Sam Darnold Is the Realest
USC's star quarterback and his parents do not live by the LaVar Ball theory of the universe. They let a multisport supernova grow up into his own man. And that's why this 20-year-old might be the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft.August 2, 2017
Sam Darnold is boring.
We might as well get that out of the way.
He’s boring. Dull. Sorta lame.
His mother and father (who, interestingly, are anything but boring) refer to their boy as “Flatline,” and while this isn’t meant as an insult, it’s not exactly a compliment. Southern Cal’s redshirt sophomore quarterback doesn’t tweet. He doesn’t talk shit. He won’t bash UCLA’s Josh Rosen or promise a national championship. There are zero traces of tattoos or piercings or shirtless arm-crossed tough guy poses.
When Sam recently met with a B/R Mag writer on the USC campus, he sported gray shorts, worn sneakers and a wrinkled white T-shirt with yellow sweat stains beneath the armpits. It is within the realm of possibilities he combed his hair beforehand. Maybe.
Whether discussing last season’s thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State or if he’ll declare for the 2018 NFL draft (he’s noncommittal), his vocal tone remained at the same level. Sorta…like…this. “That’s Sam,” says Chris Darnold, his mother. “He’s a wonderful boy. But his goal isn’t to thrill you.”
In the modern world of Sports Mythology: 101, Sam Darnolds are increasingly rare specimens. There’s a playbook, written long ago and perfected lately by LaVar Ball, that demands our offspring live and die with a gilded mojo and chosen sport. That they become one with a chosen sport.
It is the way. It is the future. It is inevitable.
“I hate it,” says the quarterback’s father. “I really hate it.”
His name is Mike Darnold. He is a stocky 53-year-old medical gas plumber with short hair and a soft-spoken manner. As he opines from a chair inside the living room of his Capistrano Beach, California, home, he dips one corn chip after another into a small bowl of green guacamole, taking meticulous nibbles off the corners. Chris, a middle school physical education teacher and his wife of 23 years, is across the way on a blue couch, nodding.
By now they (like you) have read seemingly every profile of their 20-year-old son. The narratives are predictable (injury-prone player at San Clemente High who went from not highly touted USC recruit to Rose Bowl MVP; strong-armed and confident; might be the top pick in the 2018 NFL draft, should he come out).
Yes, because of a broken foot Sam only started one full season in high school. Yes, in 2016 he emerged from little-known Southern Cal backup to finish with 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. USC went 9-1 in his starts.
Yes, his poise, demeanor, size (6’4”, 225 pounds) and physical gifts place him high on the radar of every NFL team.
“He has a chance to be the best USC has ever seen,” says Sean Salisbury, the NFL analyst and former Southern Cal quarterback. “He’s that good.”
Yet the story of Sam Darnold isn’t the story of the modern quarterback, loud and sparkly and created to own the internet’s 24-hour hype machine. Nope, it’s the story of a young man on the verge of superstardom because, not long ago, he was allowed to diversify.
He was allowed to be a kid.
Do you hear that noise?
Close your eyes.
Go back in time.
It’s 2005. Sam is seven years old, standing in front of his house, playing catch with his father. With his blue Dodgers cap pulled low, Sam believes he is Eric Gagne, Los Angeles’ flame-throwing closer. So he launches the baseball toward Mike, and while some of the throws are caught, a good number soar high and low and wide left and wide right and—Pa-dunk!—into the garage door belonging to Claudia, the elderly across-the-street neighbor.
“She came over one time with a bucket filled with paint chips,” says Chris with a chuckle. “It pissed her off. Rightly so.”
Do you hear that noise?
It’s 2009. Sam is 12 years old and a member of a local rec league basketball team. He is sitting in the front seat of the Darnolds’ car, weeping uncontrollably. A game just ended, and the head coach has ripped into his star forward for bricking free throws. Now, alongside his mother, the tears won’t stop.
“Does he think I’m missing them on purpose?” Sam asks between heaving breaths. “I’m not trying to miss them.”
