WeAreSC.com shares some thoughts on the USC career of quarterback Carson Palmer, the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner
I first heard about Carson Palmer in the spring of 1996 when the parent of a Santa Margarita basketball player told me to keep an eye out that fall for the Eagles junior quarterback. "He's going to be something special," I was told, "and he likes the Trojans."
Carson went out that season and led Santa Margarita to a 13-1 record and a CIF Division 5 championship while posting very good numbers. With his size and arm strength it was easy to see how he was going to be one of the more highly rated prospects in the country for his senior season. It wasn't until later that spring, however, at the Reebok combine that I got my first real glimpse of just how good he could be. It was supposed to be a battle between Jason Thomas and Carson, the two best quarterbacks on the West Coast, with the combine providing a chance to compare them in action. Thomas looked very good while showcasing a variety of athletic skills and many onlookers assumed there was little Palmer could do to beat JT's performance. When his turn arrived Carson simply strolled onto the field with his favorite high school receiver John Minardi and proceeded to put on a show. Deep pass after deep pass, bullet after bullet, Carson left no doubt who was the top prospect on that day.
Prior to his senior season Carson was selected to appear on a new high school football preview show on Fox Sports Net 2 called "Inside Cal-Hi Sports". When it came time to film his feature the idea came to use a Western theme with Carson as an Old West gunslinger. To the creative folks at Fox it sounded like a good idea but for Carson it seemed strange to be out on the field by himself in uniform while drawing a football from a holster. He commented afterwards, "it's either going to look really good or really stupid". Well Carson, that show went on to win an Emmy award so it looks like it turned out pretty good.
His senior season was a magical one at Santa Margarita as they finished the year 14-0 with a dramatic victory over Tustin that ranks among the best title games in CIF history. Carson threw for a school record 419 yards with five passing touchdowns and one running as the Eagles outlasted the Tillers and star RB DeShaun Foster, who would later move on to UCLA, by a score of 55-42.
The All-American honors began to pile up and Carson narrowed down his recruiting choices to USC, Notre Dame and Colorado. It was true that Carson had long been a Trojan fan, one of his early heroes was USC QB Rob Johnson, but this was no sure thing for the Trojans after the firing of John Robinson. Carson attended a catholic high school and comes from a family that values religion so the allure of Notre Dame caused him to take a long look. Colorado offered a hot young coach in Rick Neuheisel who promised him the opportunity to fill the air with footballs and the Buffs also had an advantage with a verbal commitment from his HS receiver John Minardi. Once the Trojans signed Paul Hackett as head coach, however, it didn't take long for Carson to give his verbal to USC. Hackett came in with a reputation as an offensive guru and after sitting down and talking with the new coach Carson came away impressed enough to finalize his decision.
Carson played that winter for the Santa Margarita basketball team and Fox televised one of the state playoff games from the Bren Center at UCI. It made this Trojan fan very nervous to be sitting courtside watching our future quarterback setting picks and pounding down low under the boards. We're all well aware of how tough Carson is by now but at that point it still caused me to cringe every time he got hit. The Eagles went on to win the State title and in the USC media guide Carson called that championship his most thrilling moment in sports.
One sight that will always stand out from USC spring ball that year was seeing Carson and Jason Thomas, the two quarterback signees, running around the spring scrimmage while carrying their notebooks with them. At the time it seemed like good preparation by Hackett, good to get them started on the playbook, little did we know it might have been the first sign of the overkill that was to come.
Carson was selected to participate in the California vs Texas Shrine game that summer. The Shriner's hold a media luncheon at the Children's Hospital and during a break in that luncheon Carson was summoned from among his teammates for a television interview. These all-star football players had only been together in camp for a few days yet when Carson got up and began heading toward the interview the other players started riding him "Oh Carson, the superstar", "Carson they want you" and the whole time Carson displayed the same shy grin we saw last night at the Heisman podium. It was the type of good natured ribbing that can only happen with certain players and it was an early example of the kind of relationship that Carson develops with his teammates.
Once his career started at USC it didn't take long for the explosion to begin. On a blistering hot day against Purdue the Trojan offense was struggling until Carson was inserted into the game. A quick slide to avoid an oncoming rusher and a deep completion downfield was all it took for the Trojan crowd to embrace the young freshman. He led the team to 17 points that day and from that point it was just a matter of time before he took control of the offense. By week nine, Hackett had seen enough and Carson became only the second true freshman to start at quarterback for the Trojans (after Rob Johnson, the first of many times the two would cross paths in the USC record book).
