Ross Cumming inspires USC

He was devastated.

It was May 2007, and Ross Cumming just finished a tumultuous first year out of high school at the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I.

Set to go home to Laguna Niguel for the summer, rehabilitate a fractured back and return in the fall as a full-fledged member of the Navy football team, he was instead called into the supervisor's office and medically discharged from the academy.

Sent home. Permanently.

"That was a big blow to my world," recalls Cumming, now a key special-teamer and backup linebacker for the USC Trojans. "I couldn't believe it."

He initially chose Navy over Colorado State and Nevada as a two-way player out of Santa Margarita High School, with the intention of competing for the Midshipmen and serving his military obligation as a helicopter pilot with the U.S. Marines.

But it didn't work out like that. He hurt his back weightlifting at home after high school and was incorrectly diagnosed by team doctors at the prep school with less severe injuries. He played in the first half of the season opener, felt something was terribly wrong with his back and sat out the rest of the year.

And that was it.

"Ten years of my life that I had planned out were just destroyed," he says. "I didn't know what to do with school, I didn't know what to do with football."

Cumming returned home and took classes at a junior college on and off for the next year while wearing a back brace and continuing to rehab his injury, applied to USC and got in. He immediately sent some high school game tape to Heritage Hall, hoping to get noticed and earn a shot as a preferred walk-on.

His hope was answered. He joined the team at the start of fall camp and was quickly noticed by then-special teams coordinator Todd McNair, who saw Cumming make a bone-rattling tackle in one-and-one drills with the running backs and immediately asked former coach Pete Carroll to insert him into kickoff coverage for the next game.

In October 2008, Cumming debuted against Arizona State two months into his college career. He has since logged time in every game for the Trojans, playing his way onto all four special-teams units by the start of last season.

"It's a good story," says backup quarterback Mitch Mustain, Cumming's roommate. "People understand that if you work hard, bide your time and do your work, somebody's going to notice.

"In his case, it was the head coach and he got to start on kickoff that week."

The work wasn't done. Cumming toiled for two years on the scout team and special-team units, hoping to earn a scholarship from Carroll.

Then new coach Lane Kiffin arrived in January with a new set of coaches. Cumming would have to prove himself once again.

The day Cumming yearned for came Aug. 24, the second day of the fall semester. Kiffin and associate head coach John Baxter were holding an academic meeting in the Heritage Hall auditorium with the whole team present.

As Kiffin described it, every player on the team had attended class that day -- except for one guy, Cumming. That earned him a talking-to in front of the entire team from both Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron, a famed disciplinarian.

Kiffin: "Do you have anything to say?"

Cumming: "No, sir."

Kiffin: "By the way, you're on full scholarship."

Never mind that Cumming had attended class that day -- the crowd in the auditorium embraced Kiffin's joke and immediately began to celebrate the announcement, an emotional time for Cumming as two years' worth of work was instantly validated.

"We were just waiting for him to get a scholarship," says fellow linebacker Chris Galippo, a former opponent of Cumming's during their prep days in the Orange County's Trinity League. "There's no one on the team who deserves it more than he does, just because of how hard he works and how much dedication he puts into football.

"He's easily our special teams captain."

Cumming, 23, is also USC's primary backup to senior Michael Morgan at strongside linebacker. While Galippo would likely slide over to Morgan's spot in case of injury, it's plausible Cumming could jump into the starting lineup in 2011 after Morgan and Malcolm Smith depart -- forming an experienced linebacking corps with Galippo and Devon Kennard.

In the meantime, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Cumming continues to impress coaches during practices -- both at the special-teams spots he knows so well and as a second-teamer on defense.

"As a coach, sometimes you're nervous with your backups going into the game," says linebackers coach Joe Barry. "I would feel totally comfortable if we ever had to put Ross Cumming in the game, because he's earned my trust as a linebacker.

"And that's saying something. He's a guy that if ever anything happened where we had to throw him into the game, I wouldn't bat an eye, because he's showed me that he can play at this level."

The Trojans' first two games this season were closer than expected, with opponents Hawaii and Virginia possessing late opportunities to threaten with onside kicks.

So what did Cumming, omnipresent on all four of USC's special-teams units, do?

He recovered both attempts, jumping on the ball after teammate Jordan Cameron muffed it with 6:48 to go in the fourth quarter in Hawaii and fighting in the scrum to come up with the ball with four seconds remaining and USC leading Virginia 17-14 at the Coliseum.

He calls it "cool to be a part" of such an important part of the game. Baxter, the Trojans' special teams coordinator, simply calls Cumming's leadership qualities "unbelievable."

"All I know is he's a really tough, smart, physical guy," Baxter said. "You can turn a game plan over to him and you know it's going to get executed. He's a really good football player and he's played his role here really well."

Everyone's present is a product of their past, Baxter likes to teach -- and with nobody is that more relevant than with Cumming.

Says Barry, a former Trojans linebacker who quit his job as the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this spring to come back to USC: "When you get to know Ross and you see the way he works and the way he practices and the way he goes about his business, you can tell that he cherishes every moment that he gets to play football -- because of what's happened to him in the past."

Cumming, a redshirt junior, started out majoring in the sciences at Navy but now studies public policy, management and planning at USC. He is on track to graduate next spring and plans to pursue a master's degree and work in real estate.

That is, of course, in the event that a potential career at the next level doesn't materialize. Mustain has told Cumming he would be "dumb" not to pursue the NFL. Coaches say they don't see why he wouldn't be able to make it there, considering his superior work ethic.

He's still not convinced -- but he's not ruling it out.

"It really depends, I think, on how I keep growing as a player," Cumming says. "It's been my dream since I was a kid.

"But I'm an adult now, so I'm a realist, you know?"

The path to reality has been an interesting, uneven climb for Cumming, who pauses for a while when reflecting on the journey.

In short, he's gone from being medically discharged from the Navy and done with football to the verge of earning a degree from USC and competing for a starting spot with the Trojans.

"Look at him now," says Mustain. "He's second on the depth chart on defense, starting on special teams, he's got a scholarship.

"He's good to go."

Pedro Moura is co-author of the USC blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.