This story appears in the Sept. 14, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Down the Third Street Promenade, past the violinist and the flutist, the drummer and the dancer, the painter and the mime, a cowboy named Red sings Cody Kessler’s song. Red Benson has played the Promenade for almost a decade, usually perched on a stool between Starbucks and Barney’s Beanery, in a white Stetson and a leather vest, the American flag at his back and a Martin guitar against his knee. Red is a 66-year-old Vietnam veteran with a snowy beard that reminds passersby of Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazzard and a soulful voice that recalls a place far from the Santa Monica Pier lit up three blocks away. “When you hear him,” says Anthony Jeremiah, who patrols the Promenade as an ambassador, “you feel like you’re at a campfire in the Old West.”
Four years ago, after dinner at Johnny Rockets, a homesick USC freshman was lured by Red’s warm lilt and longhorn belt buckle. The kid came from Bakersfield, land of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, oil wells and almond farms, Steinbeck novels and stock car races. He was an athlete, not an Aggie, but he grew up a block from an alfalfa field where sheep provided the morning soundtrack. His father worked graveyard shifts at the state prison. His grandmother migrated from Oklahoma after the Joads. USC sat only 100 miles from Bakersfield, but it might as well have been on another planet, where students spotted the Justin boots and asked if he went cow-tipping on weekends. “I felt different,” he says, “like an underdog.”
He plopped down on the curb outside Johnny Rockets, nodded along to Red’s country staples, and put in a request for his favorite Merle tune: “Mama Tried.” He sang in unison, apparently loud enough that Red asked where he was from, and when he left the Promenade that night, Los Angeles felt a little bit smaller. He kept going back, with a buddy from Bakersfield who played baseball at Cal State Northridge, and eventually introduced himself as Cody Kessler. He always asked for “Mama Tried” and always flipped a fiver into Red’s tobacco can. “I looked up to him,” Kessler says, “partly because he is such a cool guy but also because he reminded me of home. I wanted him to remember me.”
Last spring Kessler finally told Red that he was a USC quarterback, a startling revelation on a few levels. From Todd Marinovich to Rob Johnson, Carson Palmer to Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez to Matt Barkley, virtually every notable USC signal-caller in the past quarter century sprouted out of the manicured Orange County suburbs. They stood between 6' 2" and 6' 5", with arms engineered for deep outs, nurtured by personal coaches and polished in seven-on-seven passing leagues. Kessler was another kind of prodigy. He was only 6' 1", and he probably needed Waze to find Newport Beach, but he threw with Clayton Kershaw control. When USC recruited him out of Centennial High School, his coach asked, “Will it be an issue that he’s not from Orange County?” The Trojans already had Max Wittek, a 6' 4" flamethrower from Mater Dei High, the nationally acclaimed alma mater of Leinart and Barkley.
No issue. Kessler has become a deadeye marvel for the Trojans, tossing 39 touchdowns as a junior last year with only five interceptions while setting single-season school records for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7) and interception rate (1.1%). He is a product of the analytical age, emphasizing efficiency and minimizing risk, fuming when the ball so much as touches the turf. “Post to the right hash,” he grumbles, when quizzed about a rare misfire at practice, just beyond the fingertips of junior receiver Isaac Whitney. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.” He allows himself no more than one pick for every 100 passes and geeks out over video of Drew Brees in 2011, when the Saints’ QB completed 71.2% of his throws. “Cody is frustrating to practice against,” says junior linebacker Su’a Cravens, “because he doesn’t make mistakes.”
Kessler appreciates 40-yard fly patterns as much as the next gunslinger, but he will inform you that he averaged 11.2 yards on checkdown passes to running backs last season, proof that prudence doesn’t have to diminish production. “He likes that stat a lot,” says offensive coordinator Clay Helton. Kessler has moved the chains for USC, through three head coaches in two years, and he has spared the defense when scholarship reductions—the result of NCAA sanctions over improper benefits—limited depth.
Red calls himself a USC fan, since his father attended the school, but he stopped following the team when it was put on probation in 2010. He had to catch up on Kessler’s exploits through YouTube. Kessler is nobody’s underdog anymore. He has guided the eighth-ranked Trojans back to respectability and, perhaps, prominence. USC thrashed Arkansas State in the opener 55–6 behind four touchdowns from Kessler on 19-of-26 passing. Red, who was in Mexico visiting his girlfriend, could not catch the game but asked his son to record it. “I’ll be watching now,” he says.
