Once upon a time, three superstar wide receivers and high school teammates set off for USC. Two are now in the NFL. As George Farmer suits up for another season in cardinal and gold, he hopes that he has squashed the injury bug for good—and that before long he'll join his buddies in the big leagues

ONCE UPON A TIME, in South L.A., this could have been a fairy tale.

It's the story of three boys, each good enough to make a football team a powerhouse. They were the talk of Los Angeles after their high school team went undefeated in 2009. The following fall one of them accepted a scholarship to play up the road at USC, and a year later the other two followed.

It's the story of how they hoped to play together and should have played together, three receivers on an unstoppable offense.

It's the story of how that never happened.

You've heard of these boys, men now, or two of them at least. You know Robert Woods, the Buffalo Bills' second-year slot receiver, and you know Marqise Lee, the sixth receiver taken in the 2014 NFL draft, 39th overall by Jacksonville. They made it, from Friday nights at Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., to Saturdays at the Coliseum to Sundays on network television. They pushed each other and cheered each other, model teammates and the best of friends.

But one of the boys got left behind—except the other two refuse to forget him, refuse to believe he won't still follow. In George Farmer's fairy tale the prince has yet to slay the dragon.

To put it simply, Farmer was the best of the three. The 6'1" receiver had every physical advantage, from blazing speed to his 220-pound frame. His gifts were varied, yet they worked in perfect sync. "The thing about George is he's an absolute physical freak," says Scott Altenberg, who coached Farmer, Woods and Lee at Serra. "He's big. He's strong. He's fast. He's also quick. Every day in practice we would do everything that we could competing against each other. It didn't matter what it was—a sprint, some kind of movement drill—nobody could beat him. Nobody could beat George."

That changed when Farmer got to USC and his body began to beat itself. First came a concussion, then a recurring hamstring injury, then a sprained ankle. By the end of his sophomore year he'd played in only 13 games and caught five passes. The knockout blow was a torn ACL in his left knee on April 2, 2013, just as Farmer was beginning to look like the player he was supposed to be—the best receiver in the high school class of 2011. Now, 16 months after that knee went pop, Farmer is back, a redshirt junior coming off strong spring and summer practices, down a knee brace and up a measure of confidence that reminds him of the player he once was.

THEY SAY you can hear it. Farmer recalls only silence—from his teammates, from coaches on the sideline, from the ligament that he felt give way. He'd been running downfield in spring practice, the same way he'd done thousands of times, when his left foot planted oddly and his knee buckled. He landed on the ground, got up and seemed fine, except for that initial twinge and a dull numbness up the back of his leg. He was O.K., he assured everyone, but within the week an MRI proved otherwise. Farmer's ACL was torn, his hope of a breakout junior season ripped away. He was relegated to the sideline and wheeled into surgery. His knee, which had supported him en route to state championships in football and basketball in his junior year of high school, had failed him, and in the aftermath of the injury, coming to grips with that was difficult. "Early on ... he was down a little bit, but once the surgery was done and he started his rehab, he attacked it," USC receivers coach Tee Martin says. "He put so much work into getting himself back to his expectations."

Farmer's knee was reconstructed on May 16, 2013, and he was bedridden for a week and a half. As he lay with his leg propped up, unable to walk, Farmer came to terms with the recovery process that loomed. This was going to be different from the sprains and the strains he'd beaten before. This was going to hurt, and if that was the case, Farmer wanted to make sure the hours of painful, miserable rehab weren't for naught. "You got hurt, and you can't sit back," Farmer says. "You have to do something about it." Something, in this case, began with hours of flexibility work, as Farmer pushed his range of motion and set the blood flowing in his stiff joint once again. The first time USC's head athletic trainer Russ Romano bent Farmer's knee after surgery, the receiver screamed. It was a motion he'd taken for granted, and here it was, making his leg feel like it had just gone up in white-hot flames.

Farmer massaged and bent, rubbed and straightened, until the fire subsided. In the weeks after the surgery the receiver took to measuring his legs. His right calf circumference measured 18 inches, his right quadriceps 24, but the left-side numbers made him cringe. His calf was just 11 inches around, his quad 16. Sweatpants hid the discrepancy, but in the training room, with what were left of his muscles flexed, it was hard to avoid.

Where's my leg? he asked himself daily. Soon the measurements started creeping up. Three and a half months after surgery the former track star was able to jog straight ahead. He added slight cuts soon after, once he'd been fitted for his knee brace, and at seven months a semblance of a football routine returned. It was then that Farmer began running drills, and his muscles began to recall the memories he never thought they'd forget. At eight months Farmer began feeling "kind of normal" again, which was excellent timing: Spring ball for the 2014 season was right around the corner.

