USC football walk-on Nate Guertler gets a full life, if not a full ride

Tight end Nate Guertler has toiled in USC program for four years and never gotten a scholarship. But other rewards have made it all worthwhile.

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Nate Guertler

USC offensive tackle Nate Guertler hasn't let his walk-on status prevent him from being a hero to his younger brother. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / November 5, 2013)

The money would have been nice. Nate Guertler won't lie. After four years of paying for the privilege of playing football at USC, an actual scholarship would have made things easier.

Teammates wouldn't have to sneak him food from the athletic dining hall. He wouldn't have to stay up late after practice figuring out how to pay overdue rent. He wouldn't have to summon all the courage in his aching body to call family and friends to borrow $5,000 in overdue tuition, as he did recently.

"There's this little voice in the back of my head that occasionally pokes at me about that," he says. "It's been like, 'Why are you doing this?'"

But then Guertler looks at the scrawled elementary-school assignment hanging on a wall in his apartment, and he knows.

It is from his 10-year-old brother Aaron, who has autism. A couple of years ago, Aaron was asked to write three things about someone in his family. He wrote about his favorite football star, his best friend, his hero. He wrote about Nathan.

He plays football at USC. He's tall. He's happy.

"Almost every day for two years I've looked at those three sentences, and I don't even think about playing for that scholarship anymore," Guertler said. "I'm really just playing for my little brother."

During a season in which USC's longest-suffering walk-on finally cracked the starting lineup, this redshirt junior tight end has indeed realized that in the futile chase for a scholarship, he will earn a great deal more.

He is scheduled to graduate this spring with a degree in psychology. He will do so with the admiration of a team that has watched him relentlessly toil in obscurity. He will have at least one start — two weeks ago against Utah — and vital late-season playing time on his resume.

And then there's Aaron Amitoelau, the little brother with whom a USC football-forged connection has been priceless.

"My little brother is my strength," Guertler said.

You perhaps hadn't heard of Nathan Guertler before now, but Aaron can't stop talking about him. Aaron sleeps in his brother's bed in their home in Corona. Aaron waits patiently for Nathan to come home and play video games with him. When Aaron is agitated, he calms down when he is told that Nathan would disapprove of his behavior.

Aaron misses his brother so much, he has worked on controlling his fear of crowds and loud noises so he can attend USC games at the Coliseum. He attended Nathan's first collegiate start against Utah, and celebrated their bond by grabbing and eating Nathan's postgame hamburger as if he had just played.

"Aaron doesn't want to let Nathan down," said their father, Rex Amitoelau. "He lives to make Nathan proud of him."

During those few moments when Guertler has thought about abandoning his quest, he thinks about living up to that pride for the sake of not only Aaron, but also his father, his mother, Lillian, and sister Nikki.

"I want to show everyone that all my work — and all my family's work — has been worth it," he said.

He thinks about Aaron wearing a Matt Barkley autographed jersey, bragging to his friends at school, and summing up much of Nathan's life in those three sentences.

Yes, Guertler is tall, 6 feet 5, 280 pounds, and looks even bigger with his shoulder-length black hair. Yes, Guertler is happy, a guy who says he faces his challenges with nightly Bible readings and twice-daily weightlifting sessions.

And, of course, finally, there can be no question, the world has seen it, Guertler plays football at USC.

"What a great, great story," interim Coach Ed Orgeron said. "He is one of those kids who dreamed it, and worked for it, and now he gets to live it."

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