Chris looks at the boy, stunned at the rare emotional outpouring. She wraps her arm around him. “Talk to your coach tomorrow,” she says. “Tell him how the yelling makes you feel. It’s always better to be open and honest.”
“So that’s what Sam did,” Chris says. “The coach never screamed at him again.”
Do you hear that noise?
It’s 2012. Sam is 14 years old and a member of the freshman baseball team at San Clemente High. Unlike nearly all of the other players, he has not imprisoned himself in a single sport. That’s why he joined the team late—because he had to wrap up the basketball season.
So now, even though he possesses a rocket for a right arm and Ruthian heft in his bat, one of the biggest, strongest, most athletic boys in school is being punished. The coach refuses to play him. “Keep score,” he commands—a euphemism for “Damn you for not living and dying with baseball.”
So Sam holds a pencil and scribbles down baseball’s etchings—K and 2B and BB. Finally, 20 games into the season, he is platooned in right field. His Tritons are playing at Capistrano Valley High, and Jordan Bocko—a future UC Irvine pitcher—is on the hill. First at-bat, Sam smashes a moonshot to the opposite field. It is power-deprived San Clemente’s first home run of the season. Second at-bat, Sam belts a ground-rule double that bounds over the right-field fence. The game goes into extra innings. Sam is up next. He steps into the on-deck circle. He already has five RBI. Anticipation mounts.
The coach calls him back to the bench for a pinch hitter.
No one at the field understands.
“Dad, I’m not gonna quit,” Sam says afterward. “But I’m over it. When the season ends, I’m done with baseball.”
“I understand,” he says. “I don’t blame you.”
The Darnolds’ Capistrano Beach household is in the heart of south Orange County, where there are youth sports leagues atop leagues atop leagues, and private coaches atop private coaches atop private coaches.
In Orange County, it’s not uncommon for a nine-year-old pitcher to throw sliders and curveballs nine or 10 months of the year—with a father behind the backstop holding a radar gun. It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to play Pop Warner, then a season of flag and then spend the summer under the watchful eye of a $200-an-hour passing guru.
This was not going to happen to Sam.
“My parents,” the quarterback says, “wouldn’t have allowed it.”
On paper, this might come as a surprise. One would be hard-pressed to find a more sports-centric family than the Darnolds. Mike was an offensive lineman at the University of Redlands, Chris a volleyball player at Long Beach City College. Sam’s older sister Franki starred in volleyball at the University of Rhode Island and three of his cousins—Allie, Michele and A.J.—also participated in collegiate volleyball. Sam’s late grandfather, Dick Hammer, played basketball at USC and was on the 1954 team that went to the Final Four. He was also a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team.
Put simply, organized athletics are a big deal in the Darnold world and have been for decades.
“But,” says Chris, “they’re not everything. We’ve always tried to keep things in perspective. Yes, our children have always loved playing sports. But around here, in this part of California, it too often becomes live and die. That’s a big mistake in my opinion. It has to be fun.”
Sam was born on June 5, 1997, and arrived at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo two weeks early, weighing eight pounds, five ounces. Mike thought to name him “Buck” but was overruled.
“I wanted a tough name,” says Mike.
“Buck?” replies Chris, laughing. “Buck? I was not going to name my son Buck.”
Theirs was a high-energy toddler who grabbed and tugged and jumped and pulled and ran. Little Sam was a lovely boy, but powered by an eternally filled tank. He was expelled (or, to be polite, asked to leave) after his first time at daycare.
“I went to pick him up,” says Chris, “and I’ll never forget the woman handing him to me, saying, ‘I just can’t do him anymore.’”
By age four, Sam was participating in taekwondo to burn off steam. By age five, he was a member of a youth basketball squad and a T-ball team (Mike and Chris are still bewildered by the time Sam, playing first, caught a soft pop fly, tagged the base and then threw a runner out at second for a triple play—something they didn’t think their son knew existed).
