Lunching, bunching on the USS Essex

USC and Nebraska have fun on a San Diego Naval Base afternoon in one of the best bowl activities for any game anywhere. The USS Essex warship hosts the teams and fans for a moment in the sun on the sea.

SAN DIEGO -- Have been to lots of bowl activities over the years but can't remember one better than Friday's lunch and tour of the USS Essex -- "the mightiest warship in the Navy," Lieut. Dan McGrath described the 880-foot amphibious attack vessel in the invocation.

And that was without its planes and helicopters and all sorts of landing craft as it's in for servicing for a few months, although many of the crew of 1,800 are still here.

But if all the aircraft were still in place, no way could they have held the luncheon at tables set up over the length of two football fields. You know you're at a great event when all the bowl people in the red jackets are here.

But the special guests were at each table where a crewman joined the Trojans, Huskers and their assorted fans and families. Our table had Petty Officer 3rd Class Alex Heidecke, a native of El Salvador adopted by a couple in Riverside where he graduated from Rubidoux High.

And thanks to his ability as an electrician to work all over the ship, Alex got a few of us the five flights above the flight deck to the bridge. No words can describe the view or the idea of what goes on here. It's beyond imagination.

Which is why you saw so many of the players and fans posing for photos and hanging around as long as they could walking the flight deck, 880-feet from end to end, just about two-and-a-half football fields. And almost as wide.

But it wasn't all Essex. There was Nebraska interim coach Barney Cotton, a lifelong Husker and former player and associate head coach the last seven seasons, who will serve his final day on the staff as interim head coach Saturday after the bitter season-end dismissal of Bo Pelini despite a 9-3 record.

Cotton, a 27-year coaching veteran who is heading to UNLV as offensive coordinator on Sunday, couldn't quite finish up after starting out great.

"We couldn't ask for a better opponent," he said in the respectful way all the Nebraska folks have talked about USC here. And he had kind words for USC's head man. "I just met Sark," he said, "a great guy. Who wouldn't want to play for him."

And then he tried "to thank our staff and players through this emotionally trying time . . . I'm so proud of them, how they've gone after this under such difficult circumstances." And then he stopped, too choked up to continue speaking. And it's easy to see why.

When Nebraska selected an Essex crewman from Omaha as the honorary captain for Saturday, it was hard not to think about how his tenure as will be as long as Cotton's -- just another day.

The Battle of the Bands got it started with, as they often are, the USC Song Girls in the center of things as both teams passed by to head up into the Essex. Which gave them an early start at the buffet.

When latecomers waiting in line for food noticed that Max Tuerk and Nelson Agholor were already working on their second plates, the question to them was who got through the line first. Neither they said, shaking their heads in unison and pointing in the same direction.

"ZB did," Nelson said, pointing at Zach Banner, who despite all the big guys the Huskers had here, easily wins the big, big man contest.

You realize this is a serious place when you notice the sign on the doors to the aircraft elevators that could lift most people's houses an easy 50 feet. "Doors to aircraft elevators must be open before starting aircraft engines." Seems like a heck of a good idea to those of us here for the first time.

And then on came Steve Sarkisian, clean-shaven after going with the Hollywood stubble look much of the week and with a new "dollar-15 haircut from here on the base," USC AD Pat Haden jabbed him just a bit for the close cut.

Not to be outdone by the respectful Huskers, Sark called Nebraska "the best opponent we've played all year," although we're not sure he had that line cleared with the Pac-12. But it goes along with what Sark has been saying about the Huskers: "best running back USC has faced" [Ameer Abdullah], "best running quarterback" [Tommy Armstrong] and "best defensive front" [Randy Gregory and Co.]

So it's no stretch to go to "best team." Although one "best" Sark talked about as he looked around the luncheon at the Essex and its welcoming crew couldn't be disputed -- "the best country in the world."

It certainly looked the part Friday.


Trojans were scheduled for a closed walkthrough after the USS Essex tour and lunch at 4:45 Friday afternoon . . . Haden said USC has long wanted to come to the Holiday Bowl and is looking for a big San Diego turnout from the 40,000 USC alums living in Orange County and south to the border . . . Essex crewman Gabriel Valdez from LA was selected to be USC's honorary captain for the game . . . winner of the Adm. U.S. Grant Sharp Award for USC given by the Holiday Bowl to honor a person, player, coach or staffer whose unselfish commitment to the program isn't always honored or recognized went to football equipment director David Scott to the cheers of the Trojans players . . . USC probably won the Battle of the Bands thanks to the Song Girls and Tusk but Nebraska was pretty good . . . maybe that's what joining the Big Ten does for you . . . Have to say the Huskers may have won the battle of season highlights with the rap music behind the USC video a bit disconcerting.

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