Christian Rector is a three-star success story in a world of USC football five-stars

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Christian Rector has come a long way from USC football fan to undersized defensive line prospect to veteran defensive leader with an eye on a fairytale ending.

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Christian Rector was a small fish in a large pond when he joined the USC football program in 2015.

Undersized at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, he was far from heralded, a three-star weakside defensive end who ranked 448th in a class which ranked second in the country and featured 12 of the Top 100 players.

But he wasn’t scared away by the competition, even as he redshirted and saw little action in the Trojans’ Rose Bowl winning season of 2016.

“I knew deep down I could compete with all these guys,” Rector said. “I knew my abilities. I knew I could compete. That’s why I chose to come here. I didn’t go to SC just to ride the bench and not get playing time.”

Now, he enters the 2019 season as a locked-in starter and one of the veteran leaders of the Trojan defense.

“Who would have thought I’d be in this position that I am right now, at Pac 12 Media Day representing my school and my team,” he said after a whirlwind day of interviews at the annual conference media event at Hollywood and Highland.

Rector is living the dream of every USC football fan who grew up watching games at the Coliseum and imagined themselves running out onto that very field in cardinal and gold one day.

His mother, Allison, went to USC in the 1980s and competed as a rower on the crew team. She herself was a Trojan legacy, following in the footsteps of her father and Christian’s grandfather, Ron.

Athletics are in Rector’s blood, so is football.

Ron Rector was a member of Long Beach City College’s 1950 Junior College National Championship team. He played in the “Little Rose Bowl”, which determined the title that season.

USC football wasn’t in the cards for Ron. After his LBCC days, he served in the Army during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star for valor in combat. He enrolled at USC after, completing his bachelors and two masters’ degrees.

When Rector passed away in 2017, his obituary in the Los Angeles Times made it clear where his football loyalties lied: “Ron was a die-hard Trojan football fan (Fight On).”

Ron was a Trojan. Allison was a Trojan. And Christian was a Trojan even before he emerged as a football prospect capable of picking up a scholarship offer.

“I started going to games very young, like seven or eight-years-old,” Rector explained.

When he was eight, Rector recalls watching Reggie Bush light up the field with his spectacular running against Fresno State, cutting back from one side of the field to the other.

We didn’t have the Chargers and the Rams as local teams. USC was our NFL team.

— Christian Rector

Then while attending a USC basketball game, Rector spotted Bush. He got him to sign his hat, but couldn’t get another Trojan star of the era to add an autograph.

“Matt Leinart didn’t,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ll never forget that. I still have that hat in a Ziploc bag. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.”

Rector met Leinart during the course of the Media Day circus but didn’t give him grief for it.

“I was kinda star-struck,” he laughed.

Back when he was the kid asking for signatures of football legends, the idea of Rector going on to join that same Trojan football fraternity wasn’t particularly realistic.

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“I would have never thought in a million years that I would be in this position —coming all this way— because [when] you go to the games, and the pinnacle of football was USC football,” Rector said. “We didn’t have the Chargers and the Rams as local teams. USC was our NFL team.”

At first, Rector was too big to play tackle football. He played basketball. His only taste of the gridiron came playing flag football at Pete Carroll camps at USC.

Size worked to his advantage at Loyola High School, where he realized his potential as a defensive end under the tutelage of former USC coaches, including Marvin Sanders and Kennedy Polamalu.

Rector drew the attention of Steve Sarkisian’s staff in 2014, picked up a scholarship offer, committed that year and signed in 2015.

Of course, that was just the prologue. He was still undersized, underrated and very aware of his three-star status in a sea of four and five-star studs.

Today, Rector stands full grown at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds. He’s bigger, stronger and committed to setting an example for three-stars looking to make their mark.

“I use my story as inspiration for anybody,” Rector said. “Dreams do come true. And anything’s possible, because I definitely didn’t think I would be here.”

Now a redshirt senior in the final chapter of his college career, Rector hopes to finish his story in fairy-tale fashion.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

“Coming back from a 5-7 season and not wanting to go out like that,” Rector said of his goals.  “Leading the team to a Pac-12 Championship [or] winning a Rose Bowl. I think that’d be a very fitting end.”

As an individual, there’s another objective: getting a plaque on the All-American Wall among USC’s greats.

“Everyday we see that,” Rector said. “Everyday, the kids come in and tap the names, or the positions that they know. To be able to add myself to that wall and be on there for history, it would be great.”

There’s reason to believe it could happen.

Two of the Trojans’ last three All-Americans were three-star recruits, Chad Wheeler and Uchenna Nwosu.

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Both rose far beyond their ratings to garner national attention, allowing for the possibility of Christian Rector following in their footsteps. He’s already come close.

In 2017, when outside linebacker Porter Gustin went down injured, Rector put himself on the map with a standout performance against Texas.

He logged 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, recovering a fumble during regulation and stripping Longhorn quarterback Sam Ehlinger near the goal line in overtime. The turnover put USC in position to win the game with a field goal on the ensuing possession.

It kickstarted a surge of momentum for the then-redshirt sophomore.

The next week against Cal, he forced another fumble and added two more sacks to his tally. Over the course of the next four games, he racked up 22 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and a fumble recovery. The Associated Press voted him to their Midseason All-American second team.

Then Rector broke his hand. Everything came to a screeching halt.

He sustained the injury during practice ahead of the Arizona State game, missing back-to-back victories over ASU and Arizona. When he returned against Colorado with a club on his hand, things were different. He finished the campaign with just three tackles and a tackle for loss in the final four games.

Last season was supposed to be an opportunity to get things rolling once more, but it didn’t exactly play out that way.

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“I think in 2018, I was moving too fast in terms of wanting to go and listen to the voices in the media and agents and everything else that comes along,” Rector said. “It was just moving too fast.”

It made the defensive playmaker a step too slow. Even though he was second on the team with nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, those numbers were pedestrian compared to what he accomplished in those stellar six games as a sophomore.

He was the epitome of “almost,” regularly falling just short of bringing down the quarterback as USC stumbled from leading the nation in sacks in 2017, to 49th.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

For the story to end on the right note for Rector, something had to change. Sometimes it takes slowing down in order to speed up.

“I think now my mindset is a lot better. I’m just blessed to be where I’m at. My feet are underneath me,” Rector said. “And I’m just very present in every moment, […] making the most of every situation and seeing things as they are. Being in the film room and being present. Being on the field present. Being in the classroom present.”

It took the academic challenge for Rector to even be allowed to attend Media Day. Head coach Clay Helton offered him the opportunity only if he raised his GPA, proving that he could be counted on as a leader.

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“I pulled out a 3.5 GPA and blew it out of the water,” Rector said. “Highest GPA I had all year.”

Rising to the occasion on the football field is the next test.

“That’s why I came back,” Rector said. “That’s the reason why I came back, to change the narrative and flip the script and not leave on that note where we’re 5-7 without a bowl game and not where SC should be. To bring us back to where we need to be.”

Just like Rector brought himself from three-star obscurity to where he needed to be. At USC. And no longer obscure.