In the third quarter of USC’s Oct. 19 game against Arizona, running back Markese Stepp landed awkwardly on his foot. Thinking it was a sprained ankle, Stepp reentered the game for one play with a noticeable hobble. He got an MRI and X-ray the next day, finding out he had torn ligaments in his left ankle. Stepp needed surgery and would miss the remainder of the season.
“A lot of things go through your head,” Stepp said. “Like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ and ‘Do I still want to continue to play this sport?’”
Stepp hasn’t played a full, injury-free season since his sophomore year of high school. He suffered hamstring injuries during both his junior and senior years at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, seeing only situational playing time as a result.
“I would give everything [to be healthy for an entire season],” Stepp said. “That’s all I want.”
There was hope that he would reverse that trend when he entered USC as a freshman in 2018. But he played sparingly behind more experienced backs and was redshirted.
Stepp said he briefly considered transferring from USC due to the lack of opportunities to play.
“At one point, I thought about it probably after my freshman year,” he said. “When you feel like you should be playing and you’re not, I feel like everybody has thought about it. Everybody feels like that because they feel like they’re the best. If you don’t have that mindset, then you shouldn’t be playing this game.”
Ultimately, Stepp decided to stay at USC because he felt like he could compete to be the team’s feature back.
That didn’t happen right away in 2019. Despite drawing rave reviews in the offseason, he was a healthy scratch against Fresno State and averaged five carries per game over the next three contests. But, three factors led to him assuming a larger role. He gained the coaching staff’s trust by improving his pass protection and overall understanding of the offense. Then redshirt junior Vavae Malepaei got hurt, opening up a spot on the depth chart.
And finally, the dude simply balled out every time he touched the ball.
One of the first glimpses of Stepp’s stardom came when he barrelled over a defender to score the deciding touchdown over then-No. 10 Utah. Afterward, he shook Reggie Bush’s hand in the end zone, symbolically linking a Trojan legend to someone who hopes to become one if he can stay on the field.
“That was crazy,” Stepp said of the touchdown celebration. “I actually think about that a lot. Being from Indiana, being committed to Notre Dame, never thought I was going to USC, to shaking Reggie Bush’s hand is just insane. And it was on my first career touchdown. It’s just an unreal moment.”
The Stepp train kept rolling from there. He rushed for 62 yards against Washington. Then he exploded for 82 against Notre Dame, swatting away defenders like a newspaper goes after flies. No one wanted to touch him that day. After one tote, play-by-play commentator Mike Tirico exclaimed he was “carrying half of South Bend with him!” and it didn’t feel all that hyperbolic. As Stepp owned the field against the school he was committed to for over a year, it felt like a coronation.
After not playing a snap in Week 1, Stepp was suddenly the lead running back by Week 8 against Arizona. He made the most of his opportunities again, rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 13 carries. Then it all came crashing down.
Even after he found out he had torn ligaments in his ankle, the expected rehab time was 3-5 weeks, according to the Orange County Register. But five weeks turned into 10 weeks. And 10 weeks turned into 20 weeks. Stepp missed all remaining games including the Holiday Bowl and was listed on the initial injury report for spring practice this year. He said it would have taken “a miracle” for him to return before fall camp.
“I had to get tightrope surgery basically, and I thought it was going to be a lot quicker because of what [the doctors] were saying,” Stepp said. “But then we just found out later down the road it was going to take even longer. People tried to compare it to Tua [Tagovailoa’s ankle injury in 2018], but mine was a lot worse than that. So, it’s just been taking time. I’d rather be safe than sorry, than try to come back and it doesn’t work. So just taking my time so I can come back 100%.”
With most of the world in social isolation, Stepp has been waking up early three times a week to rehab his ankle. He’s starting to regain movement and is able to run lightly.
“I just really want to have a great and big year this year,” Stepp said. “So I just always keep that in the back of my head, so I just try to go as hard as I can when I workout.”
When he’s not rehabbing, Stepp has been keeping up with classes online from his home in Indianapolis. He has also been playing lots of NBA 2K and Madden. If he had to pick one teammate and one coach to be quarantined with, he would choose junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and running backs coach Matt Jinks.
“Amon-Ra, that’s just my boy. I feel like we’re similar,” Stepp said. “He’s funny. We’ll just be cracking up and I’d whoop him in 2K or Madden.”
And as for Jinks?
“When he gets mad, it’s not funny. But it is,” Stepp said. “In the moment, it’s not funny, but when you look back on it, it’s hilarious.”
Time will tell if Stepp becomes USC’s next great running back in the mold of Reggie Bush or LenDale White, who he’s drawn comparisons to. For now, he’s just working to get back on the field and play the sport he loves injury-free.
“It’s all part of a big plan that God has for me,” Stepp said of his injury history. “Just continue to pray, lean on my support system and just grind hard and come back better than ever.”