August 15, 2014

Farmer takes slow, steady path back

Farmer is back on the field this season as a redshirt junior.

H

e says the word "blessing" a lot. Coming from the average five-star recruit, one with an easy three-and-out career at the university of his choosing, it could be passed off as trite. That, yes, of course, there are blessings -- of talent and good fortune and acclaim and, perhaps most of all, health. It's the literal embodiment of the word's dictionary definition: "A special favor, mercy, or benefit."

George Farmer uses it to describe the torn ACL that kept him off the football field for nine months. And of being unable to even watch his teammates practice during fall camp one year ago because they needed the extra spot on the 105-man roster. And of watching his close friends and former high school teammates Robert Woods and Marqise Lee have the USC careers everyone expected he'd have, ones highlighted by school records, All-American plaques and early round NFL Draft selections. These are hardships more than they are blessings, and yet Farmer refuses to look at them as anything but that. How else could he have endured three years of setbacks and frustrations, of being unable to display what so many know he is capable of, himself included?

"With all the expectations on him coming out of high school and seeing how his career has gone thus far, he hasn't given up, he hasn't gone bad, he hasn't just had a day where we had to go find him somewhere because he can't take the pressure or he's spazzing out," says Tee Martin, his position coach.

"He's mentally tough."

Now, as a redshirt junior, he's back on the field and finally running with the first team. Hardly anyone is talking him up as the one to uphold the standard that Woods and Lee set on their way to the NFL; that distinction falls to Nelson Agholor, the talented Floridian. But Farmer is ready to dig in anyways, ready to prove that perhaps the most talented wideout of them all might also have the longest-winding path towards success.

"Everybody's destiny is different," he says.

He believes that he is just now getting started toward fulfilling his own.

F

rom the beginning, George Farmer III noticed that his son was fast. It wasn't altogether surprising. He played four seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL with the Rams and Dolphins, and George IV's mother, Veronica, was a track star; speed ran in his blood. He placed a football in George IV's hands when he was five years old but was careful not to pressure his son into following in his footsteps. Football was to be a vocation, not an obligation. At age eight, he began playing Pop Warner and he immediately dominated. So the elder Farmer moved his son up to play against older competition, only for the same thing happen once again. His concerns over pushing his son into the sport soon evaporated: It wasn't long before football became George IV's driving force.

"He realized how good he was and could be," says his father. "So I felt good about putting him in the sport because he did all the things that told me that he isn't doing it because I had him do it, but because he has a passion for it.

"He took it and ran with it."

Farmer won three state championships during his multi-sport years at Serra.

By the time he matriculated to Serra High School, though, something unexpected occurred. George III was a 5-foot-10 waterbug, quick and fast but hardly imposing. His son, on the other hand, had grown into a 6-foot-1, 220 specimen, one with all the brawn of an NFL running back while retaining his burst, too. He attended his first USC camp as a ninth-grader and outran every player there. By the time he was a sophomore, Pete Carroll had offered him a scholarship, well before the days when such early offers had become de rigueur. Before he could even get his hands on a learner's permit, he had cemented himself as a prodigy.

Although his own bona fides were hardly in question, there was some debate as to whether he was even the best talent on his own high school campus. Woods had already begun to establish himself as a one of the nation's elite prospects in the class ahead of Farmer, blending his own impressive speed with a degree of polish unusual for a high school receiver. Soon after Farmer arrived, Lee transferred in; though raw, he mesmerized with his quick-twitch athleticism. The trio became fast friends, in no small part due to a mutual appreciation of each other's talents.

"At first, I just knew Robert -- Marqise wasn't there at the time -- and I kind of just took after Robert," Farmer recalls. "Everything he did at practice, I mocked and tried to do. It just translated over into the field and the sky was the limit. And here was Marqise, pushing both of us. We were like, 'Dang, he can do the same thing we can.' It kind of became like a competition factor, but it also became like a fraternity."

Yet while all three would become national recruits, neither Woods nor Lee was the physical equal of Farmer. He was the biggest of the group and also the fastest, and in his senior season fell a thousandth of a second short of becoming the first athlete in California history to win three state championships in one year, losing in a photo finish in the 100-meter dash after already nabbing football and basketball championships at Serra.

Simply put, Martin says, "he's a freakish human being in terms of size-speed ratio," before going on to compare Farmer's top gear to that of a Ferrari.

When the final player rankings were released for the 2011 class, Farmer sat third overall in the Rivals 100, a full 33 spots in front of Lee and three ahead of Woods' final position from the year before. So when they were reunited at USC in the fall of 2011, many figured Farmer to be a shoe-in to eventually start alongside Woods, who was coming off a Freshman All-American season.

