LOS ANGELES — About 90 minutes before kickoff, Khalil Tate warmed up at midfield, hood over his head, tossing a football to a teammate 40 yards away.
USC receiver Deontay Burnett came over to greet his former high school teammate. C.J. Pollard, and others too. There are eight players on USC’s roster that came from Tate’s high school, Serra, 25 minutes away from the Coliseum in Gardena.
Tate is revered by those who went to his school, and others who played against him, and on Saturday night, it was as if they were all paying Tate their respects.
As if he was the Godfather. The Godfather of Gardena.
This game was Tate’s chance at revenge against USC, a school that doubted his skills as a quarterback for most of his recruitment. Tate made the first start of his career against USC, but that was at Arizona Stadium last year. On one of his first plays of that game, he scored a touchdown and then flashed USC’s “V for Victory” hand symbol at the Trojans sideline. Arizona lost that game, Tate didn’t play particularly well.
Flash forward to Saturday, and Tate was the talk of the town. Before the game, a video played on the Coliseum’s jumbotron that essentially showed USC coach Clay Helton hyping up Tate.
“It should be a special game for him,” Helton said.
After an electric October, all eyes were on Tate for this game, a ranked matchup, nationally televised with the lead in the Pac-12 South standings at stake.
Tate has a lot of friends on the USC sideline, but before the game, he didn’t make it seem like he cared too much about that.
“It’s strictly business,” Tate said.
Arizona wasn’t taking care of business for most of Saturday night’s game, falling behind 28-6 in the third quarter. Then Tate took over — he scored on a 32-yard touchdown run and a 30-ayrd touchdown pass to Shun Brown in the third quarter, had a 54-yard rush that set up a 16-yard J.J. Taylor receiving touchdown in the fourth and then guided another touchdown drive that tied the game 35-35 with 8:23 remaining. He finished the night with 169 rushing yards, 146 passing yards and three total touchdowns.
Arizona still lost 49-35, but really, USC could have prevented the UA’s stressful comeback two years ago when it tried (and failed) to recruit Tate to be a Trojan.
The Godfather of Gardena could have stayed home.
USC made him an offer.
He refused it.
On a Thursday afternoon, Serra coach Scott Altenberg was getting his team ready for an important, pre-playoff game the following night against longtime Southern California power Long Beach Poly.
The Cavaliers have had an up-and-down season, 5-4 before Friday night, but the Serra campus has been abuzz because of Tate.
If Tate was the most popular kid on campus in high school — he was — he’s only more relevant now. At a school that has sent players such as Adoree Jackson, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to the NFL, lately Tate’s star is shining more than all of them, who not-so-coincidentally played collegiately at USC.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Altenberg said.
A big deal, but not surprising. Not at all.
As a senior at Serra, Tate threw for 2,036 yards, rshed for 2,130 and accumulated 43 total touchdown. It wasn’t even just the numbers, it was how he put them up.
After a month as Arizona’s quarterback, Tucson has learned what Gardena already knew — he’s a freak.
“What he’s doing now, it’s like: oh, he did the same thing here,” said Joshua Dabbs, the Serra athletic director.
Kobe Smith and Bryan Addison — highly regarded 2018 recruits, both considering Arizona — looked at each other, and shook their heads.
Khalil being Khalil.
“Shoot, it’s the same thing he did here,” Smith said.
Everything that’s been said about Tate — about the confidence in his abilities, his athleticism and speed, his leadership — is echoed by anyone that knows him from high school. None of this is new.
“He thinks he’s Superman,” Altenberg said. “He really does. He has no concept of fail.”
There’s a rule in California high school football that offensive players can’t attempt to leap over a defensive player unless they’re diving to the ground. If they’re upright, no jumping.
Tate was told this rule before his junior season.
He kept doing it anyway, at least for a little while.
“We’d be like, why you trying to jump over a guy not even going for your legs?” Smith said. “He just wanted to jump over people. He was like ‘tell them to move out of the way then.’”
Tate changed his move after that.
