Last summer Brandon Hancock, a highly touted 6'2" fullback from
Clovis West High, in Fresno, made two tough decisions. First he
chose to attend Southern Cal over Stanford, Texas, Michigan and
Notre Dame. Then he decided to forgo the final semester of his
senior year to enroll at USC early, begin work toward a degree
and participate in spring drills. Matriculating early is a path
that is gaining popularity around the country--last January at
least 15 other football players did so--though college coaches
emphasize that only the most well-rounded student-athletes
should attempt it.
Hancock, a physically precocious 18-year-old, has the alltime
highest high school cumulative score on the strength, speed and
agility tests at Nike's training camps. He's also an honors
student who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and he had to get approval
from his school board before he was allowed to cram into one
semester the three independent study courses and seven regular
classes he needed to graduate in December 2001. A few weeks
later he was in L.A., experiencing all that defines life for a
collegian. What follows is the diary Hancock kept for SI
detailing the ups and downs of his early leap to higher
education--in the classroom and on the field.
JANUARY 17, 2002
I'll start by explaining why I gave up my final months of high
school. I really didn't see it as that big a sacrifice. I'm a
one-sport athlete, so once football season was over, I didn't
want to fight senioritis and kill time until graduation. I
wanted to remain productive and excel. Also, I like being an
underclassman. It may sound strange, but I enjoy having people
to look up to and keep me humble. In high school I had reached
all the goals I had set for myself. I knew USC would offer new
challenges. By doing this I'll get ahead with my course work and
get to participate in spring practice, hopefully increasing my
chance of seeing playing time in the fall. Although I'm not
leaving a girlfriend behind, I will miss a lot of good friends.
But Coach [Pete] Carroll and the staff at USC are more than
happy to let me go home for the prom or any other high school
function I want to attend. Overall, I think I have much more to
gain than to lose.
I drove down here about a week ago in the 1990 BMW my parents
are letting me use, and I was immediately swept up by fraternity
rush. I went to a party every night for four nights. Some houses
had 400 people and two deejays, and it seemed as if every house
made sure the girl-to-guy ratio was 3 to 1. A friend of mine
from Fresno is a Pi Kappa, and that frat rushed me and
eventually offered me a bid. I said thanks, but not now. My
priorities coming here are to establish myself athletically and
academically. I'll have time for that other stuff later.
Tom Malone [a punter who enrolled early] and I came here midway
through the academic year, so there wasn't room for us in the
dorms that house most of the football players. We're living at a
new dorm that just opened up. My roommate is an English major,
and I don't see much of him.
I had heard the horror stories about dorm food, but so far I've
been pleasantly surprised. The cafeteria near my dorm has good
variety and a great salad bar.
I'm taking three classes, each for four units: Writing 140,
Philosophy 140 and Intro to Technical Programming. Fortunately,
none of them starts before 11 a.m.
Things here are spectacular. I just got back from the
USC-Stanford basketball game at the Sports Arena. [Guard] Chris
Hernandez was a good friend of mine in high school, and he's now
playing for Stanford as a true freshman. I sat in an empty
courtside seat right behind Chris's bench, so I was able to razz
him when he came out. Keyshawn Johnson was right next to me. I
introduced myself, and he gave me the whole spiel about the big
shoes I had to fill and what a great tradition we have at USC.
I have been working out with the team for almost three weeks. I
have not had to make any effort to fit in with the older guys.
They were aware I was coming and have been very welcoming. When
I came in, I weighed 227, and within one week I was up to 235 at
5.1% body fat. Normally I follow a pretty regimented diet that
doesn't include much junk food, but strength coach Chris
Carlisle suggested it might be in my best interests to increase
my body fat, so I am trying to eat a pizza a week.
Working out alongside Freshman All-America defensive end Shaun
Cody and players like [senior All-America safety] Troy Polamalu
and [senior tailback] Sultan McCullough is an inspiration. It
forces me to push myself to the limit. Thus far I have not
experienced the slightest bit of hazing or so-called freshman
fear. I have already established myself as a formidable athlete
within the group. I am, in fact, outlifting most of the team.