The doctors advised USC's coaches to ease Farmer back. His brace was ever present, a kind of security blanket that allowed his confidence to grow, and right around 10 months, at the start of spring ball, Farmer began to stop thinking about the injury. For some, that's the moment recovery ends. But for Farmer, that's when it began. He was no longer the injured football player, no longer reliant on a hunk of black plastic strapped to his knee. At the end of the spring Farmer bid adieu to his brace, completing preseason physical testing without it. There were a few weeks of soreness—"It wasn't a bad sore," Farmer explains—and then the muscles in that left knee stabilized. Farmer's mind did the same.

THERE IS A RIP on the left knee of Farmer's gym shorts, and on this mid-July morning, fresh off a workout, he pulls at it, his thumb spinning the tear around his index finger. He earned that hole somewhere, at practice, or in the weight room, or during one of these mornings of summer drills, and thank goodness for it. He's started earning things again: his coaches' trust, his teammates' awe, his own faith.

As Farmer speaks, an errant soccer ball trails toward him across the brick patio outside the John McKay Center at USC. His eyes follow the ball as it bounce-bounce-rolls, and when it lands at his feet, Farmer's instinct is to stand and kick it back, which he makes the first flash of a motion to do. But he stops, picks up the ball and tosses it. His knees remain still.

This is the mental exercise Farmer now practices, the transition from taking everything for granted to taking nothing for granted. It's the flexing required to pull your brain out of the past and into the precarious now. "It psychologically messes you up," Farmer says, "because you feel like you aren't ever going to get back to where you were before."

This is a man who wore a Superman logo on his track uniform in high school, and it seemed more accurate than boastful. Woods and Lee can attest to the fact that this kid was a beast, the standard by which they measured their abilities. And now they're in the NFL, and Farmer toils at USC, hoping he still has what it takes to catch up.

When USC's new coaching staff arrived in Los Angeles last winter, Farmer was back in physical shape, but mentally he was a long way off. "George is still the one, still at SC, but he's an NFL talent," says coach Steve Sarkisian, who has to convince the young receiver that his potential hasn't waned. Sarkisian, who unsuccessfully recruited Farmer at Washington, had an inkling of what that would take, and upon arriving at USC he made sure to show Farmer a tape he'd brought along. It was of Kevin Smith, a former Washington receiver who went undrafted last spring and is now under contract with the Seahawks. Smith sat out the 2012 season with an ACL tear, and yet on this film from '13 he looks like the kid out of Centennial High in Compton who Farmer had watched throughout his high school career.

And then there's Farmer's dad, who goes by the same name and played receiver for four seasons in the NFL in the 1980s, three with the L.A. Rams and one with the Dolphins. He blew out his knee early in his pro career, and he came back, although briefly. That reassurance helps, as does the story of Kenechi Udeze, a defensive end who dated Farmer's sister Veronica when Farmer was in elementary school. Udeze starred at USC, and he would bring his girlfriend's kid brother around to play catch with the likes of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. That's where Farmer's USC dream began, and as he watched Udeze get picked by the Vikings in the first round of the NFL draft, his dreams became anticipation. Four years later, though, Udeze was diagnosed with leukemia and retired, making a torn ACL look like only the tiniest of setbacks.

These are the men Farmer remembers when he feels left behind, but when it comes time for pep talks, the phone calls are to Woods and Lee. They tell him about life in the NFL, about what it's like to prepare for a pro day or the combine. They tell him he's going to get there because neither can fathom a world in which he doesn't.

"Now it's George time," Woods says. "He has had to sit back and watch myself and Marqise go through it, and now me and Marqise are still in contact with him, telling him it's his time now."

Farmer has always listened. Recently, though, he's begun to believe.

WHEN TEE MARTIN took over as USC's receivers coach in 2012, a banged-up Farmer was listed as a running back on the Trojans' roster. He'd moved there after nagging injuries slowed him freshman year and cost him a starting job—one Lee ended up winning—but the fit wasn't right. Soon after Martin arrived, he heard that Farmer wanted to move back to his natural position. Martin was elated.

Two years later he feels that way again. "I'm excited," Martin says over and over as he discusses every aspect of the season to come, as he dares to entertain the prospect of Farmer being healthy and lining up next to star junior Nelson Agholor. "He knows what he wants to be, knows how he wants to feel, and man, he went after it," Martin says. "Mentally, he's prepared for what's at stake this season."

The adjectives are flying: Elite. Special. One-of-a-kind. Although Martin concedes he won't likely coach a group as talented as Woods, Lee and Farmer ever again, he and Sarkisian envision Farmer zipping up the perimeter, manhandling opponents in one-on-one coverage, leaping into the end zone. Farmer fits perfectly into the offense Sarkisian and company are installing, a sped-up version of USC's traditional pro-style attack. Apart from Agholor, the Trojans' depth chart at receiver has plenty of open space, and Farmer, if healthy, should have no problem earning the reps he's been dreaming of for the past three falls.

