Josh Shaw has been an exemplary teammate and a valuable leader at Southern California, earning his fellow Trojans' trust and praise after transferring home to help his family two years ago.
His teammates and coaches say they had no reason to doubt the cornerback when he explained his two sprained ankles with an elaborate story about saving his nephew from drowning.
Shaw's tale turned out to be fiction, and USC is left wondering exactly what drove a team captain to such deception.
Shaw confessed Wednesday that he lied to school officials about how he injured his ankles last weekend, retracting his story about jumping off a balcony in a rescue bid.
The school swiftly suspended him from all team activities and acknowledged his heroic tale was "a complete fabrication."
"We are extremely disappointed in Josh," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "He let us all down. As I have said, nothing in his background led us to doubt him when he told us of his injuries, nor did anything after our initial vetting of his story."
Shaw is a fifth-year senior who would have been a key starter in USC's defensive secondary. He was expected to play a major role for the 15th-ranked Trojans, who begin their first season under Sarkisian at the Coliseum on Saturday against Fresno State.
Now his college football career could be finished, and his teammates must figure out how to replace a player who willingly filled any role for the USC defence over the last two years.
"We were pretty shocked," USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams said Wednesday morning. "Josh Shaw is a pretty loyal guy. I would never expect him to make up a story. I would never expect that out of him as a team leader."
After playing his freshman season at Florida, Shaw transferred to USC for the 2012 season, receiving a hardship waiver because he said he needed to assist his ailing father and grandfather with the family landscaping business in his hometown of Palmdale, California.
Shaw was a steadying influence on the USC defence, playing cornerback and safety while starting 14 games during a tumultuous 2013 campaign that included coach Lane Kiffin's midseason firing. His teammates chose him as a captain for his senior year.
Off the field, Shaw has been equally solid. He earned his coaches' praise for steady leadership and his teammates' respect during a humanitarian trip to Haiti. He completed an internship at a commercial real estate company in the off-season.
He was even selected to speak last May at the school's student-athlete graduation ceremony, where he gave a rousing speech after athletic director Pat Haden introduced him as "a wonderful, wonderful kid."
Shaw issued a short statement through criminal defence attorney Donald Etra on Wednesday after being suspended.
"On Saturday, August 23, 2014, I injured myself in a fall," Shaw said. "I made up a story about this fall that was untrue. I was wrong not to tell the truth. I apologize to USC for this action on my part. My USC coaches, the USC athletic department and especially Coach Sarkisian have all been supportive of me during my college career and for that, I am very grateful."
Etra didn't respond to a request for further details about the cause of Shaw's injuries, but the attorney told several media outlets that Shaw's injuries didn't involve any criminal activity.
The Los Angeles Police Department has confirmed that a man named Joshua Shaw was mentioned – but not as a suspect – in a report involving a break-in at a downtown apartment building Saturday night. The department has not made the report public.
Shaw's story began to unravel soon after the team captain was lauded for his heroics in a story on the team's website Monday. In the account, Shaw described how he instinctively jumped from a balcony, with no one around, to rescue his struggling 7-year-old nephew, Carter, from a pool.
But callers to the athletic department questioned the story almost immediately, and Sarkisian acknowledged the Trojans' concerns Tuesday morning. Shaw initially stuck to his story, but met with school officials Wednesday to admit his mistake.
"I appreciate that Josh has now admitted that he lied and has apologized," Sarkisian said. "Although this type of behaviour is out of character for Josh, it is unacceptable. Honesty and integrity must be at the centre of our program. I believe Josh will learn from this. I hope that he will not be defined by this incident, and that the Trojan Family will accept his apology and support him."
Shaw didn't attend practice Wednesday, missing his second straight day of workouts. Although he is barred from team activities, his injuries also would keep him out of workouts for at least a few weeks.
It's unclear whether Shaw could face additional discipline from USC for lying to school officials. A USC spokesperson declined to clarify the school's student conduct policies.
Shaw and the school still haven't acknowledged any connection to the LAPD report from officers who responded to a woman screaming in a downtown apartment complex Saturday. USC is on the south end of downtown.
Officers interviewed several people at the building, and a woman told the police that someone had pried open a window, entered the third-floor apartment and fled, but nothing was taken. The woman also acknowledged "a relationship" with Shaw, according to LAPD Lt. Andy Nieman.
Sarkisian insisted the situation won't be a distraction for the Trojans, but still allowed only two of Shaw's defensive teammates to speak with the media after practice Wednesday.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard and Williams both acknowledged surprise at the situation, but still praised Shaw.
"Josh has been a great guy," Pullard said. "He has great character. I've never known him to lie about anything ... so it's surprising. This is exactly when our leadership roles come in. We talk to guys and let them know what's expected, and we'll keep us focused on our team."