When we tested in the bench at 225 pounds, I did 29 reps, the
fourth-highest total (first for running backs) on the team, and
I'm holding my own in agility drills. Most of the guys call me
Super Swole because my arms are so big, they look swollen. The
coaches are impressed and claim that I am the real deal behind
all the hype. Another fullback, Chad Pierson, invited me to
train with him, so that's another positive.
I started attending study hall and found that it helps
tremendously. My classes are a lot tougher than those I took in
high school, especially writing. The writing topics require much
more in-depth thinking, and the papers have to be a lot longer.
There have been a bunch of girls who have started coming out of
the woodwork, too. Initially they didn't pay much attention to
me, but as soon as I started strutting around with my football
gear on, they started coming around by the dozens! (Just kidding.)
We had our first practice today. There were no coaches present,
but we got a great deal of work done. [Quarterback] Carson
Palmer pretty much ran everything. We ran routes and went over a
couple of plays, and I got a chance to compare myself with the
other fullbacks. [In addition to Hancock and Pierson, USC has
three other fullbacks trying to replace three-year starter
Charlie Landrigan, a free-agent signee with the Washington
Redskins.] I feel pretty confident as far as my speed and hands
are concerned, but we'll know more when we get the pads on in
Classes are becoming much harder than I had expected, and I'm
having to spend a lot more time studying to get good grades. On
the bright side, I'm starting to get noticed more around campus.
The L.A. Daily News had a little story on me and Tom Malone, and
a reporter with the school magazine interviewed me today. People
I don't even know have started coming up to me and saying, "Hey,
Brandon." Also, my roommate moved out. He wasn't a very sociable
guy, and he flipped out after my cousin slept on the floor one
night. So I have the place all to myself. I shoved the two beds
together to make a king-size. Not a bad setup for a freshman!
Last week I had two seven-page papers due. The one for my
writing class was one of the best I've ever written, yet I only
got a B-. The teacher and I had a conference at Starbucks. She
told me that had I still been in high school, the paper would
have been a high A, but that I now need to take it to the
college level. Still, my paper was one of the better ones in the
The other day the older players made me enter an auction, which
was quite funny. Some of the big-time athletes were to be sold
to girls for dates in a fund-raiser. I got on stage in front of
about 300 people and took off my shirt and flexed for the
ladies. I got a pretty nice round of applause. I was the only
freshman in the auction and the only white guy. I had a blast.
Someone bid $20 on me, but she hasn't called me for a date.
I had my first midterm last Wednesday, in my computer class. I
got the highest grade in the class, a 96. My parents were
stoked. I am also one of the points leaders in study hall; we
get points for attendance and work ethic.
The dorm food I was praising earlier grew old fast, so I have
started eating out a lot. Workouts are going well. I am up to
242 pounds and am continuing to chase down the weightroom
records. I got on the Board [a list of the top 10 lifts in USC
history] by squatting 550 pounds, the third best in school
history for my weight class, which was 215-236 at the time. I
caught a couple of passes in 7-on-7 practice last week. The
coaches are impressed with my foot speed in conditioning drills.
It looks like I'll be getting playing time in the fall. I'll
know for sure once we put on the pads.
I went home last weekend for the Presidents' Day holiday. I went
to a basketball game against our biggest rival, Clovis High. I
felt like a star. As I stood up in front of the Clovis West
rooter section, everyone went nuts. I was wearing my USC warmups
and felt like a big college student. I went to a couple of
parties at home, and everyone treated me wonderfully and was
I went to Cabo San Lucas for five days during spring break with
my dad and cousin Matt Smith. You wouldn't believe the caliber
of college hotties down there. I had fun hanging on the beach
all day and dancing at night.
