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John David Booty
John David Booty
LOS ANGELES — To be the leading man of college football's most well-oiled machine, the dream has to start somewhere in the vivid imagination of a boy. And John David Booty had — and still has — bigger dreams than most kids.
Years ago and more than 1,600 miles away, Booty envisioned himself as the golden-armed protagonist in a great Hollywood show. The celluloid images from Southern California were particularly alluring to the impressionable boy watching television in the den of his Shreveport home.
"As far back as I can remember, when I was a little kid, I always wanted to live out here," Booty said on a recent summer day. "Watching TV and seeing LA and Hollywood, I just felt like this is where everything was happening."
The difference between then and now: A lot of what's happening in Los Angeles, especially in the 92,000-seat Coliseum, is due to his right arm. In many ways, Booty is making all of his lofty dreams come true in his new home.
As the starting quarterback for top-ranked USC, Booty will pilot a collection of talent so overwhelming that a rival coach called the assemblage "maybe the best team in the history of college football."
No slouch on the gridiron himself, Booty is one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy and, if he avoids serious injury, a shoo-in to play Sundays.
Only days away from kicking off his senior season, Booty is living his dream. On a pleasant August evening outside of USC's practice facility, Booty pokes around an overflowing plate of barbecue, greens and macaroni and cheese and reflects on his good fortune.
"I love it here," Booty said. "Everything you dream a place to be is where I live."
Living the dream
Booty has managed to thrive in a role that, in recent years, has been laden with prestige, celebrity and the promise of future riches.
An affable, easygoing, 22-year-old son of the South, Booty has built nicely upon the USC quarterbacking legacy established by Heisman winners and NFL first-round draft picks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
Booty proved to be a capable heir last season, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,347 yards and 29 touchdowns with nine interceptions — numbers comparable to the ones Leinart posted en route to the Heisman in 2004.
"He's as good a player at his position as anybody in America," said USC coach Pete Carroll, who has groomed three Heisman winners in his six seasons in Los Angeles. "This is the best of the best for John. He's ready to have a great season."
Indeed. Booty has finally overcome the back problems that have bedeviled him for years and gotten noticeably bigger, stronger and quicker in the offseason. He spent hours this summer developing a feel for a group of talented but mostly untested receivers who must replace NFL draftees Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith.
His determination to turn his dream into reality meant spending all but a couple of days in Southern California this summer. Booty came home briefly to Shreveport to visit family but later missed the wedding of one of his best friends, LSU fullback Jacob Hester.
"He was supposed to be a groomsman," said Hester, a former high school teammate. "But he had a final and couldn't make it."
For Booty, the tests are just beginning in Los Angeles.
With USC kicking off its season against Idaho on Saturday, Booty is primed to complete a dream conjured out of the strife that made him bypass his entire senior year of high school.
"It's been a long time coming. I've waited four years for this," Booty said. "I'm having a great time. I'm really just trying to soak in everything."
Birth of a dream
Growing up in relatively sleepy Shreveport, Booty was always fascinated by the bright lights, sunny skies and endless opportunities of Southern California.
"It was really weird ... he had this desire to go out West," said his father, Johnny Booty. "That Hollywood life, the weather, the beach and the mountains ... I think he put all that together in his mind and decided it was a happening spot."
From the very beginning, it became apparent Booty was destined to go somewhere — if not California, someplace else — with that powerful right arm.
As the third of four brothers in a famous football family, Booty came to Evangel Christian High School with lots of hype and even more potential. John David proved more than worthy of the Booty legacy: He made his debut on varsity in seventh grade and later became the starter as a sophomore.
"We knew from the early stages of his development that he was very, very special," said Dennis Dunn, Booty's former coach at Evangel and now head coach at Louisiana College. "He was born with talent."
Booty was already drawing heavy interest from top programs like Texas, Miami and LSU. But after summer visits to Southern California for the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp and an unofficial recruiting visit to see Carroll and former offensive coordinator Norm Chow at USC, Booty was sold on the cardinal and gold.
"He had convinced me that was what he wanted to do," Johnny Booty said. "His dream was so big that he went for it."
Back in Shreveport, Booty led Evangel to two Class 5A state titles and seemed primed for a third going into his senior year. But in a surprising move, Johnny Booty was fired from Evangel in the spring of 2003 for what was called a "ministry matter."
Only an English class away from graduating and faithful to his father,
John David Booty decided to skip his senior year and enroll at USC in the fall. Booty is believed to be the first prep player to graduate a full year early and accept a scholarship to a major Division I-A university.
Even today, sitting on the palm tree-dotted campus of USC and talking over the soothing wail of a piccolo, it's clear Booty feels cheated of a fitting end to high school.
