79 days to USC football: Stabbed at 14, Gary Jeter overcame his scars

RoT Countdown / Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage via Getty Images (Reign of Troy)
RoT Countdown / Photo by Kirby Lee/WireImage via Getty Images (Reign of Troy) /

USC football’s No. 79 jersey was worn most impressively by All-Americans Sam Baker and Gary Jeter, whose life story is as interesting as his career was great.

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The 2019 USC football season is now 79 days away.

The No. 79 jersey hasn’t been particularly popular for the Trojans in recent years, but it still has a history worth exploring.

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Today’s countdown looks at the men behind the number:

Who wore it best?

The first name that may come to mind when thinking of the No. 79 is Sam Baker. He’s certainly deserving of the recognition. Few Trojans have achieved more in their careers from start to finish.

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Baker was a freshman All-American at tackle on USC’s national title-winning team in 2004. He impressed so thoroughly that his teammates voted him the Offensive Lineman of the Year. In 2005 he picked up official All-American honors. He’d do it again in 2006 and 2007, repeating as the Trojans’ Offensive Lineman of the Year in each as well.

He is one of four three-time All-Americans in USC history.

While Baker may have indeed worn it best, defensive lineman Gary Jeter had the most unlikely road to wearing the No. 79 at all.

When Jeter was 14 years old, he was stabbed in the chest twice, six inches away from his heart.

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There had been a misunderstanding with another kid at a park in Cleveland, where Jeter lived. The two had faced off with pen knives but a life guard broke up the fight before it could begin.

Later that day, Jeter was playing basketball and the kid returned. He’d gone home and returned with a bigger knife. The ensuing scuffle saw Jeter defend himself with only his basketball and his belt. The knife ultimately won.

It was the defining moment in his life.

That was back when he was a self-described “gangling kid” standing 5-foot-11, 165 pounds. The attack left him with 21 stitches, a set of scars and a new source of motivation.

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“I didn’t have much of a chest and I thought I’d have ugly scars the rest of my life. But a coach in high school told me if I lifted weights, the scars would spread out and wouldn’t be obvious,” Jeter told the Los Angeles Times in 1976.

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“So I started lifting weights and the more I got into it, the more I wanted to lift. I set goals and worked harder and harder. I thought, ‘I’m going to get back at those guys who messed with me. I want to make something of myself’.”

Make something of himself he did.

By the time he got to USC in 1973, Jeter had grown to 6-foot-4, 245 pounds and was a coveted college football recruit. Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler told him he was only the second prospect he’d ever offered a starting job coming out of high school.

Jeter did end up starting as a freshman, just not for Michigan. He traveled across the country to join the Trojans and broke into the lineup after three games.

While playing through a string of nagging injuries, Jeter achieved all-conference status three times helping USC achieve a national title in 1974, two Pac-8 titles and two Rose Bowl victories. Having been touted as a future All-American from the moment he stepped on campus, he finally reached that goal as a senior in 1976, when he was recognized with USC’s Special General Excellence Award.

Who wears it now?

For a jersey with a strong a legacy as Jeter and Baker gave it on both offense and defense, the No. 79 hasn’t gained any traction since Baker’s graduation in 2006.

It has been exclusively worn by walk-ons in the last decade and is currently unoccupied for 2019.

Stats to know: 79

  • Gary Jeter was USC’s 79th All-American in 1976. How’s that for fitting?
  • USC gave up a run of 79 yards to Illinois’ Rashard Mendenhall in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Obviously it didn’t hurt too much as the Trojans won 49-17. A few years later, USC gave up a run of 79 yards to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley in the 2017 Rose Bowl. Again, the Trojans managed to prevail despite the slip up, winning 52-49.
  • Linebacker Rey Maualuga led USC with 79 tackles in 2008 and 2007. Ken Antle also topped the Trojans with 79 tackles in 1957 while Rashard Cook did it in 1997.
  • Adoree’ Jackson is USC’s career leader in kickoff returns with 2,141 yards and four touchdowns on 79 returns.

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