June 10, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Toa Lobendahn doesn’t hide his scars.
Just below his baggy, burgundy shorts, his left knee bears a thick, straight scar from an anterior cruciate ligament surgery last fall. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound center for USC’s football team is seven months into a nine-month rehabilitation program.
Lobendahn leans down and reveals the same scar on his other knee. The La Habra native tore his other ACL as a sophomore in high school when an opponent pulled his face mask, causing his knee to twist in a way it shouldn’t.
“I’m used to it now,” said Lobendahn, upbeat, as if an ACL tear was akin to a paper cut.
It takes a lot to remove Lobendahn, a former standout at La Habra High, from the field. He played three more games after tearing his ACL in high school. He readied himself for the next play moments after tearing his ACL at USC.
His name means “faithful warrior” in Samoan, as his parents hoped he would be both brave and devoted.
Entering his junior season, Lobendahn is pushing to return to play and to earn the starting spot at center for the Trojans come training camp in August.
“He’s always ready,” said his mother, Michelle. “He’s just always ready to get out there and compete, if not battle.”
It was Oct. 24, and the Trojans were facing Utah at home.
Early in the game, Lobendahn, in motion, happened to get stuck behind one of his teammates. Then a Utah player pushed Lobendahn from the back, toward his right side, causing Lobendahn to plant his left leg in an uncomfortable way.
His knee gave out.
Lobendahn, a versatile offensive lineman who has started four positions in his college career, didn’t hear a pop. He felt some discomfort, but didn’t think the pain was serious.
“It was shocking to all of us,” said his father, Vince, who played at Utah and in the Arena League. Lobendahn’s parents have both torn their ACLs. “In many ways we didn’t even think it was torn.”
Lobendahn, who had earned all Pac-12 honorable mention as a freshman in 2014, would miss the remainder of his sophomore campaign.
Lobendahn had surgery the day before Halloween. He lay in his bed for the holiday and watched his team’s game on television, wearing a stabilizing brace. “That was my costume,” he said, laughing.
Lobendahn naturally finds light in the dark. He’s always telling jokes and getting a laugh out of his teammates.
“He’s super goofy,” said right guard Viane Talamaivao, Lobendahn’s best friend. “Even in those adverse situations, Toa’s always been that spark, he’s always been the same person … he was always that positive, encouraging person.”
Still, it was crushing to be away from the team huddle and from team road trips. Lobendahn would have given anything to help USC, which finished 8-6, with losses to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game and to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.
“I was down about it right when they told me,” Lobendahn said of missing play. “But I just kind of thought about it, I let it sink in and after that I let it go.”
Of rehab he said, “You gotta clear your mind and just focus on the task at hand.”
Work ethic is nothing new to Lobendahn. His parents taught him that nothing is guaranteed, he said, and that you have to work above and beyond what’s expected if you want even a sliver of success.
Lobendahn started churning out pushups and sit-ups at 6 years old. As he got older, he fell in love with weightlifting. The Lobendahn home included a squat rack, a platform, dumbbells and a treadmill near the living room.
Training with his father, he would sprint up and down steep stairs at Gahr High 15 times and then run 10 consecutive 100-yard sprints before weightlifting.
“Toa has that drive,” Vince Lobendahn said. “He’s got a different level of commitment that other kids don’t have.”
Lobendahn was named a Prep Star All-American and a Cal-Hi Sports All-State first-team selection at La Habra High in 2013.
“He never let up,” Highlanders coach Frank Mazzotta said. “He was a dominating football player, but he also brought credibility, too. When you’re a top player, you work hard. When you’re a top player, you get a 3.8 GPA.”
Lobendahn has brought that hustle to his rehab at USC, working five days a week.
Starting with basic flexing to get his muscles moving, he works to regain strength through single-leg exercises such as lunges. The most grueling exercise has him on a ledge, forcing him to balance on one leg while almost squatting.
Lobendahn creates a game for himself, he said, tricking himself into enjoying each exercise and recognizing his overall progress. He focuses on repetition after repetition to block out the questions that sometimes circle his mind: Am I going to be ready? Am I going to be able to move the same?
“He’s going through the process very mentally strong,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
“He’s got a blue-collar, workman-like mentality. It doesn’t matter what the situation, he comes to work,” Helton said. “He never gets too high, never gets too low, just puts in a great day of work.”
Lobendahn began to jog slowly and is now cutting and running at higher speeds.
“My teammates are joking around, ‘Man, you never even got hurt!’ because I’m doing stuff I was doing before,” Lobendahn said. “It feels good to be back.”
Lobendahn was named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List in late May. The trophy is awarded to the nation’s top Division I center.
He shrugs off the honor – there is more work to be done. He’s focused on earning his spot and showing he hasn’t lost a beat.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted. He knows he has a job to do,” Michelle Lobendahn said.
“He’s definitely ready. I think he’s always ready. That’s Toa.”