“He just started running people over from there. He was just a freight train,” Smith said.
Added Addison: “He was running through everybody, running by people. They were scared to tackle him.”
Altenberg heard Smith and Addison recalling that about Tate, and laughed aloud.
He had his own, similar memory.
During Tate’s senior season, the Cavaliers were heading into a matchup with Crespi to clinch the regular season league title. All week, Altenberg hyped up Crespi’s best player, safety Marvell Tell, who started for USC on Saturday night.
He became Tate’s target.
“The whole time, Khalil was just like ‘coach, I’m going to run him over,’” Altenberg said. “I said ‘dude, I don’t need you to run him over. You’re our quarterback, you don’t need to.”
Spoiler alert: Tate didn’t listen.
On the 15th play of the game, Tate took the ball, ran up the middle, with nothing but open field ot his left and right but…Marvell Tell.
“He just runs him straight over,” Altenberg said, clapping his hands together for effect.
“He puts him on his back, and keeps going. It’s unbelievable,” Altenberg said. “Then, he goes to the sideline and goes ‘I told you coach.’”
Publically, Tate doesn’t show off much of that confidence.
To media, national or local, he’s not talkative, and he barely answers questions about himself. But Arizona fans got a glimpse of Tate’s braggadocio when he flashed that hand symbol at the USC sideline in his first career start.
He laughed recalling the moment — it wasn’t planned.
“It was just something at the time, and just did it,” Tate said, smiling. His friends on USC “saw it, and they still joke about it.”
As Altenberg said, he thinks he’s Superman, and he’s never lacked for confidence in his abilities. Specifically, his quarterbacking abilities.
The story is well-told at this point — Arizona offered him a chance to play quarterback from the beginning. It took longer for everyone else to catch on, including USC, though Tate never hid his intentions.
When coaches would come out to Serra’s practices, in fact, he would flaunt it.
“He would go on his knees with the football and just to screw with people, he’d throw the ball 60 yards,” Altenberg said. “That’s when the college coaches were there. They were like are you kidding me? I told them he wants to be a quarterback.”
When Steve Sarkisian was USC’s head coach, Tate’s offer was to play receiver. UCLA too. Helton was hired, and changed the offer to quarterback.
It was too late.
“We thought he was a can’t-miss prospect and that’s why we recruited him very hard,” Helton said. “He’s just an unbelievable athlete and when he went to Arizona i thought it was a great get for Arizona to get that type of player, that type of athlete. I just remember the last words in my mind were ‘gosh, that guy is going to be a pain in the butt at some point in time.’ And here that day comes.”
Altenberg walked out onto Serra’s football field, and talked about how all 6,000-or-so seats would probably be filled up for the game against Long Beach Poly, it would be standing room only.
The stands don’t always fill up now — Serra is a small school, with only about 400 students — but when Tate played at Serra, the stands always filled up.
Altenberg pointed to the spot on the field where Tate’s prep career ended, in a game against Mater Dei where Tate rushed for 356 yards and two touchdowns.
On the last play of the game, the ball snapped over Tate’s head, Mater Dei recovered, scored and won 28-27.
It was an end to an electric night for Tate.
“He played one of his best games of the career against a really good team,” Altenberg said, “and it ended in heartbreak.”
Saturday night’s game looked headed toward a blowout until Tate took over. Now he’s the first quarterback in Pac-12 history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. After Arizona’s valiant comeback effort, this game ended in heartbreak too — Tate threw an interception with 5:23 left to seal Arizona’s fate.
Arizona has three games remaining, and Tate will, of course, remain Arizona’s quarterback. Serra will continue to revere him, the Godfather of Gardena.
“The biggest challenge for Khalil is going to be next year. It’s not going to be the rest of this year, it’s going to be a whole offseason with everybody pointing at him,” Altenberg said. “That’s the next phase of it. That’s Plan B. Last year was Khalil 1.0. This is Khalil 2.0, that’s going to be Khalil 3.0, and so it’s what’s he going to do now?”