One of college football's circles of life will grow complete Saturday afternoon when former Washington State kicker Joe Danelo watches his son Mario kick for USC against dad's alma mater at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Like father, like son is rarely more obvious than with the Danelos. Their story is one of Rudy-like grit, pride and perseverance.
Joe, raised in the blue-collar Garry Park neighborhood of east-central Spokane, carved out a 10-year career in the NFL after playing for Washington State from 1972-74. He kicked the first 50-yard field goal in WSU history in 1972, and he came up one shy of the NFL record of seven field goals in a single game when he went 6-for-6 for the New York Giants at Seattle in 1981.
That's a pretty impressive resume for a guy who packed a measly 135 pounds on his 5-foot-6 frame as a senior kicker at Gonzaga Prep.
"I was also a third-string wide receiver and fifth-string linebacker," Danelo says with a hearty laugh. "I was so slow!"
Mario Danelo, who had little kicking experience prior to college, was recruited by no one. He received no scholarship money his first two years at USC and never touched the field. This fall, he landed the No. 1 job and that long-awaited scholarship.
"He was on mom and dad's scholarship," says Joe, sounding very much like a man who is $80,000 poorer for his son's college education, but infinitely richer for the experience.
Joe understood more than most parents the steep odds his son faced when Mario informed him at the end of his senior year of high school football that he intended to walk on at national powerhouse USC.
"When your kid approaches you with a dream, you can't say, 'Maybe you should start smaller,'" Joe says. "You could discourage them, maybe for the rest of their lives."
It was the summer prior to Mario's senior year at San Pedro (Calif.) High School -- the all-league linebacker and soccer goalie had never kicked for a football team before his junior season -- when then-USC assistant coach Kennedy Pola spotted Danelo at a kicking camp and invited him to walk on.
"It was pretty much the only school that showed a little bit of interest in me," Danelo says. "Any kind of love, that's what I was looking for."
Danelo waited two years for all-time USC scoring leader Ryan Killeen to graduate, then beat out heralded freshman Troy Van Blarcom (a high school All-American) for the kicking job this fall. Van Blarcom handles kickoffs for the Trojans, but Danelo kicks field goals and extra points.
Danelo made an auspicious college debut at Hawaii, tying a USC record with nine extra points. The following week, he broke the record by kicking 10 against Arkansas.
Danelo is grateful for all the extra-point chances, since he realizes that field-goal opportunities will be limited with USC's dynamic offense. After going 3-for-5 with a career-best 48-yard field goal his senior year at San Pedro, Danelo is 3-for-4 at USC.
"I'm not complaining," he says. "As long as we're winning, that's all that matters."
Two weeks ago, Danelo and the rest of the Trojans experienced one of the great wins in college football history. USC beat Notre Dame 34-31 on Matt Leinart's quarterback sneak with three seconds to go, but Danelo says he was ready to play hero.
"Most definitely," he says. "I definitely thought I was going to have to go in there to tie it.
"It was a fun, exciting game, but that's all it was," Danelo says. "It's over with now. We've got another game to focus on."
Sounds like the kid might have received some sound fatherly advice over the years. Joe, who started dating future wife Emily when they attended WSU, speaks with obvious pride about Emily, Mario and their two older sons. The Danelos moved to San Pedro (near Emily's hometown of Carson) as soon as they married after college, and Joe has put in long hours working on the docks of Long Beach since the waning days of his NFL career.
"He's always been there to help me, but he's never pushed me," Mario says. "He kind of let me learn things on my own through trial and error."
Of course, father and son both realize that a kicker is permitted few errors on a top-ranked, undefeated team like USC. Joe says he's not worried about his son's dream coming to an end any time soon.
"When he said he wanted to go to USC, I said, 'You're the only one who thinks you can make it. You're going to have to work extremely hard. You have to follow your dream.'
"I know it sounds corny, but ..."
Sometimes, dreams do come true.
Washington State (3-4) plays top-ranked USC (7-0) on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 12:30 pm in Los Angeles. KXLY 4 and KXLY 920 will broadcast the game.