With one week remaining in this past spring ball session, Hershel Dennis stepped into a Los Angeles tattoo parlor to give himself a reminder. A reminder why he continues to do what he does. Why he gives it his all day after day, battling back from serious knee injuries, staying in school, and positioning himself to make a significant contribution to the team as the 2007 season draws near.
Anyone close to Dennis already knows the reason why he continues to do what he does, and knows that Dennis himself wouldn’t need a reminder anyway. Still, etched onto Dennis’ right forearm is that one-month old reminder, a rendition of his mother, Rose Teofilo, atop the inscription: “The Reason.”
“The Reason... I do everything,” explains “Patch,” as he’s long been known to family and friends. “The reason I am the person I am today.” And much of the reason Dennis ended up in the Cardinal and Gold in the first place -- as opposed to Thunder Green and Lightning Yellow.
Coming out of high school, Dennis was torn between heading up to Eugene, Oregon to play for Mike Bellotti and the Ducks, and staying in the Los Angeles area to play for Pete Carroll. Dennis recalls of his recruitment period: “I told my Mom that I was thinking about going to Oregon and she wouldn’t have it. She wanted me to stay close.” Dennis knew that it would mean a lot to his mother for her to be able to attend his games in person and to be able to visit her son her son when she began to miss him being at home. And, in that steadfast, determined manner of hers, which Dennis obviously inherited from her, Mama Rose, as he affectionately refers to her, would not be denied.
“She was crying, and when I signed, saying ‘University of Southern California,’ she went crazy. She’s getting a little older and seeing how much she wanted me to be close to her was a big part of my decision to come to USC.” With the incredible run the Trojans have had recently, and the contributions Dennis has made the three seasons he has played, which resulted in three BCS Bowl victories and two National Championships, Dennis appreciates his decision: “Now I thank her for helping me make up my mind. I can’t thank her enough.”
Once at USC, the future appeared to be very bright for Dennis, who came in as part of the “Long Beach Poly Five” -- five highly recruited high school superstars that included Darnell Bing, Winston Justice, Manuel Wright and Marcedes Lewis. With Dennis in the fold, all but Lewis ended up at Troy.
As a true freshman, Dennis played in all 13 games, punctuating the season with a 38-yard touchdown run against UCLA in a game where he was also the leading rusher. Dennis calls that touchdown, his first ever in the collegiate ranks, “a great feeling; one of my greatest moments.” Dennis started in all 13 games his sophomore season, ahead of future Trojan stars Reggie Bush and LenDale White. For the second year in a row Dennis was the leading rusher against UCLA. And then came the adversity.
Following an unauthorized party during fall camp in 2004, Dennis was suspended from the team while an ensuing investigation ran its course, eventually clearing Dennis of any criminal wrongdoing. But the damage was done -- the success of Bush and White, who gelled into the formidable tandem of “Thunder and Lightning,” relegated Dennis to the role of reserve. A humbling experience for an athlete who, to this day, owns the career rushing and touchdown marks at Long Beach Poly, as well as the single season rushing record. And all this at a school that has sent more players to the NFL than any other high school in the country.
Dennis once again contemplated a change of scenery to the Pacific Northwest, with the specific destination of Eugene in mind. “The reason” Dennis never embarked on that journey? Again, the Trojan faithful can thank Mama Rose. “He wanted to transfer after the allegations, after he was suspended,” Teofilo relates. “I told him, ‘You’re not going anywhere. I don’t care what people say. Whether you play football or not, you’re going to finish school... As long as you graduate, that’s all I care about.’” It was particularly important to Teofilo that Dennis graduate from USC because Dennis is the only one of Teofilo’s children to have attended a university.
Dennis chose to stick it out, looking to contribute wherever he could. Unfortunately, during a practice prior to 2005 Orange Bowl, Dennis tore ligaments in his left knee. He would not only miss out on the opportunity to play in what was the 2005 BCS title game, but the 2005 season was scratched off of Dennis’ dance card as well. “To sit out for so long was the hardest part to deal with,” says Dennis. Dennis stuck it out through an arduous rehab. The reason? That’s right -- she’s staring at you on his right forearm.
