said MacKenzie, a 23-year-old Capistrano Valley High graduate whose career as a Trojans tailback has been decimated by physical and personal pain. "It was the Arizona State game, and I looked up in the stands and thought, 'Man, this is the last time I'm going to see this place.'

"It's the last memory I'll have of being a USC Trojan."

When MacKenzie took a knee on the Coliseum field Oct. 13, 2001, after a game he once again was too injured to play, and plucked the grass that he still holds dear, he was beaten and battered beyond the point where he should return to risk more pain.

But MacKenzie is a devout Catholic who believes in redemption and resurrection. He even believed the NCAA might show some heart. Most of all, he believed he had to try one last time.

"He has the broadest shoulders of any man I've ever met," said USC guard Lenny Vandermade, one of MacKenzie's roommates and best friends. "He can take anything."

Perhaps that is why MacKenzie is down on a knee again after almost every practice for USC's opener Monday. Only this time he is humble, not hurt - thankful, not tearful. MacKenzie is back for his sixth season at USC and could complete a most remarkable comeback when he steps on the field and maybe even starts against Auburn.

"Thank God I have the opportunity to come back and play for another year," said the usually reticent MacKenzie, who recently opened up about the relatives and dreams he has lost and the faith he has not.

When MacKenzie left to attend the funeral for his father Vernon, who died of prostate cancer Sept. 11, 2001, in Samoa, he planned to return after the extensive ceremonies for the man who was a high chief in the village of Sataoa. The funeral, or fa'alavelave, lasted a week and featured the ceremonial exchange of gifts to comfort the chief's family and mourners and help with the funeral.

"At the time when we got back, we had to go through a long ceremony with my dad's funeral," said MacKenzie, who moved to the United States when he was 9 from a land where rugby reigns and the locals barely know about American football. "That helped a lot in keeping my mind away from football. I just focused on my family at the time."

MacKenzie also had to come to terms with the guilt he felt. Because his father had been a 10-hour flight away for the final eight months of his life, MacKenzie didn't realize the extent of his illness. His mother Stella shielded him from the fact that Vernon MacKenzie barely slept because he struggled to urinate but still felt the need every 20 minutes or so. And Vernon's condition precipitously got worse because modern medicine isn't so modern in the third-world island nation with a population of approximately 180,000. For example, the chemotherapy he needed wasn't available.

Vernon also put off a checkup when he left the United States for the Samoan capital of Apia in January 2001 and said he would get it when he returned to see his son play last season. But when Malaefou suffered a knee injury in training camp, his father delayed his trip.

"When my dad passed away, it was especially hard for me because I felt like, in a way, it was my fault from when I got injured," MacKenzie said. "If it wasn't for the injury, he would be here before the season started, which means that he would've had his checkup and maybe they would've, you know ...

"It took me awhile to get that out of my head. Maybe he wasn't meant to, maybe he was suffering too much."

MacKenzie also was saddened that he hadn't lived up to the promise he made to his father during his illness. He promised to give him a Rose Bowl ring, but MacKenzie - who has played in just 28 games since his arrival in 1997 - was too injured to help USC pursue one.

"Now all I can give it to is my mom," said MacKenzie, who had something else he cherished to give his father. "I can give it to my mom, not him. But I buried my USC jersey with him and put it in his casket."

With his real family in Samoa, MacKenzie embraced some of his Trojans teammates as surrogate brothers. Roommates such as Vandermade and safety Troy Polamalu, both fellow Samoans, and quarterback Carson Palmer were there for MacKenzie when he returned from his father's funeral and attempted to get back to football.

"He's the best," said Polamalu, who considers MacKenzie a spiritual adviser and close friend. "Every one of us would do anything we could for Malaefou."

Everything seemed to work for a brief moment. MacKenzie stepped back on the field, and he found what he needed.

"I went out there and for just a split second I felt like all my problems went away, everything I was thinking about was in the back of my mind," he said. "Then my knee got messed up. At that point, I realized it wasn't meant to be."

After talking with his mother and coaches, MacKenzie decided to leave school and return to Samoa to help with the wholesale business his father had run. God comes first in the Samoan culture, but family is a close second. Even though MacKenzie felt as if he abandoned his teammates in a time of need, they understood why he left.

They just had no idea if he would return.

"Everybody hoped he'd come back, but we just didn't know," Palmer said. "We wanted him back, but it wasn't about football. He's about so much more than that."

MacKenzie's coaches call him one of the most mature players they have been around, a true team leader and an example of how someone can handle adversity - including the deaths of his father and brother, Hornell, when Malaefou was 10.

Still, it would be a huge mistake to think the Trojans don't value what MacKenzie can do on the field. His hands, fundamentals and knowledge are so impressive that several NFL running backs coaches called USC assistant Kennedy Pola to tell him they wanted MacKenzie in their training camps if the NCAA didn't give him a sixth year.

But the NCAA came through in late March, and MacKenzie has been among the healthiest Trojans in practices. He cut back on his workout load to avoid over training, and the approach seems to have worked. USC coach Pete Carroll joked that he would love to keep him out of practice until the Auburn game just to make sure he gets to kickoff healthy.

MacKenzie's dreams include a return to prominence for USC, a Rose Bowl victory and that ring he promised his father. But he understands he needs to concentrate on getting on the field against Auburn for his first game since November 2000.

And he knows he has something to finish before that day arrives.

For years before games he has worn a special T-shirt he made that read, "In memory of Hornell MacKenzie."

"Now I've got to make another shirt," MacKenzie said quietly. "One for him and my dad."

Will it be ready for the Auburn game?

MacKenzie nodded slowly as his eyes revealed his lingering pain, though not near as much as there was last fall. Coaches love to talk about athletes who play through the pain, but MacKenzie had to live through it. Soon it will be his turn to play again.

"I can't wait to see it," Carroll said. "It will be so great to see him out there. He deserves it."

And when it finally happens, MacKenzie surely will go down on a knee again and give thanks for all his blessings, especially the chance to play again in memory of the ones he lost. Top Stories