When we left, I went straight to Fresno. I got to hang out at my
high school, and I worked out in the weight room during sixth
and seventh periods. By the time everyone came out after school,
I had a massive pump going. People couldn't believe how much
bigger I had gotten. The girls loved it. One day I went on
campus during lunch and hung out with my friends, just catching
up. I found that I had way more stories to tell than they did,
and they all seemed sort of jealous. Everyone seemed antsy to
My favorite teacher, Mr. Jolliff, asked if I would talk to his
literature students about what to expect in college. My old
classmates had a lot of questions and were very interested in
what I had to say, although I could tell some of the girls
thought I was the most arrogant guy in the world. When I talked
about seeing Cameron Diaz eating sushi in Brentwood, a few of
them just rolled their eyes.
One night I took out Kelli Bennett. She's a junior, a petite
cheerleader I'd started talking to a lot right before I left for
USC. I was basically trying to set things up so that when the
prom rolls around, I'll have her waiting and willing to go. I
left two days later and headed back to L.A. to watch the Clovis
West pep and cheer squads compete in Anaheim in the USA Spirit
Nationals. Through my stepbrother, Mike Fries, who works at
Disneyland, I got a nice suite at the Disneyland Hotel, and all
my buds from Fresno stayed with me after watching their
girlfriends do their thing in the competition. It was pretty
cool to be a high school kid for those few days, but I wouldn't
trade it for what I've got going now.
Today was the first day of spring practice in pads. What a
shell-shocker! In one drill I was going full speed when Polamalu
laid into me. I saw him coming, but I still got rolled. I had
never been hit like that, but this is the way it's going to be
in college. Everyone is big, everyone is strong. Also, as a
freshman you have a target on your back. Everyone wants to lay
I've started to relieve stress by heading out to Venice or
Manhattan Beach to study or just hang out.
After getting obliterated by Polamalu yesterday, I was
determined not to let that happen again. But during one play
with the first team today, I was more concerned about where
Polamalu was than I was with my blocking assignment. At the snap
I hit the first defender I saw when I hit the hole. I blasted
him with a solid, crushing block, and I got up excited about
finally getting the better end of a hit. As I turned around
though, I saw a massive figure stomping in my direction--my
275-pound Samoan position coach, Kennedy Pola. I could feel his
eyes burning through me as he yelled and sprayed saliva in my
face. He told me that I had completely blown my assignment and
that my screwup had resulted in senior tailback Justin Fargas
getting the piss knocked out of him. I was scared. Coach Pola
intimidated me so much that I felt I never wanted to mess up
Today we had a scrimmage in the Coliseum. I didn't have any
carries, but I did make one catch for 13 yards. It has been hard
to get reps with the first team, and that has been frustrating.
The coaches will give you a shot with the big boys, but as soon
as you mess up, you get pulled out. I'm still making a lot of
mental mistakes. I may be one of the five strongest guys on the
team, and I may be faster and have better hands than some of the
vets, but I am useless until I know what my role is on every play.
The mental aspect of the game has been the toughest transition
for me. In high school your assignment is set in stone, and the
defense reacts to you. In college the offense and defense read
and react to each other. You have to notice if the linebackers
are going to bow over to the side, or if the free safety is
coming down as if he's going to blitz. You have to know how to
read shades and gaps, and everything is always changing.
Aaron Graham, a senior linebacker, has started calling me
Hancock 2002, as though I'm some destructive machine. He'll say
in this robotic voice, "He is on a mission to destroy all
Today was the spring game, the last day of [NCAA-sanctioned]
practice until mid-August. I sprained a ligament in my neck in a
head-to-head collision with a linebacker the other day, so I
didn't play. But I know where I stand. I'm third on the depth
chart, and I have a lot of work ahead of me this summer. I'm
going to stay down here, go to summer school and work out. I'll
watch a lot of film and work on my blocking technique. I never
had to block in high school, but here there are much faster guys
who need to carry the ball. I'll probably be a situational
player at first, but I'm confident I'll see playing time.
