Wednesday, September 10, 2008

F&BT Conversations: Former USC WR John Zilka

There aren't many things that we do well here at F&BT, and interviewing famous people or college football insiders is definitely not one of them...but we are good at knowing people. And I just happen to know someone who played a little college football. Granted it was at the opponent of Ohio State this weekend, but it's college football none-the-less. In the very first edition of F&BT Conversations, I bring you my conversation with former USC wide receiver and LFHS Scouts alumni...John Zilka.

JZ, thanks for your time. First, some background info, how did you end up playing at USC?
During the summer going into my senior year of high school, I had briefly met the Director of Football Operations on a visit to USC, and inquired about the potential of walking on. He seemed refreshed that I wasn’t asking about a scholarship and was from Chicago, so that might have helped me stand out in his mind. It was a short meeting, basically a meet and greet. I went back home, played my senior year of football, and then kind of forgot about playing football. However, in May, after finally deciding to attend USC, I talked with former LFHS coach Willie Snead about potentially walking on at USC. I was skeptical at first (since I missed 4 games due to injury my senior year, and let’s be honest it was USC), but he told me so many high school players think they can’t play D1 football because they can’t get a scholarship, however they forget that most schools will take a look at you to walk on because there is no risk to them. Since I had already been accepted to the school, they would not have to pull any strings, and it was worth a shot. So we put together some gamefilm and sent it out there, Willie talked to some of the staff, and then I got a call in mid-June to show up at training camp in August. Honestly, that is the story. No tryouts, no nothing. I’m sure USC being 6-6 the year before and me being from Chicago helped me stand out. It still amazes me how it happened.

SC was 6-6 the year before you showed up on campus, and 48-4 while you were there...what did your presence do and how do you explain your obvious impact on SC football? The numbers don't lie, why don't you personally get more credit?
That amazes me everyday. Just like the film don’t lie, the numbers don’t lie. I can’t quite figure it out. You mean to tell me Palmer, Leinart, Bush, White, Williams, Tatupu, Polamalu, and Jarrett had more impact then me? You’d be kidding yourself to think that way.

You grew up a Northwestern fan, how do the conferences compare? How do the fan bases compare?
The Big Ten has bigger fan bases, bigger stadiums, and bigger TV audiences than the Pac-10 without a doubt. With the popularity of spread offenses and more teams throwing the ball, the conferences scheme-wise are not much different anymore. However, the Pac-10 has supremely better skill players, with better overall talent and speed, which is why the Pac-10 generates such high offensive numbers. Much of that has to do with better weather, and being able to groom skill players in high schools. If the Big Ten wants to get back to competing nationally, they need to find more talented skill players. The talent level between the Big Ten and other conferences is widening every off-season.

Favorite part about playing college football at USC?
Two things: scout team period during practice and pre-warmups on gamedays. With the scout team, I got the chance to run 30 plays a day at WR, and make plays against our #1 defense. That’s really what made me a better player by the time I was a senior. It was my chance to play football and get passes thrown to me. Secondly, I loved going out to the field on gamedays before the official warmups (with just pants and cleats, no shoulder pads/jersey) and playing catch with teammates. We just fooled around on the field throwing the ball, Coach Carroll did it, it was awesome. I’ll never forget doing that before the game at the Orange Bowl vs. Oklahoma, there was so much buzz in the stadium.

OSU receiver Ray Small had some harsh comments about the atmosphere around the USC program, what was your reaction?
I think it has been blow out of proportion. OSU players will say their program is superior, USC players will say their program is superior. LSU will say their program is better than both. It’s pointless since everyone is biased. And the culture clashes of Midwest Ohio vs. SoCal vs. the Deep South changes everything as well. All I can say is that I enjoyed my experience at USC, and how Coach Carroll ran his program. He made it fun and loose, but also focused. His record speaks for itself, so I think it works.

What do you expect SC to try and do against OSU this weekend? What do you expect OSU to try and do against SC? Any bold predictions?
First off, it doesn’t matter what OSU does, because it’s not about them. If SC plays to its gameplan, they will win. Offensively, SC will spread the ball to all its playmakers, and use their speed to their advantage. I expect SC to focus on stopping the run defensively, and forcing the OSU QB to throw the ball, turning them one-dimensional. If SC gets ahead early and forces OSU to pass the ball, it will be a long day for the Buckeyes. I expect OSU to play better than they have shown the first 2 weeks, but SC in LA will prevail, 27-13.

Quick Hitters:
Are the song girls really that hot in person?
Some are, some aren’t, just like anything else.
Did you ever hang out with them?
No, but I was in classes with them if that counts. (F&BT Judges....count it!)
True or False: you have held the Heisman Trophy?
Yes, but not the one for Carson, Matt, or Reggie. I held Mike Garrett’s (first SC Heismen, current SC Athletic Director), and I held it in his dining room at his house in Pasadena. I went to a barbeque party hosted by his daughter there, who was dating someone in my fraternity during the summer after my freshman year. I walked into the dining room, where people were playing the drinking game “asshole” and there it was. It’s pretty heavy. And I have held the championship Crystal Ball. And kissed it. And held it like a running back. Pretty sweet.
If you saw Reggie Bush at a party tonight, would you say hello? Matt Leinert? Carson Palmer?
Carson wouldn’t remember me, so no. Reggie and Matt? If they were in front of me getting a drink at the bar, then yes. If they were in the VIP section and I had to fight security, then no. I’m not gonna be “that guy.”
Is Pete Carroll really that awesome or is it an act?
He’s that awesome and then some, 100% real. Has such an amazing philosophy on everything, and carries it out daily. So much of his outlook on football translates to life and business. He’s been a great role model.
True or False: your senior year of high school was your most fun season of football because your fellow receivers were the coolest people on earth?
Very true, without a doubt the coolest I’ve ever met, especially #80. He was so great I had to steal his number when I could at USC. They’ve all gone on to do great things.
Do you read college football blogs often? How much does this one suck?
I read USC football blogs, and My blog of choice is SportsbyBrooks. By far, the best funny sports blog, better than Deadspin by a mile now. I really don’t read opinionated sports blogs because people are so biased to their cause they can’t think straight. It’s worthless. (F&BT Note: Zilka did not actually say we suck...we'll take that as a compliment)
Favorite TV show?
In terms of current shows: Reality- The Hills, Drama-Brothers & Sisters, Comedy-The Office, Crime-CSIs. And I’m now getting into Gossip Girls, good stuff.
Best fast-food chain?
In-N-Out Burger. I’m a homer for SoCal, always have been. And I’ve been wearing In-N-Out t-shirts since 3rd grade.
Best Ed Orgeron story? (crazy former Ole Miss head coach/USC d-line coach, notoriously intense and prone to taking his shirt off in meetings while yelling)
Coach O ran the scout team plays, making sure we ran the correct plays vs. the defense. One play I screwed up a route, and he unleashed some expletives my way, “Who the F (he used the full word) ran that route? Zilka? F-ing Zilka? Get him out of there! I don’t want another horse shit walk-on at WR anymore!” I was on a knee for the rest of scout ream period, trying not to look at Coach O as he gave me stern looks periodically.
And finally, do you remember that time when you got into the game during the Orange Bowl your freshman year against Iowa and we T.P.'d your Mom's house and threw oranges at the front of the house?
I do, that was quite the compliment. But then it rained and all the TP stuck to the ground, and I had to clean it all up. By myself.
That was awesome.
Thanks guys.

No, thank you JZ. Have fun on your trip back to the "Best Coast" this weekend, run a few "fade" routes for us, and Go Big Ten!

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