UCLA vs. USC: A Life’s Journey
Sometimes rivalry weekend is not all about what happens on the field, but the more personal meaning it has off the field.
USC vs. UCLA is a unique match-up among college football rivalries. Nowhere else in the country are two bitter rivals separated by only 22 miles, and the parts of town they exist in could not be more different. The coaches spend the off-season recruiting the same local players, and getting “one over” your crosstown rival is often bigger than the number of stars recruiting websites assign to the player. High school teammates split and go to the rivals, and in some cases even sons of legends will split with the family and go to the other school.
Former UCLA coach, the late Red Sanders, used to say, “Beating USC is not life and death. It is much more important than that.” For some of us, the personal tone of UCLA football has always been just that important.
The Journey Begins
When I was young, my family had ties to UCLA in the sense that a few had gone there, only to never finish. When you are seven years old, you have no idea why you are rooting for the Bruins, you just know that your family is devoted. Most importantly, your grandfather is rooting for them, and he is the life preserver you ache for, so you trust him and follow his lead wherever it takes you. It serves as a reprieve from the late-night arguments that happen at home every night.
It sounds so cool to some that your dad is a musician, but what you know and don’t tell them is that when you lay in bed and hear him come home late at night, you count the minutes until the arguing starts. It is as reliable as the battery-operated transistor radio you have on your nightstand to listen to sports as you go to sleep every night. You figure the divorce will quiet the house down, and it does, but it does not fill the void that is now there. Fall Saturdays seem to be the only thing that brings solace as your grandfather tells you that the two of are going to the UCLA game.
From the age of seven through my junior year in high school, it was just the two of us at the Coliseum, every home game without fail (UCLA and USC shared the stadium until 1982). It was enjoying the game, the people around us and the peace and tranquility that comes with 70,000+ fans yelling in unison with you. During the earlier years, it was a rescue for a boy who desperately needed one.
My grandmother, the hard-driving supervisor of my grandfather’s diet, forbade him from eating stadium food, so our Saturdays included a stop at Korner Deli on Manchester Avenue to get sandwiches to bring with us. As soon as we made that right turn out of the parking lot, I knew we were just minutes away from the stadium. It meant skipping those “cool” weekend things you do with friends when you are a teenager so that after the game you could go back to your grandparents’ house in Manhattan Beach for an overnight stay, waking up Sunday morning to the sports page and regaling in the game recap together.
It meant that every Fall was the greatest of the four seasons. The media guide would get mailed to his house in late summer, and I would pour over it, reading and re-reading every detail of every player. Knowing everything about them gave me chattering points with my grandfather that would eventually lead to us talking about anything and everything that I could not talk to others about. My father was not around for many years of my life, but grandfather was never not there for me.
The only thing that would have made it more perfect was if it never ended, but alas, college beckoned, my grandparents retired in typical Southern California fashion and moved to Palm Springs, and phone calls to discuss the games would have to suffice. As you grow into your own adulthood and jobs and bills become priorities, those moments are all the more fleeting; until you decide to do something about it.
The Best and Last Game
Just in time for the 1993 season my best friend from college, LaMonte, and I decided we could now afford our own UCLA season seats, just the two of us at the Rose Bowl on Saturdays. Then there was the one Saturday he could not make the game. After work on a Friday night with two tickets in hand, I made the lengthy drive from West L.A. to Palm Springs so that Saturday morning I could drive my grandfather back to Pasadena to the Rose Bowl for the UCLA-Washington game. This time it was me being the adult and taking him. He needed my arm to get up the stairs, but we were there.
OCT 1993: UCLA WIDE RECEIVER J.J. STOKES GRABS AN 18-YARD TOUCHDOWN PASS FROM QUARTERBACK WAYNE COOK IN THE SECOND QUARTER OF THE BRUINS 39-25 VICTORY OVER THE WASHINGTON HUSKIES AT THE ROSE BOWL IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA.”
We never told my grandmother, but we ate stadium food and it was some of the best food ever. Any UCLA fan worth their salt will remember that game. UCLA was down 15-0 after two possessions until a Wayne Cook to J.J. Stokes 95-yard touchdown pass helped propel the Bruins to a 39-25 win. The ride back to Palm Desert that night was long and mostly quiet, as my rapidly aging grandfather slept most of the way back.
The next three years and a couple of major heart attacks would take my hero from me, but the memories of that day never faded, nor did the understanding of what he had done for me all of those years before and what I had done for him that one day. We both knew it. As for our last UCLA game together, he talked about it frequently until the day he died.
The Journey Evolves
As the years went on and LaMonte and I renewed our tickets each season, our group expanded. I met the person who would later become my wife, a beautiful woman with the most emerald of green eyes and the most genteel of southern accents. She grew up in the part of the country where the only thing bigger than college football was Sunday church, and even that was debatable. She was determined to grow our weak Southern California, laid back, tailgating into something any real college football fan would be proud of. We went from a table and some food, to multiple pop-up tents, portable grills, UCLA table clothes, menu planning days in advance, with me spending Friday nights doing the meat prep for Saturday’s grilling.
LaMonte became a dad and in the coming years his son would be joining us for the festivities every home game. Mitzi and I would have our daughter, and by the time she was five, she was begging to come to the games with us. She would have her pigtails and her cheerleader uniform, throwing the football around with the guys and helping me grill the food. We have pictures of her with Bruins who would go on to the pros like Bruce Davis, Chris Kluwe, Brendan Ayenbadejo, and so many others. It became a big part of who we were as a family and her growing up with lasting, hopefully satisfying memories.
Eventually, time catches up with even the best of plans. LaMonte’s son goes to college locally, so he is still with us on Saturday’s and has grown into quite the man. It’s funny watching him drive Dad to the games when it was always the other way around.
But this Saturday’s Crosstown Rivalry game is for my daughter. She will be going to college next year and in all probability, her tennis game will be taking her to a school on the other side of the country. She knows it and so do I. She has had this game circled on her calendar since the end of last season. It is yet another generational passing of time that I will uneasily mark with college football.
As I get ready to celebrate my birthday in a way that I have since I was seven years old, rooting for UCLA to beat USC on that third Saturday in November, it is impossible not to think back to the start of it all with my grandfather. Forty-four seasons have come and gone. There has been the metamorphosis from my childhood, clinging to my grandfather’s life raft, to young adulthood, marriage and parenthood, and now my wife and I send our daughter off through her own life expedition. I will spend this week reflecting and hoping that she has not felt the need for the emotional rescue I did when my UCLA journey started. But instead has seen it through the eyes of what I did with my grandfather for all those Saturdays; pure enjoyment.
We don’t know what lies ahead as life evolves. It seems as though with each season, some are not around every Saturday, and maybe the time will come when we give up the seats and the decades of work and commitment to the event will come to an end. Most of the country will not see the game this weekend. Thanks to UCLA’s disappointing season, the game is on at 7:30 West Coast time. Still, we will be there, knowing that college football, UCLA football, has marked the hardest, the best, the most enjoyable, and the most transformational moments of my life. In his way, Coach Sanders was right. This is much bigger than football.