On the last Saturday before his senior season Kessler left a practice at the Coliseum and considered how to spend one final night of freedom. Oh, the many options available to a USC quarterback. He hopped in his 2004 GMC Sierra pickup with The Best of Buck Owens CD that his grandma gave him last Christmas. He planned to head up Interstate 5, through the Tehachapi Mountains and into the San Joaquin Valley, until the smell of fresh fertilizer flooded his nostrils. “Nice and pungent,” he said, faking a whiff. There was a football game at Liberty High, maybe dinner at Salty’s BBQ, Sunday-morning service at Valley Baptist Church, with a sermon sure to steady him for the Heisman hype and playoff chatter to come. “Back to where it all started,” he said, to the bottom of California’s bread basket, where all those newfangled farm-to-table joints are made possible. He turned on the ignition. The truck screeched. The battery was dead. Alas, so was his Saturday night.
There was no going back.
In the spring of 2007, Pete Carroll was in Bakersfield speaking at Hoffman Hospice’s annual fundraiser. Afterward, as the USC coach signed autographs and posed for pictures in a banquet room, Don Kessler piped up: “When you're recruiting, what do you look for in a quarterback?” Carroll stopped signing. “I don’t care how big you are, how tall you are and how far you can throw,” he said, as if addressing a young Russell Wilson, “I look for a catchable ball.”
Don had recently retired from Wasco State Prison, where he was a corrections officer overseeing inmates, leading them to the commissary and the yard. On the 35-minute commute home he and his carpool companions listened to jazz, which smoothed the transition from guard to dad. Don’s son was a basketball player, a shaggy-haired floor general with radar vision, and if there was one thing he could do, it was deliver a catchable ball. Cody preferred to drive rather than shoot, because of the two enviable outcomes that usually ensued: either he finished at the rim or drew a second defender, leaving a teammate open for a pass. He always had a choice—the layup or the kick-out—but he trusted himself to evaluate the odds and make the right one.
Cody played for a club basketball team in Redondo Beach, so at least once a week Don chauffeured him to Los Angeles, and Orange County wasn’t much farther. Don called two of the area’s prominent quarterback coaches. One was too expensive. The other, Steve Calhoun, invited Cody to work out at Cerritos College between basketball games. After the session Calhoun and Cody stood 15 yards apart on the field, firing footballs at each other’s faces. Calhoun awarded two points for a ball at the face, one for a ball at the midsection. First to 10 was the winner. Calhoun, who played quarterback at New Mexico State and for nine years in Europe, prevailed that day. But he recognized that he had just met a 14-year-old who would soon take him down. ‘We changed his footwork and his mechanics,” Calhoun says. “But his accuracy never changed.”
Cody started at point guard as a freshman in high school, at quarterback as a sophomore. The Central Valley does not produce many downfield threats, so coach Bryan Nixon urged Cody to sustain drives. Kessler took Nixon’s message seriously, maybe too seriously. He berated himself for interceptions, and even incompletions, compelling his father to remind him of other great quarterbacks who misfired once in a while. “He didn’t want to hear it,” Don says. “He’d get so mad at himself. It ate at him.” Cody kept Calhoun late if he didn't like the spin on his spiral or if he hit an open receiver on the wrong shoulder—or the wrong side of the correct shoulder. In the Central Section championship against Bullard High rain was expected. Nixon brought wet balls to practice. “Cody flipped out,” the coach recalls. “He was so worried.” He threw for 306 yards in the Fresno muck. The next year he threw for 36 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Cody leaned toward Washington, coached by Steve Sarkisian, a former Carroll lieutenant who also prized catchable balls. Sarkisian had watched Kessler play hoops—the way he absorbed contact in the lane, the way he spotted teammates before they sprang open, the way he set up wings and let them work—and believed he’d found the ideal commander for a no-huddle offense. In the spring before his senior season, in 2010, Cody and his dad squeezed into Nixon’s office at Centennial, and the coach fished Sarkisian's business card out of his drawer. Cody was committing to Washington. “Is there anybody who could change your mind?” Nixon asked.
“No,” Cody said.
“What about USC?” Don asked.
“They haven’t even called,” Cody replied.
As Nixon prepared to dial Sarkisian, the phone rang. Don saw the name flash on caller ID: Clay Helton, USC. “Hey, Coach,” Helton said, when Nixon picked up. “Am I too late?”
Cody's first trip to USC, five years earlier, had been unforgettable, the 2005 epic against Fresno State, when the Trojans piled up 50 points and 508 yards to edge the Bulldogs 50–42. Cody, 12 at the time, sat in the nosebleeds above the student section in a Reggie Bush jersey. Ten years later, when asked about that game, he contorts his body to mimic Bush stopping on the sideline before reversing field for a touchdown.
“So do you want to call Sark now?” Don asked, after Nixon hung up with Helton.
