Win or lose — and, in recent years, it’s mostly been the latter — Brett Neilon never wavered. The offensive lineman dutifully and consistently met with reporters after each game, absorbing questions about the latest blowout and trying to make sense of the inexplicable fall of Trojans football.
Frustrations mounted. His mother, Cora, noticed how deflated he got. But Neilon still nodded in appreciation after each game.
There’s a reason offensive line coach Josh Henson calls the four-year starting center “Mr. Steady.”
In his final season with the Trojans, Neilon hopes to make the last turn of his roller-coaster college career a great one.
Neilon redshirted on USC's Pac-12 championship-winning team in 2017, then played on the first USC team to have a losing record in 18 years.
Last year, he tried to steady the ship when a coaching change tanked the Trojans' chances of a winning season by September. After experiencing 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 consecutive games at center and 30 in his career, including two wins this season that have the No. 7 Trojans (2-0, 1-0) surging back into the national spotlight. He anchored the offensive line during the team's highest- scoring game since 2008 in a 66-14 rout over Rice, then helped USC secure its first road win at Stanford since 2014. The fast start offers a glimpse at a bright future under Lincoln Riley, whose splashy hire sent expectations soaring in Heritage Hall.
On a team full of big-name transfers, Neilon and veteran offensive linemen, such as fifth-year starter Andrew Vorhees and team captain Justin Dedich have taken it upon themselves to ensure some USC traditions never change. Neilon, who has already earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and is closing in on his master's in entrepreneurship, takes pride in making sure his teammates learn the school's iconic fight song.
It's about "upholding the cardinal and gold," the Santa Margarita High alumnus said. The best way he does that is with his steadfast play.
“He rarely makes a mistake,” said Henson, the team’s offensive coordinator and Neilon’s fourth offensive line coach at USC. “He’s just always there, doing his job and doing it the right way.”
Growing up in Tokyo until the eighth grade, Neilon learned how to take pride in his work. The youngest of Cora and Michael Neilon's two boys, Brett had a unique upbringing. But, Cora said, it's one she wouldn't trade for anything.
The family moved to Japan when Brett was a few months old because of Michael’s job with a medical company before returning to Southern California. After Brett completed preschool and kindergarten in the U.S., the family settled back in Roppongi, a bustling neighborhood in central Tokyo.
With towering skyscrapers and glittering billboards, the Japanese capital resembles New York's Times Square, but the streets are pristine and safe, and the public transportation is excellent, Brett recalled. Cora had no qualms about letting her kids walk to the bus stop unsupervised. Seeing kindergarteners walking to school together without adults is common in even the biggest Japanese cities. Brett loved wandering the streets, hunting for the best ramen.
Cora, whose grandparents grew up in Japan but was born in California to Hawaii-raised parents, relished the opportunity for her kids to experience different cultures from a young age. In Japan, respect and hard work were paramount. The family visited an orphanage in Cambodia and traveled to China and the Philippines. They spent summers and Christmases in California.
Growing up on both sides of the Pacific Ocean made Brett who he is, he said. He had no idea at the time it would be key to helping him switch between different cultures and act as a steady leader for a football program in transition.
“People just approach things differently and respond to different things,” Neilon said. “I think growing up in Japan and traveling the world, you just get a different perspective on different things in life.”
Riley noted Neilon’s relatively quiet leadership quality, adding the grad student demands respect with “the way he carries himself day to day, the consistency, the kind of worker and competitor he is.” It’s the same work ethic he learned in Japan and what carried the undersized 6-foot-2, 295-pound prospect to two dozen scholarship offers out of Santa Margarita High despite not having played organized football until high school.
By the time he moved back 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 would try to fake a stomachache on Monday mornings in Japan so he could watch NFL games live. His mom may have let it slide once or twice before catching on, she said laughing.
He tried out for the team in ninth grade and started as a sophomore on the varsity team, a rarity in the ultracompetitive Trinity League. Elite camps came. Scholarship offers poured in. The family was stunned.
“In our wildest dreams,” Cora said, “we never thought he would be playing football at this level.”
Neilon had interest from Pac-12 rivals Washington and UCLA, Big Ten power Michigan and elite Ivy League schools. But once USC entered the picture, the four-star recruit didn’t have trouble making up his mind. His father and brother went there. He had two aunts who played golf for the Trojans. The football team’s fall from grace, coaching change and losing of recent years never diminished his passion.
When asked if he ever considered transferring, Neilon didn't hesitate: "No," he said.
He is "Mr. Steady," after all.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.