It was evident from the first hour of the first day of Washington preparation this week: There was something going on with Nickell Robey.
The 19-year-old sophomore cornerback, usually USC's most energetic, most non-stop player, had taken it to a new level, smack-talking more than ever before, running around like a madman on the practice field and altogether looking a man motivated to an unimaginable extent.
It turns out that was exactly true, and for good reason. Five members of Robey's family are flying in from Florida to attend Saturday's game against the Huskies, the second-straight year his family is town around this time of the year.
The reason: Robey's late mother, Maxine, would have turned 46 on Saturday. Born on November 12, 1965, she died in February 2010 from a massive heart attack just 15 days after Nickell signed with the Trojans.
"I just feel like this is a special weekend for me," Robey said this week. "My sister, my grandma, my uncle, my auntie and my little cousin, they are all going to be attending the Washington game for my mom’s birthday. It’s going to be a special weekend for me and a special game.
"I have to just play all out.”
Robey always plays all out. That's sort of his signature as a player. But this week in practice, this week -- he upped the ante even more. Why?
“I know that she is going to be watching," Robey says in response to that question. "In my mind, that’s how I think and I know she is going to be there watching. From the beginning of the week, before the week ever started, I said I was going to be amped up for these practices and game.
"I’m doing it and I’m ready to see what happens.”
Really the only issue now is whether he'll have too much energy at the start of Saturday's game. But he's confident he'll be able to control it.
“I know before the game I will have to calm down," Robey said. "I know I’ll have to have some teammates to cool me down, but at practice I can control myself.
"Game time, it’s going to be electric.”
Who was Maxine Robey? What was she like?
“She was a lot of things in one," Robey says, smiling some and calming down from his usual frantic pace of talking. "To make a long story short, she was a great lady. She worked hard. She worked two jobs while she took care of me and my sister. She was a great person to the community. People in the city, they loved her. A lot of people just say she raised some great kids and they respect her for that.
"Everybody just knows that she was a caring lady and she loved everybody, period.”
Robey's head coach at USC, Lane Kiffin, the guy who convinced him to come cross-country from Frostproof, Fl. to Los Angeles for college, also had positive memories of Robey's late mother, recalling instances where he stopped by her workplace and, later, the Robeys' home.
"She always had a smile on her face, the first one to greet you at the house," Kiffin said this week. "There must have been about 30 people in the house one night when I was there and she just knew everybody, was taking care of everybody.
"Kind of the mother hen of everybody down there."
It's almost unfathomable what Robey has had to go through over the last 20 or so months. First, he decided to go across the country for college -- a big decision in itself. Then he lost his mom, and, in the months following, he also lost regular contact with his dad.
So his sister, Maranda, and the other family members coming into town this weekend have provided a big support system through phone calls and internet conversations since then.
"That was very difficult for someone at that age to go through that," Kiffin said this week fo Robey's situation. "Coming from Frostproof to L.A. is a long and very different move. And then to have [her death] on top of it -- she was probably the person closest to him in his life -- was difficult. But it says so much about him. So many kids could use that as an excuse not to succeed.
"Instead he used it as more motivation and has been starting here ever since."