The 2006 season saw a rejuvenated Dennis eager to see the gridiron again and increase the role he played on the team, particularly as USC saw both of its backfield superstars in Bush and White bolt early for the NFL. The starting tailback position was ripe for Dennis’ taking. But then those ligaments in his left knee failed Dennis once more. “Last season crushed my heart. In my fifth year, everything looked like it was falling into place, that I would get an opportunity to show people what I could do. It was a hurtful moment when my knee went out again.”
“But as soon as it happened, I was already thinking about the future and what I could do to get better. It was just another thing to get over and I couldn’t waste time being negative about it. I just worked a lot harder, and got a lot better.” The reason for Dennis’ no-nonsense approach to dealing with this latest setback, while others might have wallowed in self-pity? “My Mom helped a lot.” Dennis explains. “She always told me everything was going to be all right.” Teofilo resorted to a traditional Samoan remedy -- leaves with baby oil massaged into Dennis’ damaged knee. “It’s a Samoan thing and it’s supposed to help a lot.” Teofilo would also constantly offer encouragement, repeatedly telling her son, “Don’t give up, you’re going to make it, I know it.”
How much does Teofilo mean to Dennis? “She’s the reason why I go to rehab every day. The reason why I work out and get ready to play. The reason I work hard at practice every day. All I have to do is look at her, and it reminds me what I need to do, what I need to get done, to be successful and help my mother out. To get my family taken care of. To get my family in a better position, for my future children. That’s the reason I’m trying to reach my goals.”
Dennis continues to strive for those goals and doesn’t harbor resentment about the roller coaster of events fate dealt him during his tenure at ‘SC: “I’m just fortunate to be on the team and part of this history we’re making. I knew things would turn around at ‘SC when I came in.”
Things seem to be turning around for Dennis, as well. “My knee is great. I just got it scoped. Everything is healthy. My body is in shape.” Dennis says he’s also faster and smarter about the game. “What mostly improved was my mental game. I think that will be a big part of my playing this season.” Dennis is excited at the prospect of Steve Sarkisian taking over the reins of the offense full time. “The offense this year will be potent. I like Sarkisian a lot. We’ll be well balanced.”
The series of events comprising Dennis' college career have left him with a rare perspective: Having been injured during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Dennis only knows Orange Bowl victories and National Championships. “I’m back so we’re going back to the show,” he declares confidently. “It’s Natty [National Championship] time. That’s all I know, bowl victories and National Championships.”
A successful spring ball session performance left many in attendance at the 2007 Spring Huddle excited about Dennis’ prospects for next season, and “reintroduced” Dennis to the Trojan faithful. “The biggest thing I want to accomplish” says Dennis, “is just to show everybody that I’m not done, that I can still play this game. Once I accomplish that, it will be a great feeling.”
Just earning that chance was an uphill battle in and of itself. In order to obtain a rare sixth year of eligibility, Dennis had to complete all of his USC coursework and graduate with a baccalaureate degree. Not that Dennis needed any additional motivation to stay in school and graduate: “That’s something that my Mom really wanted, for me to graduate from USC. I love keeping her happy and I love making her smile. The best gift I can give to my mother is graduating from ‘SC. That’s all she ever really wanted.”
Regardless of what happens in football, whether Dennis reclaims the starting job and goes on to a successful career in the NFL, one thing is certain: Dennis fulfilled one of Mama Rose’s goals for him by graduating from USC this past Friday. “I am so proud. I am so happy,” gushes Teofilo. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
And while Mama Rose may be the reason Dennis does a lot of what he does, today it is Dennis’ turn to be “The Reason.” The Reason why Mama Rose needs to do some additional housework -- in particular, clearing out some wall space for Dennis’ newly conferred USC degree -- a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology.
Mama Rose, Hershel and dad Dino at graduation