LOS ANGELES — It was Sunday, one day after making his first collegiate field goal, when Chase McGrath was sitting outside on a patio in the USC Village, the sprawling new retail and residential complex near the university campus.
McGrath and Damon Johnson, a freshman long snapper, overheard one conversation about the previous night, when McGrath hit a winning 43-yard field goal in double overtime as the Trojans held on to defeat Texas.
“They have no clue it’s me right there,” McGrath said. “It’s pretty funny.”
Though unrecognizable to most strangers, McGrath has emerged as something of a local hero.
His field goal preserved USC’s playoff ambitions, along with its undefeated record. The Trojans had not opened a season with three consecutive victories since 2011.
“We’re so proud he’s here,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “He makes me a very happy football coach right now.”
Seven months earlier, it looked unlikely McGrath, who grew up a lifelong USC fan in Newport Beach, would, in fact, join the Trojans.
Signing day passed, when he had received only one scholarship offer — from Army. A few other opportunities trickled in. Texas Tech, Utah State and Virginia offered preferred walk-on opportunities, but none from USC.
But later in February, Matt Boermeester, who made the winning field goal for the Trojans in the Rose Bowl, was removed from the team amid a Title IX investigation into alleged domestic violence. Boermeester did not return for his senior season.
USC was in need of another kicker.
“The tune started to change,” said Bruce Rollinson, who coached McGrath at Mater Dei High.
Helton invited McGrath and his parents to campus for a visit in March.
In his office in the John McKay Center, Helton offered McGrath a spot on the team, if he was interested in coming as a walk-on. They also met with special teams coach John Baxter.
“I’m doing my best recruiting sales pitch, and I said, ‘well you have a home here, I want you to know that.’ And he immediately said, ‘Coach, I’m in.’ I was like, ‘Gosh, I wish they were all that easy.’”
Rollinson reasoned most Division I programs are hesitant to hand out one of their 85 scholarships to a kicker, but McGrath also had a limited track record.
He made a 51-yard field goal as a senior at Mater Dei, but otherwise only attempted four field goals that season and 18 throughout his high school varsity career.
McGrath edged redshirt freshman Michael Brown for the starting job…