LOS ANGELES -- As John David Booty tried to explain his feelings about what clearly hasn't been the storybook senior season so many expected for him and his team, two dozen toddlers hung on his every word.
Booty was the last USC player on the practice field Friday afternoon after all his teammates had filed into the locker room to get ready to board the team buses headed for a night at the Improv. The impromptu audience circled around Booty, clutching jerseys and minifootballs while mirroring the quarterback's slow gait off the field.
"For a moment, it was just like the days of Matt [Leinart] and Reggie [Bush]," one of the USC sports information directors said with a hint of awe.
Of course, scenes like this were supposed to be the norm for the Trojan QB this fall. Stardom. Perhaps a Heisman Trophy. And a national title, too. Just like Leinart's USC career.
Instead, there have been moments of indecision that have flashed through Booty's mind and the minds of those closest to him. The Shreveport, La., native could have left Los Angeles when QB guru Norm Chow, one of the reasons he came here, bolted for the NFL. Booty even thought of leaving for the next level himself last winter after a stellar junior season in which he threw for 29 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. But always in the back of his mind was the thought to be patient.
Booty has tried to learn from the decisions his older brother Josh made. Josh once was the stud quarterback prospect with the rocket arm. He, too, starred at Evangel Christian Academy back in Louisiana. He set national passing records and was the state's prized gunslinger, generating the most buzz among college coaches -- which is saying something when you consider Peyton Manning was playing high school ball at the same time, as was Jake Delhomme. Still, the eldest Booty boy jumped for a million-dollar baseball contract and has been left to wonder "what if" after finding out how hard it is to hit the curve ball.
There are four Booty boys: Josh, Abram, John David and Jack. Josh and John David (or J.D., as his family has always called him) have dark hair, rounded faces and look like their daddy. Abram, a former receiver at LSU, and Jack, an all-state QB in Louisiana this fall, are blond with more chiseled features and resemble their mom, Sonya.
J.D., the spitting image of his big brother, spoke last year about how important it was to him to shine for his family's legacy. His father, Johnny, a preacher, had been a top quarterback prospect, too, growing up in a line of storied Shreveport passers that began with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson. Johnny, though, bounced all over the place, from Arkansas to Louisiana Tech to Mississippi State. Josh finally came back to football after five seasons of playing pro baseball in the Florida Marlins' organization and even made all-SEC at LSU. But he never found a ripe situation in the NFL and now is his brother's biggest cheerleader.
This was supposed to be John David's year and the season the Booty family had been waiting for. Instead, the quarterback with the "Big Dreams" tattoo on his arm has endured a frustrating final year in Los Angeles.
In the first month of the season, the offense was uncharacteristically listless. There were too many three-and-outs. Not enough big plays. Against Washington, Booty threw two interceptions and only one touchdown pass as USC barely escaped with a 27-24 win. The following week, there was the nightmarish night against lowly Stanford. He was picked off four times as the Cardinal shocked the college football world with a 24-23 upset of the Trojans at the Coliseum. Booty's performance was hindered by the injured middle finger on his throwing hand, the result of striking a helmet on his follow-through. He tried to grit his way through it, but his passes, which always had been so accurate, sailed uncontrollably all over the place. To make matters worse, his inexperienced receiving corps struggled to hang on to passes and run precise routes, which could make any QB look bad. An injury-ravaged offensive line didn't help, either.
Many USC fans, who have been conditioned to expect greatness after rooting on Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Leinart, have made Booty and 33-year-old offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian the scapegoats for a disappointing season, voicing their displeasure on call-in radio shows and Internet message boards and by booing the quarterback at the Coliseum.
Sure, the Trojans still won the Pac-10 title this year and are playing in their third consecutive Rose Bowl, but some fans point out that this year's Rose Bowl, like last year's, doesn't have a national championship in the balance. The criticism of Booty has been pretty harsh, primarily focusing on his laid-back nature, especially leading up to USC's game at Oregon, when Booty's broken finger forced Pete Carroll to go with prized backup Mark Sanchez, a talented Orange County native who displayed a lot more emotion on the field. Some of that criticism against Booty, though, faded after USC lost that game to the Ducks up in Eugene.
Booty said he always has tried to have thick skin. He learned how to tune out criticism while growing up in a community that was split when his father had a rift with his mentor, another Shreveport preacher (former star QB Denny Duron). All Booty could do was, yes, be patient and let his finger heal.
"What can you do?" Booty said. "It's not like something you can rehab or get in the training room and do much with. If it's broke, it's broke. You just gotta sit there and wait. You just try and take it out of your mind and try to become a vocal leader out there on the sidelines, and I tried to help Mark out. But there's nothing you can do about it."
Since sitting out three games in the middle of the year to heal his finger, Booty has thrown eight touchdowns against just one interception, and Sarkisian pointed out that pick came when a receiver ran the wrong route.
"I really think he's handled it like a pro," Sarkisian said. "There's been a lot of times a more immature guy would've pointed some fingers when things happened. He never did that. He's handled it like a leader should. He has accepted it and taken it head-on. He's been great about it.
"The biggest difference between this year and last year for him is last year, we had two All-American receivers that could make a lot of plays and get separation and get open. This year, we played with a lot of young guys, and they've had their moments, but it's taken time. There have been up and down involved, and when they make mistakes, that creates a little hesitation in the quarterback's mind, and now he's not playing as efficient as he could play. He's worked through that, though, and he's come back and played great. If he doesn't get injured, I think his numbers would end up being very comparable to what they were last year."
Booty said now is not the time to ponder any "what if"s. That awful night against Stanford was indeed his lowest point, but he doesn't have time to reflect on that, at least not until after the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Illinois (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET). His brother Josh said he is expecting J.D. to have a great day and then wow the scouts at the Senior Bowl next month.
Asked about his legacy at USC, Booty glanced out at the practice field where he has spent so many hours throwing passes. He said Heisman or not, he still feels pretty fortunate and thankful he made it out here to Los Angeles.
"It's a team sport and a team game," Booty said. "That's really my concern. I want to win for our team. To be in two Rose Bowls, I've already won one. That's what I'll be the most proud of when I look back on things. I've been a part of five Pac-10 champion teams and two national championships. That's pretty unbelievable to me."
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.