Winston Justice would be lying if he said he didn't have bittersweet feelings about his school's winning the national championship last season. Oh sure, Justice was happy for his buddies at USC. He knew how hard they worked; how badly they wanted to go back-to-back. But deep inside -- well, actually not that deep below the surface -- Justice's pride was wounded. He was doubting himself again.
The 6-foot-6, 311-pound offensive tackle, whom Trojans line coach Tim Davis called the most gifted athlete he'd ever coached, sat out the entire 2004 season after he was suspended by the school for flashing a pellet gun at a student. And now, with his teammates celebrating their second ring, he found himself asking the same question he had been wrestling with at times all fall: "Do I really need to go back to USC?"
Justice kept toying with the idea of putting his name in the NFL draft. He wasn't even sure he was ready to face the USC coaches. "I mean they had just won a championship, I'm thinking they don't need me," Justice said. Of course, that's how it goes with pride, you feel like you let everyone else down when in reality it's the one in the mirror you're having the hardest time facing.
Justice's parents and Davis talked him into going back to USC. The reasoning: If Justice returned and performed as well as he believed he could, he could be a first-round draft pick as opposed to a late-rounder labeled as a guy with "baggage."
So Justice reported back to the Trojans in the best shape of his life. He increased his bench press to 475 pounds and his vertical jump to 39 inches, clocked a 4.86 in the 40-yard dash and had his body fat down to 12 percent. Justice spent his time away from football training under Freddie Roach, who used to work with Mike Tyson. The sparring sessions focused on improving Justice's hands and footwork, but also kept his mind occupied.
Coping during his four-month suspension wasn't easy. The challenges came in waves. Justice had to deal with the shame of his role in the incident. Instead of providing veteran leadership for the Ryan Kalils and Sam Bakers, he experienced the feeling of letting his teammates down.
Justice learned to shrug off the humiliation of being the "bad news" Trojan. One day a local paper ran his picture with the story of a USC player getting arrested. Their only connection was that both were Trojans who made headlines for the wrong reasons. Justice came to realize the situation is part of his new reality. "I know it's just something I am going to have to live down, " he said.
Justice is already starting to do that. In spring ball, he promptly won back his starting right tackle job, protecting Matt Leinart's blind side. Justice, who returns after having made 23 career starts, makes arguably the nation's top O-line just that much more impressive. But things have changed since he has been gone. Davis, USC's fiery old line coach, has moved on, taking a job coaching with the Miami Dolphins. His replacement is former New York Giants line coach Pat Ruel. The Trojans' linemen all seem to be comfortable with the transition from Davis' in-your-face style to that of Ruel, whom they call a more attention-to-detail type. Justice in particular seems to be thriving.
Head coach Pete Carroll says Justice has looked better than ever. More athletic. More aggressive. Tougher. More physical. "He's been tremendous," said Chris Carlisle, USC's strength coach. "I can't say enough good things about him. Winston's the kind of kid who everybody loves, and he's come back and really worked his ass off."
USC safety Darnell Bing, a friend of Justice's since childhood, says the time away has really helped the Long Beach Poly product mature. "He's always been a hard worker," Bing said, "but you can see now how into it he is. He's so much more focused now."
Justice learned that football's not forever -- and that it can be taken from him.
"Being out for a year really makes you humble," he said. "I think I have a lot to prove. It's like I'm the underdog."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.