It was on a Monday in late January when USC's Nathan Guertler –- who has had a big spring filling the role as the Trojans’ starting right tackle -- finally received the news that he’d been waiting to hear about.
Pulled aside by Steve Sarkisian during an early morning weightlifting session, Guertler was instructed to stop by the new USC coach’s office later that day. A rising fifth-year senior walk-on, Guertler did as asked without a clue as to what awaited him, and that’s when it happened.
“I figured that he just wanted to talk to me, you know, just trying to get to know the guys on the team,” said Guertler, who spent a portion of last season at tight end because of a lack of healthy bodies at the position, even recording the lone start of his USC career at the spot against Utah. “I go up to his office, and he says, 'I’m putting you on scholarship.' I was speechless, and he said, 'How are you feeling?' I really didn’t know what to say except, 'Thank you.'"
The fact that Guertler was overwhelmed to the point of being at a loss for words is understandable. A Norco, Calif., native, he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he enrolled at USC in the fall of 2010 and walked on to the football team. Quickly making a name for himself as a tireless worker who more than held his own battling in the trenches during practice, he figured that his ultimate goal -- a scholarship -- was always within reach.
Still, year after year went by, and a scholarship never came his way. His frustration finally reached a precipice a couple years ago, and he contemplated throwing in the towel.
“There was a year after fall camp, when scholarships are normally given out, and I was crushed,” Guertler said. “I think it was my second or third year here. They were awarding scholarships to some guys, and I was waiting to hear my name, and it was never called. I called my dad and I was like, ‘Dad, I don’t know if I want to play anymore.’ And he said, 'No, you’ve got to keep going. Just keep going.' After that, I decided to just keep pushing and to keep striving. And now I have one.”
Having sacrificed so much time and energy during his four years on the team, Guertler is grateful to now be allowed to fully take advantage of the benefits that the majority of his teammates have had all along, including some perks that might seem fairly minor to some, such as the free food provided for all scholarship players in the athletic dining hall.
“I grab meals every day now,” said the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Guertler. “I take such advantage of it.”
Most of all, however, Guertler is thankful for the financial load that he has been able to lift for his family.
“It was most rewarding for me knowing that my family wouldn’t have to pay for this next year of school,” said Guertler, who will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with plans to attend graduate school at USC in the fall. “That was the biggest relief on my part.”
With his worries off the field eased, Guertler is now making a major statement on the field at right tackle.
With Max Tuerk lining up at center, potential contenders Jordan Simmons and Nico Falah sidelined because of injury up to this point this spring, and another contender in freshman Chris Brown not due to arrive on campus until this summer, Sarkisian and offensive line coach Tim Drevno have afforded Guertler the chance to run almost exclusively with the first-team offense so far in the Trojans’ new uptempo offense -- ahead of Zach Banner and early-entrant freshman Jordan Austin.
With an eye toward his final season in a USC uniform, Guertler is fully aware of the importance of what he views as a golden opportunity to earn a starting job for the first time.
“This is the most significant time in my career here,” he said.
And while the battle for that starting role figures to keep heating up as the spring progresses, and then again during fall camp, having already seen first-hand what he’s capable of accomplishing through fierce determination and hard work, it’s safe to say that Guertler isn’t about to let up now.
“I’m so blessed ... so thankful,” Guertler said. “I can’t just let this opportunity slide by.”