Offensive lineman Brett Neilon is USC football’s ‘Mr. Steady’

Win or lose – and in recent years it’s mostly been the latter – Brett Neilon has never wavered. The attacking lineman dutifully and consistently met with reporters after every game, answering questions about the recent blowout and trying to understand Trojan football’s inexplicable demise.

frustrations mounted. His mother Cora noticed him being deflated. But Neilon nodded anyway and said “thank you” after every game.

There’s a reason offensive line coach Josh Henson named four-year starting center “Mr. steady.”

In his final season with the Trojans, Neilon is hoping to make the last lap of his roller-coaster college career a great one.

Neilon joined the redshirt on the Pac-12 championship-winning USC team in 2017, then played on the first USC team to have a losing record in 18 years.

Last year he tried to stabilize the ship when a managerial change threatened the Trojans’ chances of a successful September season. Having experienced almost every triumph and heartbreak in college football, Neilon knows how he wants to leave USC.

“As a champion,” he said.

Neilon has started 14 straight games at center and 30 in his career, including two wins this season that have put the No. 7 Trojans (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference) back in the national spotlight. He anchored the offensive line during the team’s highest scoring game since 2008 in a 66-14 loss to Rice, then helped USC secure their first away win at Stanford since 2014. The fast start offers a glimpse of a bright future under Lincoln Riley, whose sprightly rents raised expectations at Heritage Hall.

In a team full of big-name transfers, Neilon and veteran offensive linemen like fifth-year starter Andrew Vorhees and team captain Justin Dedich have taken it upon themselves to ensure some USC traditions never change. Neilon, who already has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is on the verge of his master’s degree in entrepreneurship, is proud that he makes sure his teammates learn the school’s legendary battle song.

It’s about “preserving the cardinal and the gold,” said the Santa Margarita High alumnus. He does that best with his steady game.

“He rarely makes a mistake,” said Henson, the team’s offense coordinator and Neilon’s fourth offense coach at USC. “He’s just always there, doing his job and doing it right.”

Neilon grew up in Tokyo through eighth grade and learned to take pride in his work. Brett, the youngest of Cora and Michael Neilon’s two boys, had a unique upbringing, Cora said, but one she wouldn’t trade for anything.

USC football player Brett Neilon, pictured as a child, looks at the camera

USC football player Brett Neilon, shown as a child, attended elementary school in Japan.

(family photo)

When Brett was a few months old, the family moved to Japan for Michael’s job at a medical company, and then returned to Southern California. After Brett completed preschool and kindergarten in the US, the family settled in Roppongi, a lively neighborhood in central Tokyo.

With towering skyscrapers and glittering billboards, the Japanese capital resembles New York’s Times Square, but the streets are immaculate and safe and public transport is excellent, Brett recalled with a nostalgic grin. Cora had no qualms about letting her children run to the bus stop unsupervised. Even in the largest Japanese cities, it is common to see kindergarten children walking to school together without adults. Brett loved roaming the streets looking for the best ramen.

Cora, whose grandparents grew up in Japan but was born in California to parents who grew up in Hawaii, welcomed the opportunity for her children to learn about different cultures from a young age. In Japan, respect and hard work came first. The family visited an orphanage in Cambodia and traveled to China and the Philippines. They spent summers and Christmas in California.

Growing up on both sides of the Pacific Ocean made Brett who he is, he said. Little did he know at the time that this would be key to helping him code between different cultures and serving as a constant leader for a football program in flux.

“People just approach things differently and react to different things,” Neilon said. “I think growing up in Japan and traveling the world just gives you a different perspective on different things in life.”

Noting Neilon’s relatively calm leadership, Riley added that the graduate student demands respect for “the way he conducts himself day to day, the consistency, the kind of worker and competitor he is.” It’s the same work ethic he learned in Japan that landed the undersized, 6-foot-2, 295-pound contestant on two dozen scholarship offers from Santa Margarita High, despite not having played organized football until high school.

Southern California offensive lineman Brett Neilon (62) makes a block in the first half of an NCAA college football game

Offensive lineman Brett Neilon says he never considered moving from USC.

(David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

When he returned to the United States in eighth grade, Neilon excelled at baseball, basketball, soccer, and aikido, a Japanese martial art based on self-defense. Football was more of a long-distance love. His father played, and Neilon was so obsessed with the sport that he tried to fake a stomach ache on Monday morning in Japan so he could watch NFL games live. His mother might have slipped it once or twice before she realized it, she said, laughing.

He tried out for the team in the ninth grade and started out on the varsity team as a sophomore, a rarity in the highly competitive Trinity League. Elite camps came. The scholarship on offer poured in. The family was stunned.

“In our wildest dreams,” said Cora, “we never thought he would play football at this level.”

Neilon has had interest from Pac-12 rivals Washington and UCLA, Big Ten Power Michigan and elite Ivy League schools. But when USC entered the picture, the four-star recruit had no trouble making up his mind. His father and brother went there. He had two aunts who played golf for the Trojans. The decline of the football team, the change of coaches and the losses in recent years have never diminished his passion.

When asked if he’d ever considered a move, Neilon didn’t hesitate: “No,” he said nonchalantly.

He is “Mr. Steadily, anyway. Offensive lineman Brett Neilon is USC football’s ‘Mr. Steady’

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