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Welcome to Trojan football: A USC staffer and other female fans go to pigskin school

As USC fans and college football loyalists across the nation count down the days until football season, USC staffer Merrill Balassone ’05 stands among the faithful. Balassone recounts her experience at Football 101, a preseason USC Athletics event for women

Merrill Balassoneby Merrill Balassone
Balassone catching football
Merrill Balassone takes a pass during wide-receiver drills. (Photo/Pierson Clair | PC4Photo)

It was 8 a.m., and some of us had mimosas in hand. But this was no ladies’ brunch: We were here to block, pass and run.

With a football.

At training camp.

During this full day of study about the iconic American game, 200 other female football fanatics and I would ask USC coaches and players how they plan to defend against the quick-moving Oregon Ducks (when we meet them in the Pac-12 Championship, naturally), whether “icing the kicker” really works and what the heck a “21” offense is.

Dressed in football jerseys and other Trojan fan wear, we crowded into the $70 million John McKay Center, surrounded by rows of gleaming weights on racks and heavy punching bags on the indoor turf field.

“My son is jealous,” whispered a retired schoolteacher, the mother of a USC alum, about her day. “My daughter laughed and asked, ‘Are you going to be wearing helmets and pads?’”

For the third straight year, head coach Lane Kiffin and his better half, Layla Kiffin, hosted the Football 101 camp earlier this summer, with proceeds going toward Women of Troy Scholarships for USC’s female athletes. (A video from the 2012 camp hints at what was to come.)

Words from Coach

“This is our favorite event of the year, right, Coach O?” Kiffin asked defensive line coach Ed Orgeron with a grin to start our seven-hour day of pigskin.

“Yessss, suh!” came the deep, gravelly Cajun accent of Orgeron, who gained some silver-screen fame playing himself in the movie The Blind Side.

“You guys are suuuure better-lookin’ than the D-line at 6 a.m.!” he said. That may have changed after our first five minutes of lineman drills.

Lesson one came from defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who showed us the correct positioning of our hands on an opponent while taking on a block (one on the sternum and one on the bicep), as well as differences in footing for each defensive player.

Then came quarterbacks coach Clay Helton, who — after making us pledge to keep information “in the Trojan Family” — gave us an up-close view of the infamous laminated card Lane Kiffin uses to call plays. Special teams coach John Baxter and his star punter showed off a new style of punt where the ball flips end over end. The ball stuck right where it hit the turf.

Game time

After a protein-packed lunch in the Galen Center, where USC’s athletes fuel up every day, we got a pep talk in the football locker room from Coach Kiffin. He got our competitive juices flowing by threatening not to let us off the field until we “pounded every one of those women into the turf.”

We were eager and excited to go onto the field to practice what we’d learned. We locked arms for the march out of the locker room tunnel belting the traditional USC football battle cry.

“War time! Let’s take it outside!” we screamed in unison.

It was time for action. I was drafted into the wide-receiver group, which practiced running routes: “slants,” “hooks,” and going really, really long.

Then came time for the scrimmage. We huddled up and ran plays based on the offensive formations we had learned earlier.

While it was technically no-tackle, I left the field with plenty of grass stains and some scraped-up knees. The next day, my hamstrings were screaming, and I did my best not to let my colleagues see that my walk was much stiffer than usual.

But for our scrappy bunch, raising $15,000 in scholarship money that day for USC’s Trojan women — the true athletic superstars — was well worth the aches and pains.

Get a closer look at the event on photographer Pierson Clair’s online photo gallery.

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