"It was something me and my friends had dreamed about," Booty said. "To be taken away from all those guys was really difficult. But looking back on it, it was the best decision I ever made in my life."
Said Johnny Booty: "I never would have never in a million years dreamt of that scenario. But he was prepared."
A dream deferred
Booty immediately made a push to start for the Trojans as a true freshman, a remarkable feat for a guy who should have been playing against 5A schools in Louisiana and Texas.
"For being supposedly a senior in high school, I thought he was a pretty mature kid," said USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, then the quarterbacks coach. "Obviously, he still had a long way to go."
Longer than any of them could have known at the time.
Booty was the backup as a freshman, nearly unseating an unheralded sophomore, Leinart. But Leinart quickly developed into a star and Booty broke his wrist near the end of the season. Another injury, this time a badly bruised right elbow, forced him to redshirt in 2004.
Leinart won the Heisman that year and seemed all but certain to enter the NFL draft. Except he didn't: Leinart stunned many by coming back for his senior season. That returned Booty to his role as a backup, but gave him a chance to observe the reigning Heisman winner and soak up the experience in preparation for his chance to be a leading man in Los Angeles.
A native of nearby Orange County, Leinart became something of a pop culture icon — highly unusual for a college football player — as he led USC to the national title game and was linked to starlets like Paris Hilton.
"Everything that happened to Matt was something everybody at SC learned from," said Booty, who was Leinart's roommate on road trips and remains a good friend. "Nobody is ever going to be bigger than that."
It certainly didn't seem as if Booty would be the one. He had back surgery in March 2006, which limited him in the offseason, and held off a stiff challenge for the starting job by promising freshman — and Parade magazine's All-American Player of the Year in 2004 — Matt Sanchez.
Once he finally got his chance to shine, Booty proved he could handle the job. Booty played well enough to be named to the All-PAC 10 first team and capped his breakout year with a dominating effort in a win over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. That primetime performance, which included a game record-tying four touchdown passes, likely placed him on the Heisman watch lists for 2007.
When the conversation turns to the big bronze trophy, however, Booty flashes a bit of the competitive streak that is all but muted away from the field.
"But for me, it's about winning games," he said. "Last year I lost two. And I'm still kind of a pissed about that."
On Booty's left shoulder, barely noticeable under his gray Trojans cutoff T-shirt, is a mostly inconspicuous tattoo. The black script reads: "Big Dreams."
"I live by it, man," Booty said. "That's been the motto of my life."
The dream that started all the way in Shreveport has landed him here in Los Angeles, a picturesque dreamscape where fame is hard to come by. These days, however, Booty has so many brushes with Hollywood that he occupies the premier spot in college football.
"Sometimes it's just random stuff that you would never expect," Booty said. "You get a text message or a phone call and you're like, 'That's pretty cool.' I don't even know how they got my number."
Prodded into sharing one of the bizarre invitations extended to him since the
Rose Bowl, Booty nonchalantly mentions a recent get-together with "Punk'd" star Ashton Kutcher at the home of Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight. Booty and his friends played a game of catch with Kutcher and talked a little about Shreveport, where Kutcher filmed a movie last year.
"He'd been to Superior Steakhouse. We talked about (neighborhood) Southern Trace," Booty said. "It was just funny hearing him talk about it."
Booty said he has been careful to limit the distractions, especially in this, his first and last senior year. He said he turns down many more invitations to parties than he accepts, and besides, he has little time to carouse with all the responsibilities placed upon team captains at USC.
His friends say the increase in his profile, the demands on his time and the burdens of the position have hardly changed the soft-spoken guy who somehow kept a heavy Southern twang after four years on the West Coast.
"He's in a little more photo shoots now," USC teammate and friend Michael McDonald said. "But he "» is the exact same as when he first came (to USC). He doesn't really look for all the glamour."
The glamour still may find him. Booty, at 6-foot-3 and roughly 220 pounds, has the skills, pedigree and look of a top NFL draft choice.
"I think if he has a year like I think he can, I think he'll be a first-round pick," said Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for NFL.com and a former executive with the
First there's a matter of finishing another dream: bringing another national title back to Troy. If Booty can keep the Trojans undefeated and atop the polls, the reward would almost certainly be a chance to play for a national championship at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
No stranger to the Big Easy, Booty led Evangel to state championship wins at the Superdome in 2001 and 2002.
"I think about going back to the Louisiana and back to the Dome," Booty said. "I could possibly end my career in the state where it all started."
"He's always played really well there," his father said. "I think he loves that whole atmosphere there. It would be electric. Being back home "» that pretty much psyches him."
It would be something like a dream come true.
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