Not losing Louie ever

The greatest Trojan of them all has left us at the age of 97 but Louie Zamperini's spirit and story will never be far away whenever the USC family gathers. He will be in our hearts forever.

Of course it was too much to hope for. But after all, this was Louie Zamperini we were talking about.

As the LA Times' Chris Dufresne noted, this was a man who, after the US government declared him dead, proceeded to live for another 70 years.

This was a man who could fight a shark under water with one hand while Japanese fighters strafed the inflatable raft on which he would drift for 47 days and 2,000 miles after his bomber was shot down in the Pacific.

And that was the easy part of it for the Olympic athlete, NCAA champ and proud Trojan all his life, who would survive two years of the worst kind of torture in a Tokyo prison camp somehow to live another day. And triumph, even returning to Japan to forgive his torturers.

"Fight On" doesn't begin to describe Louie's story in "Unbroken," so beautifully, and unrelentingly, told by "Seabiscuit" author Laura Hillenbrand.

"The grandest, most buoyant, most generous soul I ever knew," Hillenbrand called Louie. "In a life of almost unimaginable drama, he experienced supreme triumphs, but also brutal hardship, incomprehensible suffering, and the cruelty of his fellow man . . . But Louie greeted every challenge of his long journey with singular resilience, determination and ingenuity, with a ferocious will to survive and prevail, and with hope that knew no master."

Longtime USC track coach Ron Allice saw him as, "the greatest ambassador the university ever had. At every appearance, at every speech, he always wore his USC hat. He was the most gracious, humble, inspiring person you'd ever hope to meet. Just very, very special. And that's why there's going to be a movie of his life."

So it wasn't out of line, maybe, to have hoped for a USC trifecta for the living embodiment of what it means to be a Trojan, a lifelong role that we wanted to see Louie play out Christmas day when the Angelina Jolie-directed movie based on the book will be released.

That same week the 97-year-old ultimate survivor was to take on the role of the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade. Louie won't be there but his story will be. And his spirit.

"Louis Zamperini was and will continue to be the embodiment of the 2015 Tournament of Roses theme 'Inspiring Stories,'" Tournament of Roses President Richard Chinen said, "We pray that Louis' family and friends may find strength knowing that that the story of Louis' journey will inspire the world."

But in our dream, the parade was just the beginning of the best New Year's Day ever. Because that afternoon, we were hoping Louie would be able to watch his beloved Trojans in the Rose Bowl in the first game of the first-ever College Football Playoffs.

It just doesn't get any better than that. Which is why we're thinking that whenever and wherever the opportunity arises for USC fans, and Americans everywhere as we celebrate the Fourth of July, we should take this great American, and even better human being, with us.

"We will play with him in our hearts this season," USC football coach Steve Sarkisian of his "fellow Trojan and Torrance native . . . He was a true American hero."

USC sports nutritionist Becci Twombley tweeted this Zamperini quote: "The last lap of the mile, everyone is aching, but winning makes the pain worth the effort. That is why we fight on."

Which is exactly what Louie did. He wanted to be there on the red carpet for the movie premier and we think Jolie, who battled so hard to make the movie that has been talked about for half a century, will bring his spirit with her.

"A loss impossible to describe," Jolie said Thursday. "We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him."

Louie would have liked that. But of course, that's easy to say. Louie liked everyone. And made everyone who ever came into contact with him feel special. And in his own words, he was the ultimate survivor who never stopped fighting.

From the streets of Torrance, where he outran the cops, to USC, where he outran every college miler in back-to-back years to do something no USC athlete has done in the 75 years since, to a hand-touch with Adolf Hitler, who noted his closing kick in the 1936 Olympics, Zamperini was one of a kind.

"After the book was finished, all of my college buddies were dead, all of my war buddies were dead -- it's sad to realize you've lost all of your friends," Zamperini said recently. "But I think I made up for it. I made a new friend -- Angelina Jolie. The gal really loves me. She hugs me and kisses me, so I can't complain."

He never did, turning his life around after the war and beating post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism after commiting his life to Christ at a Billy Graham rally in Los Angeles to become an inspiration to everyone who was lucky enough to ever hear him speak.

His family said in a statement that ""After a 40-day long battle for his life, he peacefully passed away in the presence of his entire family, leaving behind a legacy that has touched so many lives. His indomitable courage and fighting spirit were never more apparent than in these last days."

It's that "Fight on" forever spirit that no one has ever done better that should be in every place USC teams and fans gather.

Louie Zamperini never forgot USC. And USC will never forget him.

"Louis was very proud of being a Trojan," said Olympic Gold Medalist and close friend John Naber. "He happily wore his USC hat in public and private and was quick to hug any fellow Trojan. During his remarkable athletic career as an Olympic runner, by his endurance on the life raft, and with his resilience at the torturous hands of ‘The Bird' during World War II, Louis' life exemplified USC's ‘Fight On' spirit. Amazingly, his impact on other people continued as he grew older. His example inspired thousands to be better people, myself included."

Louie Zamperini will be in all our hearts forever.

And we will be so much the better for it.


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