USC football throwback: How Sunny Byrd became a cult hero

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Head coach Pete Carroll of USC Trojans celebrates after defeating the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 15, 2008 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Head coach Pete Carroll of USC Trojans celebrates after defeating the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 15, 2008 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) /

Fullback Sunny Byrd helped turnaround USC football’s 2001 season as a cult hero figure at the start of the Pete Carroll era.

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In 1955, a bay colt by the name of Sunny Byrd ran and won the two-year-old pace race at the Illinois State Fair, taking home a purse of $16,390.

The next year, he broke the race record in the three-year-old division, twice.

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Sunny Byrd was a fast horse.

Sunny Byrd, the human who played fullback for USC football from 2001 to 2002, was not.

Byrd, the human, is by no means a Trojan great, even if his story is the stuff of legends.

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Coming out of nowhere to rescue USC’s 2001 season, finishing and ending his career with touchdown carries, he became a cult hero.

The name and the game

Sunny got his name from parents he described as “hippies” who clearly weren’t satisfied with their conventional titles of Pat and Lisa. His siblings included two sisters named Niaja and Coral and a brother named Jade. (No race horses among them)

Byrd went to Manhattan Beach Mira Costa High School, where he was neither big, nor fast. But he still made the all-conference team as a running back with 1,336 yards and 17 touchdowns in his senior season. At 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, he figured he wasn’t good enough to play at the college level.

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In fact, he went to El Camino College out of high school and didn’t bother playing football during his freshman year. The pads came back on in 1998 and he promptly took over the starting running back job. In 1999, after leading his team with 715 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, he was named the season’s MVP and made the J.C. Athletic Bureau All-State Region IV first team.

The opportunity to go to USC and play fullback was more than he and his family could have hoped for.

Running into trouble

Byrd redshirted his first year at USC. He wasn’t particularly needed in 2000. The Trojans had a starter at fullback, Charlie Landrigan, who was given the Bob Chandler Award as the top athlete, student and leader among underclassmen on the team.

By 2001, Byrd debuted as a special teams contributor. He was anonymous as he could be in the first five games of the season.

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USC had a new head coach and things weren’t exactly going well for Pete Carroll or his offensive coordinator Norm Chow. The Trojans opened the season with a win over San Jose State, but they lost the next four games. Some positive signs, particularly in a 27-24 loss to No. 11 Washington, couldn’t quite negate the dark clouds hanging over the beginning of the Carroll era.

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Starting running back Sultan McCullough was a home-run hitter, but he wasn’t getting the job done on an every-down basis. He had 103 total yards during USC’s four-game skid.

“Maybe we’re being too cute,” Chow was quoted in The Desert Sun on October 3, 2001. “Maybe we should just line it up and run at them.”

Those words were prescient.

Things were looking particularly dire on October 13 when USC faced off against Arizona State at the Coliseum. The Trojans managed minus-13 yards of offense in the first quarter and trailed 3-0. To make matters worse, McCullough, who had been fighting through an abdominal injury for weeks, was forced out of action.

“I thought they were going to run us out of town,” Chow said in the Los Angeles Times.

Three things went right for USC instead. First, the defense managed to hold ASU’s potent offense to just 10 points.

Second, quarterback Carson Palmer rose to the occasion and overcame three first quarter sacks to complete 18-of-26 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns.

Finally, Sunny Byrd happened.

A Sunny day

McCullough had barely practiced in the lead up to the game with the Sun Devils and there weren’t any really viable running back candidates available to step in for him in case he couldn’t go, so USC had already planned to consider Byrd as a plan B.

The time for that came in the second quarter, after cornerback Kris Richard nabbed an interception and returned it to the three-yard line with under a minute left in the half.

Chow called Byrd’s number.

He took the handoff, the first in his career, and scored a touchdown, the first in his career.

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The score put USC up 21-3, so Carroll went into the locker room with his eye on maintaining his lead. The answer was to ride Byrd. He told running backs coach Wayne Moses that he wanted Byrd to get 10 carries in the second half, according to the LA Times.

Byrd got 20 in all.

It wasn’t a spectacular showing by any measure. He averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, gaining 63 yards on the day while adding a second touchdown in the second half. But his running gave USC a steady, more reliable platform off of which the passing offense could shine.

“That was probably the greatest 63 yards I’ve ever seen,” Carroll was quoted in The Desert Sun. “There is an intensity that gets expressed in his running ability that gets carried through to a lot of facets of this club. He ran over a safety in the fourth quarter and did all but knock him out. That’s physical football. Any football team takes off on that kind of style.”

Byrd would start the final six games of the season for the Trojans, who went 4-2 in that stretch.

Even when USC fell to Notre Dame the week after the ASU victory, Byrd left his mark.

Gaining 62 yards on 20 carries, he earned the respect of Fighting Irish players and observers with his tough running.

“I had a good time playing special teams, but running the ball up the middle and hitting linebackers is what I love.”

The South Bend Tribune noted how at one point he “barreled over” Abram Elam, a strong safety, for some extra yards.

Wins over Arizona, Oregon State, Cal and UCLA followed as Byrd continued to carry the ball with no-frills effectiveness.

Though USC went on to lose to Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl to end the year, Byrd scored the Trojans lone touchdown of the contest.

A fitting bookend

In 2002, the return of McCullough and the emergence of Justin Fargas returned Byrd to the anonymity of his role on special teams and his place as a backup fullback.

But the “Sunshine Boy,” as fellow fullback Charlie Landrigan called him, still had one more big moment to give Trojan fans.

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When USC stormed to the Orange Bowl, Byrd got his fitting finish.

The Trojans led Iowa 31-10 with five minutes left in the game and Chow flashed back to 2001 style by feeding Byrd with five carries to run down the clock. He carried the offense down the field.

The final carry of Byrd’s career was a six-yard touchdown.

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