Saying goodbye to a true Trojan

From his days as a USC player to his years as a fan and USC family member, Ron Fletcher epitomized what it meant to be a Trojan. We say goodbye today to Ron -- and thanks for bringing us into the family.

It was just an email introducing himself and saying to this relative newcomer to all things USC that we should get together and talk some day. Trojan recruiting under Pete Carroll was the hot topic but if you want recruiting stories, Ron Fletcher said, I can tell you some.

And could he ever. No one will ever have more Trojan tales than the former USC tackle we're going to say goodbye to this afternoon at Mission San Luis Rey Historic Chapel in Oceanside. Ron, 79 when he passed away last week after battling liver cancer, played three years as a rugged rangy tackle from 1954 through 1956. Those were the days when a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder was a big guy. Or at least big enough.

He played with guys like C.R. Roberts, Jon Arnett and Marv Goux, Ron would tell you their stories. Almost never about him. About the Rose Bowl they lost to Ohio State in 1955.

About Marv Goux, his tough Trojan teammate rallying his team against Notre Dame. About the gifted Arnett, the most talented Trojan Ron ever played with, he said. And about Roberts, the first black player to play against a Southwest Conference team in Texas when USC thrashed the Longhorns in Austin some two decades before Sam Cunningham did much the same in a game in Alabama.

Ron came along in a time that was simpler, with no CIF playoffs for his Los Angeles High team but the Milk Bowl and all-star-games that drew as many as 50,000 fans to the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl. There were just 26 high schools in LA then, Ron would say, but with some names you'd recognize among his contemporaries.

Former Dodger great Don Drysdale was a reserve QB at Van Nuys High, Ron recalled, while GOP politician Jack Kemp a quarterback at Fairfax High and Jim Mora an all-league end at University High.

The recruiting rules in those days were much more basic. Recruits would be hired to usher at teams' games on their visits or hidden out in boosters' homes so rival coaches couldn't find them before the day they were supposed to report to campus.

Some of those shenanigans cost USC and UCLA players half a season, or in some cases an entire year and maybe USC a shot at a national title run in 1956 when the Trojans finished up beating UCLA and Notre Dame. Ron could tell you chapter and verse on how all that went down.

But the way I'll remember Ron is his undying love for his USC family and how he brought to life the meaning of "Fight On" in his twice-a-year "Football Fanatics" luncheons. No one cared more, or more deeply, than Ron did. And no one spoke his heart more passionately.

You wouldn't always agree with Ron. No one did. Not his best friends and former teammates who would be sitting there in the audience smiling as he spoke. They loved him for being Ron. For getting them together to talk about Trojan football. For caring so much. And sharing so much.

Ron could connect with people. As he did with me, a guy from back in the Midwest late arriving in Southern California. That first day, after telling some of his amazing recruiting stories about the way USC and UCLA went back and forth in the day, Ron pulled out a program and some clippings from his Rose Bowl.

"Do you know who that is?" he asked pointing to one photo of a bunch of Ohio State players surrounding a lone USC guy. Well, growing up outside Cincinnati, I saw the names and recognized a number of those Buckeyes who would go on to fame later as pro players or coaches. Yes, I did, I said. I knew this guy and that guy and . . .

"No," Ron said, "that guy, No. 70." Or as he later came to be known, "Old No. 70."

"That's me," Ron said. And so it always was and will be. "Old No. 70." Just by the oddest of chances, Ron, after starting out as a high school coach here ended up in management with GM and back in Ohio for years. And when his wife, Judy, heard that at one time I'd coached and taught at Covington Catholic High School in Northern Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati, she wondered if somehow I might have been there at the same time as a Dayton neighbor of theirs.

His name was Tim Banker and as it turned out, not only were we coaching and teaching buddies, he was my closest friend before dying far too early of cancer himself. Ron reconnected me to Tim one day at lunch in San Juan Capistrano. That's what Ron did.

If you were coming down to speak at one of his luncheons, Ron would hook you up with some of his USC buddies coming with a ride -- and wonderful stories about the Trojan family. The last few years, as we all know, haven't been easy. But Ron perservered. And despite his own health battles in recent months, Ron made the July get-together the best of them all.

It couldn't have been easy. Ron, one of the inspirations for the Thundering Herd fan group in the Coliseum and a stalwart at the Trojan Club of San Diego football meetings, would send out occasional updates -- on the possible date for the luncheons at the Shadowridge Golf Club in Vista -- and on his own health situation. Very matter of fact about the latter but always excited and upbeat about the former.

He secured Jim Hardy for the most recent one in July and the former USC and NFL quarterback, now in his 90s, did a magnificent recounting his playing days -- and his love for USC and the USC family.

Using a walker to get around, and fighting to keep his strength -- and his booming voice up -- Ron sat there beaming. This luncheon, surrounded by Trojan family and friends, was the way he wanted it to be. And might have been his best -- and best attended -- in recent years to talk about where Trojan football was headed.

Ron liked the looks of what he saw. And talked about players he admired. Players who had the Trojan spirit, the spirit Marv Goux inspired. And Ron Fletcher carried on so proudly.

We'll miss you, Ron. And we thank you for all you've done to keep the Trojan Family and the "Fight On" spirit alive. We'll carry you with us wherever Trojans go. And we'll thank you for always reminding us what it means to be a Trojan.

Take care, Ron. Thanks for welcoming us into the USC Family, your family, as you showed us exactly what it means to be a Trojan.

But we'll let former USC great Monte Clark, who followed Ron by two years, describe what Ron meant, writing in the "HerdBlog" about his teammate: "I considered Ron my mentor and he really took me under his wings. I admired the way he did just about everything and he was a great role model and very helpful to this young country bumpkin from Kingsburg. He helped me every way he could as both a player and person. Ron Fletcher was very generous giving me great help and advice as well as being a great example how to conduct my life properly. It is people like Ron Fletcher who helped get me started on a life time as an NFL player and coach."

Can't say it any better than that. Thanks from all of us, Ron.


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