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Remembering Bill Withers and the time he punked USC’s football team

Back in 2009, Withers went undercover at a team meeting.

Elgin Baylor Statue Unveiling Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

This week the world mourns the loss of legendary singer/songwriter Bill Withers, who became famous for writing and co-writing songs such as the hit “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Withers died on Monday from heart complications at age 81.

For casual USC fans the following story may be one you haven’t heard before, and if so, it’s about time you did.

Back in 2009, head football coach Pete Carroll asked linebacker Marquis Simmons to lead the team in a rendition of Withers’ “Lean On Me” during a team meeting. He also didn’t tell the team that he asked Withers to join the team for the event, who spent the first part masquerading as someone there to inform the team about a fictional “fungus” that was spreading into their team locker room.

Once the prank was kept up long enough, Withers finally admitted that the whole team was getting “punked big time.” When he made it known who he was, the entire room burst into applause for the then-70-year-old singer.

Withers then told Simmons that he wanted to hear him sing his song and that’s exactly what the linebacker did. The rest of his team joined in after the first few lines until the entire room was nothing but an uproar with Withers’ biggest hit.

Check out the video below:

Before it was all over, Withers imparted some words of wisdom for the Trojans.

“When you get older, it’s always nice to see people find some use for stuff that you did.

“Don’t use lose sight of this camaraderie that you have now because the later you go in your life, the less access you will have to this kind of friendship or even this kind of rivalry. Hey, everyone doesn’t like everybody. But just don’t let this go by without realizing that it’s happening to you and for you. And lean on each other. You know, it’s macho. You know, you don’t give up any of your machismo by leaning on each other. But don’t let this time go by without realizing that you’re in it. Be young. Be healthy. Be vibrant. Run and jump and smash into each other. I don’t understand that part. And be thankful that you have gentlemen like this.”

It’s always a sad thing to hear the news of anyone’s passing. But it reminded me of all the times Withers had been a part of my life growing up and his impact on me. In what sounds like a mix of things, Withers’ hit “Lean On Me” was something that my high school football team “leaned” into (pun intended) as a pre-game ritual. Prior to running out of the tunnel at home games, our entire team would break out into our own rendition of the song. Swaying back and forth, the opposing fans around us — the tunnel was opposite the home side —would be unnerved and almost intimidated that one of the most successful teams in the state would belt out such a sultry song before they were expected to crack skulls on the gridiron.

It didn’t make sense, but it was our thing.

So rest in peace, Mr. Bill Withers. It just seems right that I look outside at a dark and dreary day and realize you were correct. There just ain’t no sunshine now that you’re gone.