More than just a game

If you walked away from Saturday's loss to Notre Dame with a bitter taste in your mouth, take time to remember one thing.
It's just a game.
The senior class knows that.
No, they didn't learn it this year after going 7-5 and losing to both rivals. They aren't repeating it as they prepare to possibly spend their holiday season in El Paso.
They learned it three years ago when, as freshmen, everything they thought their college experience would be was taken away from them.
Though the NCAA limited a sanctioned USC's transfers, allowing only juniors- and seniors-to-be to do so without sitting out a year, any of the sophomores could have bolted as well. Many players don't even start until their junior year so sitting out a year and learning the system wouldn't necessarily derail any long-term plans.
If they left, they would still be playing for a postseason game a year earlier than any of their former teammates.
So this group of then freshmen took a look at what they had - and what they were going to do - and realized something very important.
It was just a game. Literally. One game for two years that they couldn't play in. They could play the rest and even try to win, too.
There were still plenty of reasons to come to USC.
There were still plenty of reasons to stay.
Loyalty is a dying art. Most 19-year-olds are asking "what have you done for me lately?" They aren't considering what they could do for others. They aren't looking at the bigger picture.
And when T.J. McDonald and Matt Barkley chose USC again, this time as seniors looking to go into NFL, they set a new precedent. College is for getting your degree and growing up. College is for learning about life and how to handle it.
A 7-5 season might seem disappointing now, but don't think they regret coming back. This class knows now what they did back then.
It's just a game. There is more to college.
And there is more to life.
Matt Barkley and Kyle Negrete spent their first bowl-less Christmas in Nigeria building wells and setting up soccer nets, handing out gifts and reaching out to a war-ravaged village.
Missing one game doesn't seem so bad when you see what it's like for those who don't have clean water.
The next season USC went 10-2.
And that summer USC players went to Haiti.
Sixteen players, from both sides of the ball, built houses for those who lost everything, but their lives during the 2010 earthquake. The muscles, conditioned to build a football dynasty, built houses.
This year, USC's seniors are graduating with much more than just a firm grasp of the playbook.
If the BCS national championship awarded points for character, USC would be making measurements for a new trophy case. And though pretty much anyone would agree they deserve much more than a trip to Texas, the seniors know that there is life beyond it.
The gift of perspective is one you can't put a price tag on.
Merry Christmas.
Stephanie Graves is a USC alum and freelance sportswriter/reporter with the Walt Diseny Co. and Disneyland Entertainment.