Instead, it was Lee who caught then-head coach Lane Kiffin's eye, earning a spot in the starting lineup en route to his own Freshman All-American honors. Farmer, for his part, was ticketed for a redshirt, only to have it burned midseason in an attempted switch to running back. He would only touch the ball nine times that year and the move was short-lived. Following a meeting with Kiffin, athletic director Pat Haden and his father -- "the type of pow-wow where I was talking," chuckles George III -- Farmer switched back to receiver. But with Woods and Lee entrenched as the starters, few balls were available for the catching and a spate of nagging injuries made him even less a factor. He would finish the season with just one reception for seven yards.

Heading into spring ball of his junior season, his luck seemed to be changing for the better. With Woods off to the NFL, playing time was up for grabs and Farmer wasted little time seizing it. According to Martin, he was the most consistent receiver in camp alongside Agholor, and many observers pegged him as a shoe-in to be the team's third receiver.

All it took was one bad plant on his left leg in a non-contract drill for it to slip away again.

Farmer was limited to four receptions and five carries during the 2011 season.

B

elieve it or not, Farmer says, the ACL tear itself wasn't all that bad. It was immediate aftermath that stung most.

"The initial pop and tear doesn't actually hurt," he insists. "I didn't really think it was anything too big until I got into the training room and it started to swell up, and they told me, 'OK, yeah, you tore your ACL'... At that moment, I'm not going to lie, I was a little hurt and down. My spirts were shot and my confidence was shot.

"I was getting into my groove, I was feeling really great at that time, and for it to be a freak accident with no contact and just to happen like that, I was just -- 'Wow, why did it happen like this?'"

The next nine months were a study in grueling patience, of re-teaching a body accustomed to blowing by anyone in sight how to reconstruct that gait step by tiny step. The first month out of surgery was pure agony, the freshly reconstructed ACL so tender that even bending it during rehabilitation sent pain shooting up his leg and necessitated prescription pain medication after each session. The next several months were more taxing on the mind, mastering coordination all over again. By the six-month mark, he was back on the field with a brace on, cleared to do light running and jogging. Then, football drills and limited contact scrimmaging during spring ball.

Making it that far meant leaning on the resources, and people, around him. He talked icing schedules and lunge techniques with running back Tre Madden, who had torn his ACL the season before and powered through his own rehabilitation gauntlet. He took a Spanish class with former USC receiver Patrick Turner, and they discussed their paths as heralded recruits. Most of all, he deferred to his father, who had underwent a total knee reconstruction during his own playing career. The same man who put a ball in his hands for the first time, who coached him until he was in high school and who attends every practice so as to give him first-hand reports on his route running now would be his counsel through the first major injury of his life.

"Every step George has taken, I have paved the way for him," says George III. "I went to him and told him 'You're going to be fine, because the technology is way better now than 30 years ago when I had mine.'... You're in an arena where injuries happen. How you react is how you move forward. It's not like it's the end of the world; it's just part of the game. If you love the game, you've got to deal with it. He's gotten himself this far, so in my opinion, he's dealt with it."

PHOTOS: George Farmer

For George IV, it took until the summer to feel as though he was truly back. Only then did he shed his bulky knee brace to start running full speed routes, and top it off with an electronic-timed 4.4 40 that proved to him once and for all that, yes, his trademark speed had returned. Martin believes that his protégé actually could be better than he was before the injury. The speed is paired with better flexibility and agility but even more importantly, better polish in his routes and releases, nuances he never had to fully develop when for so long he dominated on sheer ability.

For his part, George Farmer IV is focused on the road ahead. Not only does he want to finally make an impact on the field, but he's tasked himself with taking a leadership role, tutoring the bevy of talented younger receivers who are competing for the spot he hasn't even nailed down himself.

"I learned something from [former wide receivers] Coach [John] Baxter when he was here -- he said 'The teacher learns the most' and I believe that, so I try to teach the young guys as much as possible," he says. "It's not really balancing anything. It's kind of like communicating to make each other better."

And, just as Madden helped him, Farmer has taken a particular interest in redshirt freshman receiver Steven Mitchell, who tore his ACL a few months after Farmer and became a frequent rehabilitation partner.

"It helps tremendously, because he had been through it before I tore my ACL and he just sat me down and told me the experience I was going to go through," says Mitchell. "It helped me just mentally prepare."

Now, Farmer is preparing for his best shot yet at becoming the impact player he knows he can be. Although he has two full seasons of eligibility remaining, a sense of urgency has crept in to seize his chance after so much time spent on the sidelines. Still, even after so much lost time, he refuses to couch it in rhetoric that treats it as anything but that one seemingly out of place word.

"A lot of guys don't get this opportunity I got in rehab to work in everything, getting everything right, making sure I got a little bit stronger, making my body right, making sure my body was 100% before I stepped back onto the field," he says. "I kind of looked at it that way. That was my mentality: 'This is a blessing in disguise,' because a lot of guys don't get their body healthy. That's the way I looked at it and that's what kept me going. Now that I'm out here, I don't regret anything that I did for the last 10 to 12 months.

"This opportunity has blessed me with a lot."

Mike Piellucci
Contributing Writer

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