One year later he was enrolled in soccer when he stumbled upon a local Pop Warner practice. Travis Wilson, the future Utah quarterback (now in camp as a tight end with the Los Angeles Rams), was dashing up and down the field, and Sam’s eyes widened. “That’s what I want to do!” he told Mike—and soon after he was playing quarterback and linebacker.
Sam was a football supernova. (“I remember we held a passing contest at the high school one time,” recalls DuWayne Horn, a longtime area youth basketball coach. “Sam was in fourth grade and he threw a football 20 yards farther than the best eighth-grader.”) But he was also a baseball supernova. And a basketball supernova. And a soccer supernova. And a taekwondo supernova.
So his parents did what few Orange County parents do—they ignored the inevitable siren call for their son to limit his world to one activity. They refused to hire a one-on-one guru; to enroll him in tutorial sessions; to force him to choose.
Sam would shoot hoops in the backyard and then toss a football in the street. He would come home with scratched-up elbows and bloody, gravel-embedded knees—and he would friggin’ love it. He pretended to be Matt Kemp one moment, Kobe Bryant the next. He wore Matt Leinart’s Trojans jersey, Reggie Bush’s Saints jersey.
He worshipped USC football, worshipped the Dodgers, worshipped the Lakers. He mimicked the moves of his heroes and made it look easy. Smooth.
“He was so naturally gifted, it was crazy,” says Chris. “I had to stop playing catch with him when he was in the third grade, he threw so hard. But it was great. We wanted him to be a kid and try it all. What else is a childhood for? You need to discover yourself.”
The byproduct? A breathtaking cross-platform skill set that, by his freshman year at San Clemente High, had coalesced into one marvelous force. As myriad peers filled their predictable roles as pitcher, or shooter, or pass-rusher, Sam did everything. He was a jump-shooter with a linebacker’s ferocity. He was a quarterback with a point guard’s vision.
“What people fail to understand is that the skills you learn in one sport cross over to another,” says Jaime Ortiz, San Clemente High’s varsity football coach. “It’s not like I’ve done a study on this, but I’m sure some of Sam’s vision on a football field comes from driving up the court in basketball. And pressure? If you can stand at the free-throw line with one second left and hit the winning shots, you can handle fourth down late in the game. It all blends.”
“I see it as the movements from one world being useful in another,” says Sam. “You see quarterbacks who are robotic in the pocket, and maybe that comes from only playing quarterback, only learning one thing. I’ve been exposed to so many different scenarios, motions. I have to think it helps. Plus, it’s fun. And we shouldn’t forget the fun.”
Sam quit baseball after his first year of high school. As a sophomore he was a swingman in varsity basketball and a starting linebacker/wide receiver for varsity football. Late in the season, when quarterback Sean Donnelly suffered an injury, Sam started for the first time, at Tesoro High.
“Their senior class had kicked the you-know-what out of our senior class the last three years in a row,” says Ortiz. “They owned us.”
Expectations were low, and Tesoro High led 21-7 with little more than three minutes left. Then Sam somehow led a comeback of all comebacks. With 14 seconds remaining and the Tritons trailing by seven, magic arrived. Facing third down at the Tesoro 34-yard line, Sam dropped back and lofted a perfect spiral to Christian Bailey, who made a diving catch in the end zone.
“We’re down one,” says Ortiz. “Everything’s crazy, and I grab our offensive coordinator and tell him, ‘We’re going for two. I don’t care what you call—just give Sam an opportunity to run and pass.’” Moments later, Sam hit tight end Ryan Alvarez with a perfect pass for the go-ahead two-point conversion. San Clemente added a defensive TD in the final seconds to secure a 29-21 triumph.
“That was the moment,” Ortiz says, “when I realized we had something very special. I couldn’t wait to see what Sam could do.”
Alas, he would have to. Sam started at quarterback for the first two games of his junior year but then broke his foot while being tackled in game No. 3 against Dana Hills. At the time, the Tritons were 2-0. Without their leader, they finished 2-8.
“He was miserable,” says Mike. “He stood on the sidelines, but he would cry to me how boring the games were and how much he hated it. But you know something? He learned so much from that. He’d always been The Guy, the great athlete. And now he had to stand and watch. It taught him patience and how to manage frustration. It was invaluable.”