One of the true benefits for Carson of that freshman season was the relationship he shared with quarterback coach Ken O'Brien. The two share similar personalities and they hit it off from the start. O'Brien had recently retired from the NFL and brought with him an easy going style and a wealth of experience. In Palmer he had a player he said had "the potential to be as great as anyone I've ever seen." One of the things that has impressed me the most over the years about Carson is how natural he has always been with handling the media. From the early days in high school through the tough times at USC he consistently showed the ability to handle himself well in any situation. As a freshman though, even Palmer was taken aback by the glare of the spotlight that came with being the next young phenom for the Trojans. It was O'Brien who offered a guiding voice, explaining the territory that comes with the position and how to handle it. When the teachings of Hackett would come across in a scramble manner it was O'Brien who helped make sure the message got through in the proper way. The relationship was a key factor to the early success for Palmer and the two remain close friends today.
Any sign of a potential quarterback controversy was quickly averted when Jason Thomas transferred from USC to UNLV during spring ball the following year. Carson had established himself as the starter and JT didn't like the idea of playing another position so he joined John Robinson with the Rebels.
There were high hopes coming into the sophomore season for Carson and he got off to a sizzling start in Hawaii by completing 14 of 16 passes in a blowout win. Two more hot games followed and the Trojans were playing with confidence behind their new leader as they neared halftime in Eugene against the Ducks. Carson dropped back to pass, scrambled and headed for the sideline but he was hit by Oregon defensive back Michael Fletcher and broke his collarbone. It was a devastating blow, not only for Palmer but for Trojans everywhere. There had been so much hope, so much promise for the direction of the Trojan program and now our flamethrower was on the sidelines. We tried to counter with Mike Van Raaphorst, a capable quarterback in many ways but he simply lacked the spark that Palmer brought to the field. With Carson in the game anything was possible. With Carson on the sidelines the Trojans sputtered through the remainder of the season.
Carson returned after his broken collarbone with the weight of the Trojan world upon his shoulders. Paul Hackett was entering his third season and there were many signs indicating he may not be the right man for the job. The Trojan football program, so long accustomed to success, was suffering through a prolonged period of frustration and the natives were getting restless. While there were some moments of success that year, the exciting victory over UCLA certainly stands out, the resulting finish was last place in the Pac-10 and the dismissal of Hackett.
On paper it seemed like the ideal match, Hackett and Palmer, but in reality it just didn't seem to mix. There are many reasons why it didn't happen, we certainly don't need to go into them here, but the way Carson handled himself in regards to Hackett showed a great example of his character. In the last few weeks of the season it was clear that a change would be made and Hackett was on his way out yet one player stood in front of the media day after day in support of the coach. Most people assume that Carson did that out of loyalty to his coach but Carson really is appreciative for the positives that came from the relationship. At a pre-season media function prior to the start of the next season I had finished an interview with Carson and inquired about the training camp status of Windrell Hayes. Windrell had been a favorite target for Carson and I commented about how Windrell must have felt to go to the Jets and be reunited with Hackett. Carson just softly said, "I feel bad for Coach Hackett. All the things that went wrong here weren't his fault." There were no TV cameras on him at the time, no need for him to give the PR response, it was genuinely how he felt.
With the arrival of Pete Carroll and Norm Chow came the rebirth of Carson Palmer. In his Heisman speech Carson credited them with "teaching me how to be a leader" and they each contributed to his success. Carroll brought out the competitive zeal and made football fun again, Carson is a serious competitor who hides his burning desire to win behind a calm outside demeanor. His teammates recognize that, along with his amazing physical gifts, and they feed off that work ethic and desire. Chow brought a relaxed teaching style and was patient as Carson worked through the cobwebs left by the previous regime. It was a tiring process that at times seemed to show little progress and by the end of his junior season there were some who were wondering if he would ever fulfill his enormous potential in a Trojan uniform.
