Remembering Mario

"Have fun at Disneyland today -- and good luck in the Rose Bowl!" are the last words I spoke to Mario Danelo.

It was the morning of December 26, 2006. I was standing just outside of Katherine B. Loker Track and Field Stadium, trying to catch some seniors on their way to the buses that would take them to Anaheim, so I could get their contact information for Exit Interviews.

And even though I wasn't specifically looking for Mario, he stopped to say hello. Like he always did. He also gave me some of the seniors' telephone numbers. A handshake and his typical Kool-aid smile later, and he was off to the buses. That was the last time I saw him in person.

I first met Mario in July 2005. He was the fourth athlete I had ever interviewed for Because there weren't many articles written about him before that interview, much of what I learned about him came in that first half hour I spent with him. For instance, he learned to be competitive growing up in a household as the youngest of three brothers. He chose to attend USC in order to stay close to his family. He was a big fan of country music, especially Tim McGraw, and vowed to learn how to line dance one day. He didn't really choose the number 19 -- it was just assigned to him. And if he could have picked his number, he wouldn't even know what to suggest. He was just happy being a walk-on on the team.

Just a few weeks after that interview, Mario was awarded an athletic scholarship. I was able to congratulate him in person that August at "Salute to Troy." And in a moment I will never forget, he actually brought me to the table where his family was seated and introduced me to his father, his mother, his aunt and uncle, and the rest of the table of extended relatives. Every one of them had read the interview, and they couldn't stop thanking me for it. It was just a simple Q and A, and I remember telling them, "I just ask the questions; Mario made the interview what it is."

One of the benefits of my job is that I get to spend one-on-one moments with the people I cheer for on Saturdays. Rightly or wrongly, because I have gotten to know some of these athletes better than other athletes, I cheer for them a little bit louder than I do the other athletes, and feel a little more elated when they run for a large gain or catch a long pass. Conversely, I feel for them more when they miss a catch, muff a pass, or when they miss a field goal or extra point. In Mario's case, I don't remember ever being down much about missed extra points or field goals, because he hardly ever missed.

I still remember when people doubted him before the 2005 season, questioning his leg strength and whether he should be the starter. With each extra point and field goal that he nailed, he quieted his doubters down one by one. He missed the first field goal he ever tried in 2005, but nailed every single one of the last 11 he attempted.

He set NCAA, Pac-10 and USC season records for points after touchdown (83) and point after attempts (86), and entered the 2006 season as one of few members of the team whose job as a starter was secure.

Watching Mario grow from a virtual unknown who was doubted before he even took the field to one of the best and most reliable kickers ever to have suited up for USC -- affectionately dubbed "Auto-Mario" by Garry Paskwietz and "Super Mario" by Danny Page -- has truly been a pleasure, and is something I will really miss.

More than his efforts on the field, I will miss just watching him be himself -- whether he was jokingly making bunny ears behind athletes I was interviewing in the middle of the interview, or just stopping to say hello in the middle of his hectic schedule.

Suffice it to say, the USC Community is minus one tried and true Trojan today. Minus one determined former walk-on turned football star, who truly embodied the motto "Fight on," who loved his family dearly, and whose smile could light up a room.

Rest in peace, Mario. We'll miss you.

Click here to read the July, 2005 Q&A with Mario Danelo by JailBreakBlitz

Danelo in action vs Fresno State, 2005

Mario waiting to kick in 2007 Rose Bowl Top Stories