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December 4, 2009Sixth-year senior Jeff Byers has no problems speaking his mind. He'll back his teammates; he'll back his politics. You ask; he answers.
So when the topic of the upcoming Presidential election made its way into the USC locker room last year, Byers had no problem taking one Barack Obama supporter to task.
"My whole thing is don't blindly support somebody," Byers said.
But when it came to USC's quarterback, Byers ignored his No. 1 political rule.
Months later at a USC men's basketball game, Byers hung out with the newest Trojan football player, all-everything quarterback Matt Barkley. The 18-year old kid and the 24-year old man hit it off.
It would eventually be Byers' job to protect Barkley on the field, but first, Byers made sure to protect him off of the field too.
"It's hard not to get close to this guy. He came in, and he's clearly something special," Byers said. "He's so humble; he's so grounded. He does everything right. He's got a great head on his shoulders. He comes from a great family. Just something said, 'Watch out for this kid.' He needs it."
"I feel like there were older guys that did that when I came in, and I've got to return the favor. You have to take guys under your wing when you can, and he's got a chance to be really special. There's no question about that."
There's also no question just how special Byers has been to USC during his six years on campus. USC head coach Pete Carroll raves about Byers the same way Byers talks about USC's young quarterback.
"Jeff's a fascinating kid," Carroll said. "He's on the top rung of everything. His character, his willingness to work, his desire, his love for the game, being a good sportsman, being a great teammate, being a great team leader, he's all of those things. He has all of the tangibles and the intangibles off the top of the charts."
Part of what makes Byers so interesting is what he does off the field. Carroll had Byers deliver an impromptu lesson on the economy. He'll talk about health care. But he's not just providing information; he's setting the groundwork for an argument.
Like his coach, he's always competing.
"When Jeff's in the room, we'll talk about these things for 30 or 40 minutes," center Kristofer O'Dowd said. "We'll be going back and forth. The one thing I respect most about Jeff is that he never loses his cool. He'll always come out with a strong argument and support it.
"He's a smart kid. No, he's a smart man."
Discussion and debate fuel Byers in those candid moments with his teammates.
"It's what's great about America. You don't have to follow. You don't have to agree with people or with what's going on," he said. "There are people around me who have opposite beliefs that I do, and I think that's healthy. We can talk about it. You don't judge someone based upon his or her beliefs.
"That's ignorant, and it's stupid."
A hip sprain cost Byers his second year on campus and a back sprain kept him out for nearly all of his third year. But those injuries were temporary setbacks that have since paid off. Byers was given a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after the 2008-09 season.
He had a choice to make, and the opportunity to earn a master's degree in business administration made things pretty clear.
"It was either I go and don't come back. I wasn't where I wanted to be in terms of the NFL. I'd have to go try my luck in the NFL and come back and finish school. That's hard. It doesn't make sense," Byers said. "Or I had an opportunity to get it done. Get it out of the way, and never have to worry about it again. I can do what I want to do and not have to worry about finishing it. It worked out great."
He made the most of the year back, improving his game and inspiring his team.
"He felt like he had something to prove," Charles Brown said. "We knew that it was going to be a good year for him with a lot of effort and a lot of time in the film room. We knew it was going to help us out a lot. He was going to teach us a lot."
Byers also got his weight up and gave NFL scouts plenty to look at, playing every game in 2009.
"A year ago, it'd have been very difficult for him to have much of a draft status because of his health and his inability to put together an offseason," Carroll said. "Now, with a whole year, he's ready to go. Jeff's going to make it. He's going to play. The team that gets him will be very lucky."
He even helped Carroll evaluate Barkley.
"We went bowling once during camp, and I remember sitting down with Jeff and asking him what he thought about the young kid and how he fits in," Carroll said. "He just raved about his command. He raved about his understanding, his presence in the huddle and everything. I knew they had gotten off to a great start."
That great start has continued through the year. The two even shared Thanksgiving dinner together with Barkley's family in Orange County.
"He's been like a big brother to me," Barkley said.
And that bond has grown stronger over the course of the season.
"He's in uncharted water. He was an 18-year-old quarterback starting for the Trojans," Byers said. "The media tried to tear him apart. The amount of stress and pressure that he goes through is ridiculous. Sometimes, all you need is a good friend and someone to say, 'Who gives a crap? Let's go have fun and have a good day.'
"I see some of me in him. He's a good kid who wants to work hard and have fun. That's a rare quality. He means well in everything he does."
It's the time spent mentoring Barkley and debating with his teammates that Byers will miss.
"I think it's the locker room time, the time you spend in meeting, the time you spend at 6 a.m. in the spring working out with the guys. I think those are the things you'll remember," Byers said. "You'll remember games, but those games all end up blurring together. It's the relationships you build, joking around in the locker room. That's what you remember."
Saturday against Arizona, Byers will walk onto the field at the Coliseum for the final time. The crowd will cheer when it hears his name. The anonymous offensive lineman, the man who blocks for the Trojans who get the glory and win the awards, will have his moment.
"You don't truly understand what it means until months or years down the road. I don't know. This week is just any other week. I've had no time to reflect. You go out, you put your cleats on and you go to work every day," Byers said. "Once it's gone and done with, that's when it hits you. When that happens, it could be two weeks, six months or 10 years, at some point in my life, it'll hit me. Then, I'll understand what it all meant to me.
"You just put the pieces together one at a time. I don't know what the puzzle looks like yet. I may have just built the frame. I haven't filled anything in."
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