The young gun who had once been the WonderBoy was nowhere to be found on any pre-season Heisman watch lists coming into his senior season. He wasn't even on the cover of his own media guide and, to be honest, he didn't deserve to be. It would have been wrong at that point to give the cover to Carson and USC did the right thing by having returning All-American Troy Polamalu on the cover with the two of them featured on the back. In many ways, this was just fine with Carson. He shies away from individual attention as much as any athlete you will find and he would rather talk about the contributions of Malaefou MacKenzie, Keary Colbert, Lenny Vandermade or any other teammate he can think of. For those who watched in spring ball and fall camp, however, it was clear that something special was in the air. Carson had always shown flashes of amazing ability but now the consistency was starting to show, it wasn't where Chow wanted it to be but it was getting close. Carson was surrounded by playmakers, excellent coaches and a spirit on the team that was unlike anything he had seen before during his Trojan career. There was so much possibility for things to go right this season and even the normally reserved Carson noticed the difference. Before each of the previous seasons there had always been a catch phrase for his thoughts on the upcoming year "we can be good if we do this or if we do that" but this year it was simply "we need to stay healthy".
Through the first few games of this season there was still some sense of doubt. Carson could look great but there were still a few too many mistakes and then came the second half of the Kansas State game. According to Carson, this is when it all became clear and the game started to really slow down for him. Suddenly he was on fire and could do no wrong. He almost brought us back from victory in that game, he led a whupping on Oregon State and then put us in position to win at Washington State. Injuries at corner left the coaches scrambling (remember Carson's pre-season wish) and key completions cost us against both KSU and WSU but in the Cal game Marcell Allmond filled that hole and the team as a whole took off from there. Over the final six games of the season Carson put on a display of offensive football that was a joy to watch and to see all of his gifts in full bloom was a real treat. Who among us can forget the thumping at Oregon, the home of so many previous nightmares? The unbelievable run against UCLA that virtually "catapulted" him into the thick of the Heisman race. The absolute thrashing of a vaunted Notre Dame secondary. In case his Heisman candidacy needed an exclamation point, Carson went out on that night and threw for more yards against the Irish than any player in history. If you're trying to judge if a player has reached his potential it's pretty easy to look at a record like that to get an answer.
It's been a fantastic run this season and now it's capped off by Carson winning the 2002 Heisman Trophy. He becomes the fifth winner of that prestigious award in USC history and the first quarterback from the school after four tailbacks. Those who watched the Heisman ceremony on television saw a fine representative for our university as Carson thanked his family, his teammates, his coaches and generally deflected any attention away from himself. He is the genuine article and no statement could show how his teammates feel about him more than the Gatorade bath at the end of the Notre Dame game. Many coaches have received a bucket of icy beverage but to my knowledge no player has received this rare form of tribute from his own. Carson is a guy who can't say no to any fan looking for a photo, an autograph or even his cleats after the Notre Dame game. Former HS and college teammate Matt Nickels once called him a better person than a football player. When current Trojan John Walker was in high school he was nervous about meeting Carson but when Carson found out John was a verbal to the Trojans he hugged him, the look on Walker's face after Carson left was priceless.
Carson can be found each summer as a counselor at the Elite 11 camp for high school quarterbacks and he is like a Pied Piper at times for the campers. The Elite 11 camps are run by Bob Johnson who has served as Carson's private quarterback coach for several years and Johnson, along with his son Rob, have also been vital influences for Carson. Carson talked about how surprised he was in high school to come up for an SC game and have Rob immediately ask how his game went the night before. Carson experienced a similar situation last year when he got to watch his younger brother Jordan lead Mission Viejo HS to an undefeated season. Jordan played QB for the Diablos with Bob Johnson as the head coach and Carson was in attendance for several games with a smile on his face a mile wide as he watched Jordan in action.
Jordan attended a USC one-day camp prior to his senior season and Carson stopped by to watch. He came over to say hello and told me how proud he was of Jordan. We ended up talking on the sidelines for over an hour, we didn't talk much SC football really, we just watched football and talked, it was an enjoyable conversation which I will long remember.
We have one more game to watch Carson Palmer in a USC uniform and then #3 will officially be retired. Trojan verbal commit Fili Moala asked after the Notre Dame game if it was now possible to call Carson "great" and when you have that Trophy in your hand the answer is definitely a yes.
We thank the Palmer family for all they have done in support of USC football. His parents, Bill and Danna, his brothers Robert and Jordan, sister Jennifer and her husband Paul along with nephew Parker and niece Kendall. For as long as we've been doing this website there has always been a Palmer to sit with at practice and now that time will soon be gone. It has been an amazing run over these last few years filled with more ups and downs than anyone could have predicted. There are times when good things happen to good people and never before does that saying seem more appropriate than right now with Carson Palmer. Thank you for the effort you have given Carson. You helped restore a lot of Trojan pride. The results speak for themselves with what you accomplished for this university and for yourself and we wish you nothing but the best. Fight On.