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Pat Haden is one Happy Fella

Pat Haden and Kimberly Hessler in The Most Happy Fella (Photo/Craig Schwartz)

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden has long exhorted his student-athletes to get out of their comfort zones — not just physically but creatively, culturally and intellectually. Now the former Trojan quarterback, Rhodes Scholar and NFL player practices what he’s been preaching.

On April 4, Haden made his theatrical debut in USC’s spring musical, The Most Happy Fella.

In a not-inconsequential role, Haden plays a gossipy postman who expedites the courtship-by-mail between Tony and Rosabella, the play’s principals. A 1956 Broadway hit, the musical features singing throughout, including classic show tunes. To say the role — including his solo song, “I Seen Her at the Station” — is a stretch for Haden would be an understatement. “I’ve never sung in front of anyone,” he said.

But there’s a first time for everything. And Haden has a higher purpose.

“I’ve been telling my athletes for three years: ‘Don’t just hang around with basketball players or football players or tennis players. It’s a big world, a big university. You have this one point in your life, your college years, when you can really try some different things. Get out of the gyms, the pools, the courts, and get into the general student population. You have this time. Don’t waste it.’”

Haden has no regrets about his own undergraduate years. He just wishes he had done more — like become fluent in a foreign language, thoroughly explored Los Angeles, made friends with some international students, tried out for a play.

Once he decided to make an example of himself, he settled on acting because it’s “the most uncomfortable thing I could possibly do.” He approached Madeline Puzo, dean of the USC School of Dramatic Arts, about a small stage role.

Reluctant at first, Puzo was won over by Haden’s selfless agenda. “It’s not vanity,” she said. “He really wanted to challenge himself as an example to his students.”

When she proposed a singing role in a musical, however, it was Haden’s turn to hesitate. “We sort of raised the stakes on him,” she said with a chuckle. “We asked him to go way outside his comfort zone.”

Though terrified, Haden accepted the challenge, and the results will be on full display. “I’ve played in front of hundreds of thousands as an athlete,” he said, “and I will be more nervous on opening night of this play, I promise you.”

To get ready, Haden has been attending rehearsals twice a week for the past two and a half months. It’s far less than the 20-hour weeks the rest of the cast put in, but still a major commitment for the university’s top athletics administrator. “I can’t do it every night,” Haden said apologetically, referring to rehearsals.

He’ll have to miss both performances on Saturday, April 13, due to work commitments. In those shows, an understudy will take his role.

Haden has gained immense respect for the student-actors working alongside him.

“I have been awed by these kids,” he said, singling out in particular the lead performers, vocal arts majors Cole Cuomo and Kimberly Hessler. “I’m astounded at both their talent and their work ethic.”

Haden is keen to bring his new world and his familiar athletics family together. He’ll host a cast party at the John McKay Center during the show’s opening weekend. Coaches and athletes will lead the actors on a tour of the new training complex.

“The point is, I learned about a part of the campus I wasn’t ever aware of,” Haden said. “If our football team or tennis team or any of our teams watched how hard they worked, they’d say: ‘Oh my goodness.’ And if these theatre students watched our athletes prepare, I think they’d say the same thing.”

The Most Happy Fella, directed by John Rubinstein, runs tonight through April 14 in Bing Theatre. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for faculty and staff, $6 for students and $15 for the public.  

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