Sports, of course, were a big part of my life -- mostly because, for us Seize-the-Day seekers, it was an easy device to witness one of those frozen-in-time, surreal moments. In what other environment in our modern world do we have a chance to get in one location along with 100,000 other human beings, all wearing the same-colored clothes, all emotionally involved in some event to the point we're screaming at the top of our lungs, jumping up and down, hugging each other, feeling our heart beating far too fast, and having tears well up in our eyes as confetti and pom poms float in the air around us.
Isn't it why we all love sports -- waiting to be apart of that rare moment?
On November 20th, 1982, there were signs that the UCLA/USC game had a chance to produce one of those instances that we'd be able to sock away in our mental DVR.
The next week, so much of the scenario miraculously came to pass. UCLA beat Stanford, Washington beat Arizona State and Arizona lost to USC.
I remember, then, all of us foolish college students, who weren't rational at all, took it as a sign. It was destiny. UCLA was going to the Rose Bowl for the first time in seven years, only its second in 16 years, and Donahue's first of his coaching career at UCLA. UCLA needed to beat USC, and both favored Arizona State and Washington had to lose to Arizona and WSU. Washington State was 2-7-1 at the time and Washington was something like 20-point favorites. Arizona and Arizona State weren't scheduled to play until the following week, and the Wildcats were on a two-game losing streak and hadn't beaten ASU in ages. It was, of course, completely illogical to believe it could happen, but when you're a great-moment hunter, you tend to throw out logic.
The stage was definitely set for some huge drama.
It's funny, I remember the situation surrounding the game, but my memory of the game itself is a bit fuzzy. I remember images and moments. Most of the game is a blur. I remember it was the first season UCLA had played in the Rose Bowl, and there was something so special about the place compared to the Coliseum. Not only that it had become UCLA's home field, but there's a special light and glow that surrounds that stadium. Perhaps it was just the echoes of such great Rose Bowl moments from the past, like walking into the old Yankees Stadium, but everything just seemed prettier there. The field was greener, the UCLA blue was bluer. The hot dogs tasted better. Terry Donahue once said about the move to the Rose Bowl: "From the first game we played in 1982, from the minute the game started, I knew we had made the right move. There was a different chemistry. People felt liberated."
UCLA and USC still hadn't been told by the NCAA they couldn't both wear their home jerseys for the game, so it was the first time ever in history that the two teams lined up against each other in the Rose Bowl in their home colors. The stadium was divided in two seas of blue and red. In a special place like the Rose Bowl, to see that for the first time it gave you immediate goose bumps.
I do remember the feeling of losing to USC the year before. In the dark, shadowy Coliseum in 1981, UCLA had a chance at the Rose Bowl when usually-reliable UCLA kicker Norm Johnson lined up a 46-yarder to win the game in the final moments, but it was blocked by USC, eliminating UCLA from Rose Bowl contention. It's one of those anti-memorable moments that weighs down your psyche, and it only heightened the energy and expectation for the 1982 game.
Being a student, I knew some of the players from the 1982 team. I remember the first time I ever saw Irv Eatman, the defensive lineman. I rode up with him in an elevator in Sproul Hall and until that point in my life he was the biggest human I had ever seen, at about 6-7 and 300 pounds. I later got to know Irv and found him to completely embody the term "gentle giant" off the field, always quick with a big smile at any opportunity. I knew quarterback Tom Ramsey -- a good friend of mine was his girl friend; I knew tight end Tim Wrightman, and actually double-dated with him. The Tri-Delt I was seeing at the time was close with her sorority sister who happened to be Wrightman's girlfriend -- the UCLA songleader, Miss USA and miss Universe second runner-up Julie Hayek. I seriously don't remember anything about the night except creepily staring at Julie. Another friend of mine was the girlfriend of back-up tight end Harper Howell and he was always in her apartment slumped on her sofa. Every time I walked by receiver Jo Jo Townsell on campus I'd stupidly call out, "Yo, Jo Jo!" Walk-on, back-up quarterback and holder Rick Neuheisel was in many of my English classes and when I let him copy my homework he'd say, "Appreciate ya." (Fooling.)
There were other big-named Bruins on that team, like safety Don Rogers, receiver Cormac Carney, placekicker John Lee, and offensive lineman Luis Sharpe.
Again, so much of the game is like an old home movie in my mind. I remember UCLA looked like the better team the first three quarters, going up 20-10. UCLA was all about its offense that season, with an explosive attack orchestrated by Ramsey. It had been an exciting season, in which UCLA's offense had to out-score its opponent many times. It appeared like UCLA's offense, up through the fourth quarter, was the dominant unit on the field. But I distinctly remember a shift in the momentum in the fourth quarter. UCLA's defense looked spent, and started to show some cracks, and USC quarterback Scott Tinsley and the Trojan offense started to move down the field seemingly at will. USC's defense, too, looked like it had gotten a bead on UCLA's offense. When USC got the ball to start the fourth quarter, Tinsley easily marched the Trojans down the field and finished off the drive with a field goal, to bring the score to 20-13. It was time to worry, and I literally remembered my closest friend and I looking at each other in the stands with a sinking feeling. Both seniors, we thought we had been through it all with the UCLA football program (little could we anticipate the future, huh?). In 1980, we thought we had been cheated out of a season when UCLA was put on probation. We could still feel the exhilaration of UCLA winning the Probation Bowl, with Freeman McNeil catching the carom from Jay Schroeder for the winning touchdown, but it was kind of hollow since UCLA couldn't go to the Rose Bowl that year. We had lived through the 1981 Norm Anderson letdown, with our Rose Bowl chances ruined. We were owed here. We were due. It's amazing, though, looking back on it and the different mindset. We felt entitled a bit, actually thinking, "This is our last chance to go to the Rose Bowl while we're at UCLA." We didn't realize how spoiled we were then, since it would be a completely unrealistic dream for UCLA students of the last decade, like my friend Mr. Woods.
