USC DE Jake Lichtenstein’s long road to a breakthrough game
The Trojans’ DE, who once considered giving up the sport, came up with two sacks last week in Colorado…
Adam Grosbard (OC Register) — Jake Lichtenstein couldn’t afford to think about it too much in the moment, as he recorded not just the first but also the second sack of his college career. USC still had a game to play, one the Trojans would go on to win.
It was only after the victory over Colorado was complete that Lichtenstein could begin to reflect on the milestone and all the moments when he questioned whether this could actually happen. The recurring injury, the surgery, the pandemic.
“Just being away from the game for that long, it really just builds so much love inside me for it,” Lichtenstein (97) said after practice Tuesday, hair put up in a bun atop his head, at ease. “I just don’t take it for granted, so yeah, it meant everything to me.”
To really appreciate what Saturday meant to Lichtenstein, you need to start in the summer of 2019. The defensive end from Florida had completed his redshirt freshman season and a spring that left him feeling encouraged about his path moving forward.
The first roadblock came in the form of a calf injury. One that came back. And again. And again. Every time Lichtenstein felt good enough to get back to working out, the injury popped back up, and the USC training staff was having trouble diagnosing the exact problem.
Unable to escape the pain in his lower leg, Lichtenstein found himself contemplating medically retiring.
“Man, it did not sit well,” he said of that idea. “That was a tough point. I didn’t really know what the future held.”
After several months, it was found that Lichtenstein had compartment syndrome, a condition in which pressure builds in a muscle’s compartment following an injury. He had a fasciotomy that December to relieve the swelling in his calf, cutting open tissue around the muscle to relieve the pressure.
But even as he began rehab, it was still tough for Lichtenstein to get out of his mental funk and he began adding bad weight to his frame.
“He lost his confidence a little bit and was really starting to wonder if he was going to be able to do this for the next couple years,” his mother, Gretchen, said. “When you’re away at school and things are not going your way, it’s super easy to just Uber Eats.”
By the time the pandemic struck and Lichtenstein returned home to Florida, he had put on about 20 pounds of fat. He was a year removed from playing football and physically was further away from his goals of contributing at USC than he had ever been.
But home was where Lichtenstein was supposed to be. Gretchen is an athletic trainer, certified by the International Federation of Bodybuilding, and knew she could get her son back to where he wanted to be, if he still wanted to be there.
“I went, ‘Look, it’s your choice. You can do with this what you want. You can either go all in or you can start thinking about what you’re going to do when you graduate, because it won’t be playing football,’” Gretchen recalled.
Though gyms were locked down, Gretchen still had access and the mother-son duo went every morning at 7 o’clock. Lichtenstein worked out in three one-hour blocks each day, with weight training, running and other conditioning drills mixed in.
And Gretchen revamped his diet, cutting out fast food and replacing it with lean meats and organic meals. Soon, he lost 10 pounds while adding muscle, increasing his squats to the 450-465-pound range.
“I really felt like I could stay healthy and do this,” Lichtenstein said. “Just training every day and feeling that and gaining the confidence, it made me work harder.”
To play or not to play
Lichtenstein returned to USC during the summer of 2020 for voluntary workouts, but no one really knew what the future had in store for college football. That August, the Pac-12 announced it was postponing the season to the spring. A month later, the conference announced a return to play with a six-game schedule.
But would that season be postponed again? Would positive COVID-19 cases cut seasons down even further, making it pointless to take part? Would it even be worth it to play in empty stadiums? Lichtenstein had his doubts and began considering opting out for the year.
“He went back and forth a million times,” Gretchen said.
The USC coaches tried to convince him to play, but eventually he decided to return home to Florida rather than play in 2020.
“It was just a lot of uncertainty at the time and I was finishing up my degree,” said Lichtenstein, who has since graduated with a bachelor’s in non-governmental organizations and social change. “I felt like it was the right thing to do to just finish up my academics and just focus on that with how much uncertainty was going on.”
But once the games started and Lichtenstein was watching them on the couch at home, the decision started to weigh on him.
“Horrible,” Gretchen described it. “‘I should be there, I could help.’ That’s all he could say. He would watch and, ugh, it was rough.”
When December rolled around, Lichtenstein got a call from defensive line coach Vic So’oto again pleading his case for the defensive end to return to the team. He reiterated that the Trojans needed Lichtenstein’s size.
Lichtenstein felt the itch to return and, with classes wrapping up for the semester, the timing made sense. A week later, he was on a plane to Los Angeles. He wasn’t able to get back into football shape in time to play in a game, but he was back where he belonged.
“There’s something about being out there. Those are his guys, those are his brothers. They’re a team, they count on each other. It’s a different kind of family, but it’s still like his family,” Gretchen said. “So he was happy to get back, and now he’s eating it up.”
The moment you’ve been waiting for
During the first few weeks of the 2021 season, Lichtenstein carved out a sizable role for himself on the defensive line, arguably USC’s most talented position group. He was contributing, a couple tackles here, one for loss there. But there was still a milestone he needed to cross off.
It came in the first quarter against Colorado. The quarterback stepped up in the pocket as Lichtenstein slipped off his blocker. The junior swallowed up the passer and brought him down for his first career sack, springing up and prancing away in momentary celebration.
The capper came in the fourth quarter, when Lichtenstein got another sack, rolling the quarterback over onto the ground. Defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu stood flexing over Lichtenstein, who jumped up and interlocked his right arm with his teammate’s.
Both of Lichtenstein’s parents and one of his two sisters were in the crowd for the moment, which felt surreal after all he had been through to make it here.
“That’s the happiest he’s been after a game that I’ve seen,” Gretchen said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him because he puts in the work, he does the stuff in the training room before hours when he doesn’t need to be, because he knows that stuff pays off. I couldn’t possibly be more proud of him.”