Clay Helton was full. He had finished his meal at Lawry's Prime Rib at Thursday night's Beef Bowl, and as he stood at the podium, he surveyed the large dining room full of USC players, coaches, families and Rose Bowl officials.
He thanked them all and in the moment, made a decision. He wanted those in attendance to see how much the team was appreciating the moment, to show them the "passion [they] have to honor this game."
"I want every young man to stand up," he called out before explaining what they were about to do. "This is what we call our constitution."
In unison, all of the players clapped and began to loudly recite:
SC, we have a big-play, big-hit reputation
We play with the hammer, we fully understand relationships
We take the ground that belongs to us
When the ball is kicked, if it flies it dies, we are situational masters
We play legal, we have great field awareness
We have simple and effective schemes, we're assignment-perfect
We establish field position, we celebrate all wins
We are team-firsters
The chorus immediately became a memorable moment that drew consensus approval from the crowd. The special moment Helton wanted to convey had been achieved.
The patrons at Lawry's did not know who it was that crafted what they heard, nor did they know that what they witnessed was something unprecedentedly unique—the first time that the constitution had been recited publicly in the 25 years since its inception.
"The constitution? That's a Coach Baxter thing," safety Chris Hawkins said on Friday as he spoke at USC's Media Day in the LA Hotel Downtown.
Special teams coach John Baxter was also in attendance Friday, sitting at a table with other coaches in the middle of the media frenzy. He had stayed home the night before, missing the dinner at Lawry's to rest after his recent surgery to repair a torn quadricep tendon. There would be a lot of walking in the next four days, and he was not planning on missing anymore events.
When asked about the constitution, Baxter, standing on crutches and wearing a full leg brace, showed a slight grin.
"I came up with it in 1989 at the University of Maine," he said. "It's had a few amendments over the years … it started off with seven things, now it has 12. Last night was the first time it's ever been said outside a meeting room. Ever."
The latest, now public, iteration of the constitution has been taught to USC players since Baxter returned in the spring, and it has come to be another manifestation of team culture, camaraderie and unity under Helton that has been a factor in driving this team to its successful season.
Ask tight end Tyler Petite about the constitution and he will tell you how hard memorizing can be. When Baxter arrived in the spring, all players who were not familiar with it had to learn it from scratch. Petite, along with a few other players started a group chat to pass it around and learn it collectively.
"We'd walk by each other and quiz each other like, 'Let me recite it and see if I mess up," Petite recalls with a laugh. With freshman Cary Angeline, both he and Petite would simply repeat it over and over to make sure they knew it.
The constitution became imperative homework, in part, because of the allure of unity and detail-oriented success it was meant to create, but also because all players were required to stand in front of the whole team and recite it alone.
"Essentially, what it is, is rules to remember in football," Petite said. "It's not special-teams specific, it's not tight end specific, it's football specific. It applies to everything."
“It is a rite of passage,” Baxter explained. “If you don’t get it, you’re not well thought of by your teammates.”
Wide receiver Darreus Rogers remembers his freshman recital. When he arrived at USC, Baxter was in his first stint as USC's special teams coach and only the incoming freshmen without knowledge of the ritual were required have to recite it in front of the team. Miss a word or mix up a sentence and there was punishment that ensued.
"100 pushups in front of the coaches," Rogers said. "Then you come back and do it the next day. If not, consequences get tougher and tougher. 200 pushups."
Cornerback Jack Jones got off easy. Earlier this season, when his turn came to recite, his nerves got the best of him. He stumbled on a few words and was not clear enough. The coaches knew that Jones had prepared and tried. They let him re-do it the next day.
By now, every player has come to be on the same page, as the constitution has gone through an evolution and changed in the minds of the players who have changed themselves. From a task, to a tryout, to a perfect tune, the performance at Lawry's on Thursday night showed a team that had evolved and bought in to more than just a repetitive chant.
"It's funny how far we've come since then because now it's not just something that we've memorized and we can recite … it's a reflex" Petite said. "It's something that's engrained in the way that we play and I think people see that. Everyone has bought into being great."
As Media Day drew to a close Friday, Baxter said the constitution was off-limits to anyone but the team. He would not repeat it and he did not want a player to repeat it either. He said he liked the perception of a mystery behind the doors of the locker room, an unknown world that fans and media wonder about all the time.
“I’m not an all-access type of guy. I don’t believe in it.”
On Thursday, Helton had gone rogue, slightly pulling back the veil and providing a peak into the world Baxter wants to keep covert. Did Baxter like it? No. Did he agree with it? He wouldn't exactly say.
"You know what, it's the head coach's decision, he can do whatever he wants. Plus, people kind of liked it."