Punters rarely get be to heroes. In fact, it's often regrettable that they are on the field in the first place. But on Saturday, walk-on transfer punter Kyle Negrete was the story of the night.
Negrete faked the punt for a 35-yard gain on fourth-and-9, which resulted in a first down and shifted the momentum, leading to the Trojans' 40-17 victory over Washington. He also managed to take down a Washington defender in the process. By the end of the first half, he had more rushing yards than the entire Husky offense.
"They like how I finished the play because often times punters aren't known to be guys who can run somebody over," said Negrete, who played linebacker and free safety at Clovis West and the University of San Diego before transferring to USC for the 2010 season.
In fact, the last time he ran that much was after an interception while he was still playing for San Diego.
"He was not supposed to," said head coach Lane Kiffin of Negrete's hit. "We don't have a back-up punter yet."
But Negrete respectfully disagreed and told the coach if he had the chance he wasn't going to slide as instructed. At 6-feet and 210 pounds, he could take a hit or two.
Negrete has quite a story himself.
He is the son of the late Patty Negrete, the daughter of Jim Sweeny, the winningest head coach in Fresno State history.
Patty died May 17, 2002, of breast cancer. Her son has written that date in permanent marker on his arm before every game since the seventh grade. Underneath his pads, he wears a shirt he made for his mother when he was in the third grade for Mother's Day. It reads, "Mom is the Bomb" with a smiling picture of a much smaller Negrete on the front.
"I haven't lost many games while wearing that shirt either."
If only Mom could see him now.
In February of Negrete's senior year, he injured his back in a car accident. After two seasons as a starting punter and part-time linebacker at University of San Diego, he needed surgery to repair two herniated disks. After surgery, his family decided that it was time to try to play at the Division I level. Negrete transferred to USC to punt. Because of NCAA rules, he was forced to sit out the 2010 season.
Right before the 2011 season, Negrete won the starting job over scholarship freshman Kris Albarado.
Coming into this weekend, Negrete had 28 punts for 1,066 yards. His longest was a 57-yarder against Arizona State. And then, he changed the game against Washington.
"I feel like that was the crushing blow to them. After that play, there was a complete transformation."
Negrete has a habit of making changes, more so in life than in football.
Three years ago, Negrete met Joel Anderson through the Autism Tree Project Foundations Football mentorship Program. Anderson had painted a portrait of San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who had played for Sweeny at Fresno State. Inspired, Negrete met Anderson and then encouraged San Diego athletes to create a "Best Buddies" program. Eighty-five student-athletes signed up to partner with the foundation and mentor people with autism. Despite Negrete moving to Los Angeles, Anderson and Negrete consider each other more family than friends.
Last Christmas, Negrete accompanied QB Matt Barkley and his family to Nigeria on a multi-faceted mission trip to a village devastated by war. He helped build wells for clean water and set up sports equipment.
Negrete also helps lead a Bible study for members of the football team.
Inspired by the trip, Negrete teamed up with others this fall to spearhead "The Wells Project." Already in existence at other college campuses, it partners with Living Waters International to help bring clean water to Rwanda. As part of the program, they promoted the "10 Days campaign" which encourages students to take the money they would spend on other drinks, such as coffee or soda, for 10 days and donate it to the cause.
Negrete is also on the executive board of "Fresh Faith," a newly created Bible study founded by USC WR Brice Butler. Meeting every other Wednesday, it is open to the entire community and features different speakers and worship leaders.
The business administration and finance major eventually wants to work for a non-profit organization.
That is not surprising. Negrete loves people.
After the game tonight, Negrete didn't thank the abstract and general "team" or "the staff." He credited special teams coordinator John Baxter for preparing the team and special teams ace Ross ******* for making the call to use the fake punt. He made sure to mention Xavier Grimble, Rhett Ellison and Randall Telfer, specifically, for their protection.
And he made everyone take note that the game was in fact dedicated to CB Nickell Robey's mother, who also passed away two years ago. This weekend would have been her birthday.
"There's a lot of guys on this team that have lost loved ones. That sense of love that we have for one another and that brotherhood and that companionship we have you can't find that anywhere else.
Here's a guy who never gets the spotlight, and the first thing he does is take and point it on everyone else, but himself.
"We preach about on this team building relationships," said Negrete after the game.
Negrete though, seems to have built himself quite a reputation. When it comes to life, Kyle Negrete isn't a punter.
He's a game changer.