ESPN The Magazine

WHAT, ME WORRY?

Good thing college football’s top quarterback performs best under pressure, because Sam Darnold has returned USC to LA’s most glaring spotlight.

SAM DARNOLD IS GONE. It is 2002, and one moment the 5-year-old is splashing in the water on his boogie board, and then he isn’t. His mother, Chris, and his 8-year-old sister, Franki, are enjoying a sun-kissed summer day at their favorite spot, Linda Lane, near their home in Capistrano Beach, California, and they don’t notice Sam paddling out into the ocean on his own or the rip current that sneaks up and pulls him some 200 yards out into the Pacific. The waves swell to 6 feet, and Chris realizes Sam has been drawn out to sea with no reasonable way to safety. She sprints to the nearest tower and pleads with a lifeguard to dive in after her son, pointing to a speck on the water. “He looks huge for his age, but he’s only 5!” she screams.

The lifeguard tries to calm her while he assesses a set of waves and the mess the boy has gotten himself into. “Let’s just wait and see if he can catch one of those and ride it in,” he says. Each second feels like 60. But soon, a giant wave forms behind the little redhead on the bright yellow boogie board. Mom holds her breath as it crests. He catches it and bounces along the whitecaps all the way onto shore. His panicked mother runs to him in tears. Her boy stands and looks at her, then heads back into the water with a devilish grin on his face.

THOUGH HE IS still not yet old enough to legally drink a beer, Sam Darnold’s legend already burns bright, even by Hollywood standards. As a redshirt freshman last season, Darnold took over as USC’s starting quarterback and rallied a reeling 1–3 team to nine straight wins, including a Rose Bowl victory. Now the Trojans faithful look to him to lead the team to its first national title in 13 years, a saga that just

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