The lessons continued. For all his talents on the gridiron, at the time Sam thought of himself first as a basketball player. He was called up to San Clemente’s varsity as a freshman and the next year averaged 12.5 points per game en route to the Sea View League MVP.
That January, after spending eight weeks on crutches and six more in a walking boot, Sam was cleared for hoops. His first game back was against Trabuco Hills. The Tritons lost by a point; afterward Sam expressed his frustration by punching a locker with his right hand. He fractured his pinkie and missed much of the rest of the season. “He felt so dumb,” says Chris. “Another lesson…”
Because of the maladies, there was limited football tape of Sam in action. Because there was limited tape of Sam in action, there was inconsistent interest from colleges. By the spring of his junior year, Sam (who likely could have been a mid-major Division I basketball recruit) had been pursued hardest in football by Utah and Tennessee, but his future was uncertain. He took visits to Duke, to Northwestern, to Oregon, to Utah, to San Diego State, to Arizona. Coaches came to San Clemente to watch him throw.
“The weird one was Arizona,” says Mike. “They were interested, but one of the coaches—I won’t name him—kept saying he was bothered by Sam’s wrist motion and wouldn’t take him unless he fixed it. We had no idea what he was talking about, but last year Sam beat Arizona [48-14]. His wrist looked pretty good.”
Although Sam played but an hour away, USC was a late entrant into the sweepstakes. During the final week of his junior year, Sam was invited to the USC campus to throw for Steve Sarkisian, then the head coach, and Clay Helton, then the offensive coordinator. What followed was a display of arm strength and savvy that left both men speechless. Yet the Trojans had already signed Ricky Town, the 4-star quarterback prospect out of Thousand Oaks, California.
There wasn’t much time left in the recruiting period, and Sam needed to make up his mind. Three schools made the final cut. He loved Duke’s campus. He thought Utah could be fun. But…USC was Leinart and Bush and the Coliseum and the proximity to home.
“Southern Cal won me over,” Sam says. “My parents would get to see me play, like they’d always seen me play. That was pretty huge.”
One month after throwing for the coaches, Darnold committed to USC. The decision came as a great relief, and Sam’s senior year went down as one of the great runs in Orange County prep history. In basketball, he averaged 14.9 points and 8.5 rebounds while winning his second league MVP. In football, he threw for 39 touchdowns and 2,985 yards over 14 games and was also named offensive league MVP.
Helton, who had never actually seen Sam play, came to a game his senior year and watched him go 12-of-12 for 180 yards and five touchdowns, all in the first half.
At halftime, Helton tapped Ortiz on the shoulder. “Coach, I’ve been recruiting a long time,” he said. “I’ve never seen a player do anything like this.”
Sam spent his true freshman year at USC running the scout team (and distancing himself from Town, who transferred). Then what the Darnolds experienced last year was nothing short of blissful. From Sam starting the year as a seldom-used backup to emerging as, arguably, America’s best collegiate quarterback to the 52-49 thriller over Penn State, the ride was unlike anything the family expected.
“One day you open your eyes and it’s, ‘Holy cow, your son is in this position,’” Mike says. “I mean, it’s crazy, right? Crazy, crazy, crazy—one in a million.”
He pauses. Though Chris is acknowledged by family members as the emotional one, the father has been showing his soft side of late. He insists he never cared whether his children played sports or an instrument or worked a job—as long as they were involved and happy and tried different things. But to have a son as USC’s starting quarterback; to have a son who is a Heisman Trophy front-runner; to have a son who is humble and decent and respectful?
To have a son who is (yawn) a flatliner?
“Say what you want,” Mike says. “Sam’s not flashy, he’s not a yeller, he’s not a trophy collector, a bragger. But I feel like we worked hard to raise our kids the right way. And it’s paid off.”
Jeff Pearlman is a B/R Mag contributing writer and the New York Times best-selling author of seven books. His latest, GUNSLINGER: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, is available here. He podcasts daily here.
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