Meanwhile, finals are coming up, and so is the prom. Kelli
Bennett is in town shopping with her mom tonight; I'm going to
take her out and pop the question about the prom.
My first college finals are over, and they weren't too bad.
After the last day of class, on April 26, I had an entire week
to study. My philosophy tutor helped me break down and
understand complex arguments on such issues as abortion, animal
rights, war and terrorism. I haven't gotten my grade back on the
exam yet, but I think I did well [an A-]. I aced my ITP/computer
test, a 93, and finished the class with a solid A. Instead of a
test in my writing class, we had a short in-class essay,
primarily to show that our writing skills matched those of our
previous four papers and that we hadn't been plagiarizing. I got
an A- in that class, which is quite an accomplishment according
to my classmates.
I had heard a lot about how tough exams could be, but I thought
the semester as a whole was more stressful than finals week.
Last Saturday night I went to the Clovis West High prom, and I
found myself feeling very nostalgic. Even though I had left high
school only a few months ago, it seemed like ages since I had
seen a lot of the faces. I really noticed how much my friends
had matured, not just physically, but mentally and socially as
Prom evening was not without stress. I was already running late
when I discovered that my rental tuxedo pants were the wrong
size and would not accommodate my huge butt and thighs. The
jacket looked good, but the pants looked like a pair of tights
on me. (When I told the guy at the rental place my measurements,
33-inch waist and 43-inch hips, he said, "We're not that
versatile.") So I wore my black suit pants. I was 20 minutes
late picking up Kelli and 45 minutes late to the group pictures
at a golf course.
I must say, Kelli looked amazing, as did many of the other
ladies there. We had 44 people in our group, and we took a
charter bus to the dinner and dance. We arrived at the prom
pretty late, about 10:30, so we didn't have much time to bust
some moves. The music was slow at first, but picked up soon
enough. You would've thought I was Patrick Swayze in Dirty
Dancing. We boogied until the music died. After the bus dropped
us off at our cars, we all went home and freshened up and then
met at a friend's house for the real party. There were about 60
of us, all my favorite people, and we partied until about 7 a.m.
It was a night that I'll never forget, the last hurrah for every
one of my friends. We'll never be young and all together again.
It meant so much for me to participate in the festivity, and I
must thank Coach Carroll and my high school principal, Mr.
Prandini, for allowing me to do it. I will cherish the memory
Epilogue: On Wednesday, Brandon was scheduled to don a cap and
gown and graduate with the rest of the Clovis West class of '02.
He then planned to return to Southern Cal, where he will attend
summer school and haunt the weight room. Unlike incoming
freshman football players who begin classes on Aug. 26, he'll be
allowed by the NCAA to work with USC strength coaches over the
summer, giving himself even more of a jump start. "Entering
college early isn't for everyone," he says. "But for players who
can handle the academics, it's a great move. I've become
comfortable with college life, and in terms of my progress on
the football field, I'm ridiculously far ahead of where I would
have been if I had come in the fall. Compared to high school,
the college semester flew by. I still have as many as 10
semesters ahead of me, but I'm sure they'll go even faster."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER WINDFALL Within a month of arriving at USC, Hancock gained almost 10 pounds and some extra space after his roommate moved out.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER QUICK STUDY Hancock ran reps with the first team this spring and was all ears when Carroll (above) made a point.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER STEEP GRADE Hancock got a jolting assessment from instructor Rio Hernandez at Starbucks, but finished the year with all A's.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER A NIGHT TO REMEMBER After posing with his dad, Bill, and stepmother, Cheryl, Brandon and Kelli danced till the music stopped.
"My priorities coming here are to establish myself athletically
and academically. I'll have time for that other stuff later."
"In one drill I was going full speed when Polamalu laid into
me. I saw him coming, but I still got rolled. I had never been
hit like that."
"I had heard a lot about how tough exams could be, but I thought
the semester as a whole was more stressful than finals week."
"Prom evening was not without stress. My tuxedo pants were the
wrong size and would not accommodate my huge butt and thighs."