In that fourth quarter, we felt it slipping through the Bruins' hands as the Trojans were taking control of the game. I do remember the pure trepidation as USC took over with about 5 minutes remaining. Tinsley was completing passes easily, moving the Trojans toward the winning touchdown. I had never felt anything like it in any sporting event that I had attended up to that point in my life; the pure panic, fear, excitement and dread. Not many sports fans really know this feeling because many teams aren't part of such a deeply-rooted rivalry, with a school that represents pretty much the antithesis of everything you consider important and holy in life. Watching those red and yellow uniforms move down the field was like slow, arduous torture. You thought there had to be something that could intervene, since God obviously has to be on UCLA's side [A digression: My daughter, when she was just a toddler, and I were watching a sunset one time, and she said to me: "Daddy, God must be a Bruin. The sky is blue and gold."]
Tinsley then effortlessly threw a touchdown pass to USC's tight end Mark Boyer. It was like in a horrible dream. The score was UCLA 20, USC 19. Thee was literally no time left on the clock. I can still remember seeing the Rose Bowl clock reading 0:00. To his immense credit (and my eternal gratitude), USC coach John Robinson chose to go for the two-point conversion, to go for the win and not the tie. I definitely remember this moment. There are surreal moments in your memory, and perhaps you have heightened their poignancy over the years. But I remember the 90,000 or so people at the Rose Bowl, somehow, were completely quiet. The stadium had gone from decibel-busting noise, to an eery silence as Tinsley took the snap and dropped back to pass.
Like that divine intervention, a flash of that beautiful, holy Bruin blue and gold uniform cut through the red and yellow ugliness. The image of UCLA defensive tackle Karl Morgan slicing through USC's offensive line and getting to Tinsley while the quarterback seemingly had enough time to throw five passes was completely surreal. I can still see Morgan hitting him, and Tinsley collapsing to the ground for the sack, all in eternal slow motion. It was a moment, one of those that is permanently engraved in your mind, that captures all of life in a flash. The sound, too, is an imprinted memory. The Rose Bowl went from completely silent to an eruption of pure noise in a mili-second. I had to fight through the bodies jumping up and down around me to get a look at the field to make sure I saw what I saw. It was real. UCLA's players were running all over the field, and the pom poms and confetti floated around us in the air.
The perfect scenario miraculously played out. Later that day, Washington State beat Washington on a missed field goal [In fact, UCLA Coach Jim Mora was on that Washington team that lost in Pullman]. A week later my fellow students and I weren't worried because, at this point, we knew destiny was on our side. I remember being home the next weekend for Thanksgiving and finding an old console radio in my parents living room (a radio!) to listen to Arizona easily beat ASU, like it was pre-determined to happen.
UCLA was, indeed, going to the Rose Bowl in my senior year.
It was definitely another corner-turning moment for the program. It started UCLA on probably its most dominant stint in football since the glory years of the 1950s, winning the conference four times in six years and going to the Rose Bowl three times in four years. Could you just imagine how that would feel now?
It's #1 on our list of the top UCLA wins in the crosstown rivalry because it had the best combination of big stakes, heroes and a magical finish, as well as a completely improbable scenario that had to work out for UCLA to go the Rose Bowl.
A couple of years later, in Westwood, I was coming out of Acapulco's after their infamous happy hour, probably a little inebriated, when I tripped on the sidewalk. Some wide arms caught me on the way down and set me back upright. Still a little dazed, I was clear-headed enough to recognize that the arms belonged to Karl Morgan. It took me a moment to realize it was him, because Morgan was surprisingly not a very big guy. In my mind I had made him out to be a giant among men, but he was pretty average-sized. He smiled at me, as he lingered a moment, to see if I were actually able to balance. As he then headed into Acapulco's, I said, "Thanks," and when I realized I had to seize the moment, I also said, "...and thanks for the sack."
Back over his shoulder he said, "You're welcome."
Just like in that game between UCLA and USC in 1982, once he had someone in his arms, he still didn't let anyone get away from him.
Now, 30 years later, I have to say, thanks Karl. Looking back I feel grateful and lucky, instead of entitled. I was spoiled back then, thinking that experiences like being at that game would be far more common in life. But now, being an aging collector of memories, I realize that one like that, from my senior year at UCLA, that still elicits goose bumps and brings tears to my eyes, is special and rare.