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TRAGEDY LESSENS THE GAMES.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

Mario Danelo's death has jolted this column out of its smug distaste for the Sports Get Put in Perspective angle, which assumes readers need funeral hymns to remind you that these are merely ballgames.

It can't be that the USC placekicker's death is more horrific, tragic or important than any other 21-year-old's. So it must be something about the timing that's different. To a long list of ripe topics today, these typing fingers refuse to respond.

Thinking about Danelo changes the way you think about anything to do with USC this morning.

Should I stoke Trojans fans' fear of abandonment by Pete Carroll, and make fun of his cloak-and-dagger meeting with Miami Dolphins officials in Costa Rica? For the moment it's hard to work up the annual worry about a coach leaving.

Should I speculate on what it would mean to the Trojans if Steve Sarkisian were plucked from the school's offensive braintrust to coach the Oakland Raiders, and what that would say about the Raiders? It's just the wrong day for such hand-wringing.

Should I remark on the ahead-of-schedule arrival of the Trojans basketball team, which beat Oregon last week and could be playing UCLA for first place in the Pac-10 on Saturday? Not today, when the team's euphoria must be undercut by the reopening of emotional wounds from Ryan Francis' murder.

Should I try to predict how many (or how few) votes Mark McGwire got in the Hall of Fame balloting that will be announced this morning? It's hard to get past the fact that the first time I saw McGwire, when he was a Trojans first baseman and pitcher, he was about the age of Mario Danelo.

Thinking about Danelo changes the way you think about a lot of football stories.

I'd pick on Tony Romo for dropping the ball and ending the Dallas Cowboys' season, but how big a deal is a mistake that means one field goal never gets kicked, next to the loss of an NFL career's worth?

I'd muse on how Monday's national-title game will stay with the Ohio State and Florida kids for the rest of their lives, but how to forget the life that's never lived?

Thinking about Danelo changes the way you think about the biggest game of the L.A. weekend.

After the Lakers' victory over the league-leading Dallas Mavericks gave Phil Jackson his 900th NBA win Sunday, it might have been time to wonder if the coach will still be here for his 1,000th. But let's wait a while before obsessing about the future of a man in his 60s whose career is fulfilled whether or not he reaches the next milestone.

These things will matter again, and soon. There will be a second paragraph for each of these topics. Just not right now.

Thinking about Danelo could affect the way you think about the world beyond sports.

What his parents are experiencing, 3,000 American military families have gone through since the beginning of the Iraq war.

An autopsy was performed Monday in Los Angeles, two days after Danelo's body was found at the bottom of a 120-foot cliff, off Point Fermin Park in his native San Pedro. The record-setting kicker, who led the Trojans with 89 points after making 15 of 16 field-goal attempts in his junior season, had been last seen by friends late Friday night.

For a month, the school's fans had agonized over the championship opportunity that went away in the UCLA game. Now, a truly depressing realization: If the Trojans had won, Danelo would have been with the team in the Arizona desert on Friday, preparing to take on Ohio State.

The coroner's office made no immediate announcement about the cause of death, and the police told the Associated Press again that a crime has been ruled out, leaving an accident and suicide as the possible explanations. As we've all heard too many times, it can take weeks for toxicology reports to show if the victim had alcohol or drugs in his system.

But, at most, all we may ever find out is how Danelo died. We'll never know why.

USC is all over the news these days. Football comes to a boil this month. The world of games is beginning what should be a very interesting 2007 around here.

Mario Danelo was a big part of that school, that sport, this year. Even if we already knew they are merely ballgames, we can feel like they're a bit smaller today.

heymodesti(AT_SIGN)aol.com

(818) 713-3616

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) Mario Danelo led USC with 89 points this season, making 15 of 16 field-goal attempts.

Matt Sayles/Associated Press

(2) Alfred Orozco shows the site where he spotted USC kicker Mario Danelo's body near the bottom of a San Pedro cliff.

Sean Hiller/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2007
Words:811
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