"You're built up so much coming out of high school, and you kind of feel that pressure of, I have to be as good as I was coming out of high school," Martin says. "He understands what it's about, and he understands, his role and his piece of the puzzle." Martin pauses. His mind is on a practice field somewhere, in an alternate universe where April 2, 2013, was just another practice. "If he's healthy, man...."

THE FAIRY TALE began at Serra High, 15 minutes down the 110 from USC. It's a small school, just 650 kids, run by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A statue of the missionary after which the place is named stands out front, and on a summer afternoon you'll find a tall, muscular boy or two lingering out front, waiting for a ride home from a workout or a meeting.

These boys know George Farmer. They know Lee and Woods, too, but Farmer is the one who still comes to their games, who just days after learning an injury would cause him to miss his first college game showed up in the stands at theirs. That night Farmer asked Altenberg if he could talk to the team after it suffered its first regular-season loss since 2007. Here was the star, the golden boy gone off to USC, and he was telling them about teamwork, about how he and Woods never competed for catches, about how Lee was never upset about being relegated to defense until Woods graduated.

"He's down in the dumps, but he still comes," Altenberg recalls. "He's one of my proudest examples of what we've had because he's persevered. The Woody and the Marqise, those guys are the easy and the obvious because they've been so successful. In a lot of ways I'm the most proud of George because he's never put his head down. He just keeps grinding. I know it's coming."

It's a healthy season. It's a productive season. It's a season when Farmer looks like the 21-year-old version of himself he was projected to be. Farmer's focus is there, on the next six months, on establishing himself as a college player before he allows his mind to wander further. Sometimes, though, he can't help it. Sometimes he remembers the old pacts, the old dreams, when he and Woods and Lee would plot how they were going to end up on the same NFL team.

Farmer shrugs. Maybe it's still possible. Woods, though, admits that it's not. He's seen how hard football has been on his friend. He's seen that it's a business as much as a sport. No, Woods says, they won't all three wear the same uniform again. The goal is different now.

They're going to play in the same Pro Bowl. They're going to cling to their happy ending because once upon a time, it didn't seem half so hard to reach.

When it comes time for pep talks, the PHONE CALLS ARE TO WOODS AND LEE, who tell him about life in the NFL and how he's going to get there.

1,514

Receiving yards Farmer amassed on 65 catches in his senior year of high school, to go with 14 touchdowns.

49

Receiving yards Farmer has amassed entering his fourth year at USC. He's also returned three kicks for 59 yards.

CHUCKIE KEETON BRACING HIMSELF

Six months after the season-ending ACL and MCL tears he suffered in an Oct. 4 game against BYU, Chuckie Keeton eased into limited spring practices. But Utah State's thrill-inducing dual-threat quarterback was bothered by the plastic and fabric that encased his left knee. He fiddled with it after every play. Eventually, though, Keeton ceased to notice. After two weeks of spring ball, a summer of strength and conditioning, and player-run practices, he forgot about the brace. "Now," he says, "it's like an extension of my body."

That's a good thing for Utah State, which plans to have Keeton under center for its Aug. 31 opener at Tennessee. In 2012, Keeton set single-season school records for touchdown passes (27), passing yards (3,373) and total offense (3,992). He came into '13 with his fair share of Heisman buzz, which he justified by throwing for 18 touchdowns and 1,388 yards (with only two interceptions) in six games.

This fall the noise isn't quite as loud, but it's there—and Keeton has tried to embrace it. "Years ago there was never even a thought that Utah State would have a Heisman candidate," he says, "and I think I bring it in the back of my head to every practice so I have something to live up to every day."

Farmer fits perfectly into the offense Sarkisian and company are installing, a sped-up version of USC's traditional pro-style attack.

PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck Sports IllustratedJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BACKGROUND)REAL CATCH Farmer, the top-rated receiver in the high school class of 2011, has played sparingly in 13 games and made five catches at USC. PHOTOJOHN E. MCGILLEN/USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENTRUNNING BACK Farmer, who spent a full year rehabbing his torn ACL, didn't shed his brace and the lingering doubts in his mind until after spring practice. PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN PYLE/CSM/LANDOVFAST COMPANY Farmer (8) stood on the sideline with Agholor (15) and Lee (9) in 2012, and caught up with former high school rival De'Anthony Thomas later that season. PHOTOED RUVALCABA/MARINMEDIA/CAL SPORT MEDIA[See caption above] PHOTOLARRY CLOUSE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (KEETON) PHOTOJOHN PYLE/CAL SPORT MEDIAHOME SCHOOL Despite his own struggles, Farmer has been an inspirational presence for the players who followed him at Serra High. ILLUSTRATION

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