“Dad,” Cody said, “ it’s USC.”
He roomed with Cody Gifford, a walk-on receiver and the son of Bakersfield legend Frank Gifford. He played country music. He went line dancing. He was a source of amusement and curiosity. “Where’s that been?” then coach Lane Kiffin asked when Kessler unleashed a 70-yard heave for fun in practice. Kessler could fling it when he wanted, but where was the sense in a Hail Mary when he could so easily find Marqise Lee underneath with room to roam? As Kessler undressed in the locker room at the Sun Bowl in 2012, after Wittek played every snap of a 21–7 loss to Georgia Tech, he wondered if USC was the right choice. Should I transfer? Kessler, then a freshman, thought. Before he could even consider his response, a reporter asked that very question. “No,” Kessler blurted out. In the tunnel on the way to the bus he told his dad, “I’m going to win this job next year.”
He became the most stable part of a turbulent program. Kiffin was famously fired at LAX following a 62–41 loss to Arizona State in September 2013. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was promoted, on an interim basis, only to be passed over at the end of the season; that same day Sarkisian was tabbed as the Trojans’ new leader. Orgeron met with players in the morning, to say goodbye, and Sarkisian met with them in the evening, to say hello. At one point during that tumultuous ’13 season former USC tailback Marcus Allen also addressed the squad and locked eyes with Kessler in the back row of the meeting room. “This is your team now, whether you like it or not,” Allen said. The ’13 Trojans somehow reached 10 wins.
Kessler helped bridge the gulf between Sarkisian, who replaced a father figure in Orgeron, and a damaged locker room. Last month, when Sarkisian went on his alcohol-fueled rant during the annual Salute to Troy event, Kessler took his spot on stage at Loker Track Stadium and delivered the speech traditionally given by the head coach. The band played. The fireworks exploded. “Somebody had to do it,” says a booster who was among the crowd of approximately 1,200. “In that moment he emerged as the leader. He did what he always does. He did what needed to be done.”
Unlike the main character in his favorite song, Kessler is not a rebel child, nor is he from a family meek and mild. His father scared him with enough true stories about real 21-year-olds in prison doing life without parole. Kessler’s forearms are ringed with rubber bands and friendship bracelets trumpeting his many pet causes: one from a cousin who had skin cancer, one from an aunt who teaches special ed, one from a boy who died of a brain tumor, one from troops serving overseas.
In middle school Kessler asked his parents to take in a basketball teammate who had hardly anywhere else to live, and they obliged. In high school he asked the same for a football teammate. Shawn Johnson stayed in the same room as Cody’s younger brother, Dylan, and graduated from Montana State last spring as the school’s leading all-purpose rusher. Johnson is back in Bakersfield with Don and Christie Kessler, in the house with the USC flag out front, down the road from the alfalfa farm that’s becoming a development. The sheep are gone.
On the field—and only on the field—the Trojans encourage Kessler to tap into his hometown’s outlaw spirit. Last season Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers uncorked 18 interceptions, tied for the most in the NFL. Brees finished with 17, Andrew Luck 16, Peyton Manning 15. No passer wants picks, but for the most prolific they’re a natural consequence. “Cody is such a conscientious person,” Sarkisian says. “He wants everything right all the time.” If a receiver’s split is three yards off, he will call timeout. If his route is two yards short, he will look him off. Sarkisian loves that about him. “But there are times,” the coach adds, “it doesn’t matter if he’s three yards off.”
For this season to be as perfect as Kessler desires, he will have to stomach some mistakes. “We have pushed Cody to let it go a little,” Sarkisian says. “There will be some failures. But you don’t know how far you can get until you push yourself.” Sarkisian is not advising him to fit 30-yard missiles between two defenders. He is just emphasizing that Kessler can do way more than check down. “I’m always telling him, ‘Dude, let’s rack up some yards!’ ” says sophomore receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. “I’m trying to change him, but Cody is always going to make the best decision for the team.”
Kessler will never turn into some Favreian daredevil, but he acknowledges times last season when he should have launched incompletions instead of taken sacks, percentages be damned. Six preseason Top 25 teams loom on the USC schedule—Stanford, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA—and he won’t be able to manage all those games. He’ll have to seize some. Then he’ll head off to the NFL and hopefully buy a new pickup, while order is restored at the Coliseum. The next ballyhooed quarterback in the Trojans pipeline is freshman Sam Darnold, 6' 4" out of Orange County.
But Darnold can cool his flip-flops while a boot-stomping All-America sniper from Bakersfield takes aim at the shiny trophies. As far away as they are, four months over the horizon, he makes them look catchable.