Autumn looms and football season is almost here.
I have found that Modelo Especial goes best with my tears. You see, I am a UCLA Bruin (an actual Bruin that is, with the degree and debt to prove it), but that comes with a certain inevitability—we are going to choke. I wish this was a jinx and that I could go outside and turn three times on one foot and spit and prevent it from happening. But all the great choke artists and loveable losers know there is something greater at work. It is going to happen and even though I am mentally prepared for it, much like catching your fingers in a door, it is still going to hurt.
We don’t choose our families and we don’t choose our teams. Both are just thrown into our lives and we go on with them ’til we die. We became a UCLA family when my sister made the decision to attend the university in 1990. And oh was it a good time to be a Bruin. It was the end of Terry Donahue’s tenure as head coach, which had brought three Rose Bowl victories, five conference titles, and the most wins of any coach in the PAC 10 era. It was also the time of eight straight wins over USC. My dad still has an old, worn out sweatshirt that reads, “What part of eight straight don’t you understand.”
Until one fateful, rescheduled game at Miami in 1998. It was an actual act of God. Hurricane George came through and postponed the meeting from September until December. By that point, the Bruins were on a twenty game winning streak and looking for their first national title since 1954. With everything on the line, and the remnants of those dynamic Miami teams of the ’80s in that ugly thing called the Orange Bowl, the Bruin tide shifted. Edgerrin James ran crazy on us in a 49 – 45 loss. Oh God, that Miami game.
And it only got worse.
I was there when Carson Palmer destroyed us in the gentle light of a November Rose Bowl. I watched the whole bloody affair. The final score (52 – 21) doesn’t do justice to the slaughter that occurred that day. It wasn’t just a loss to USC, which would have been painful enough, but it was a loss of past successes. All the things that were so great in the ’90s didn’t matter, it was officially the past and had no weight and gave no comfort. If it wasn’t for the school’s brief but glorious run of Final Fours that time would have been especially unendurable. In the end, we never beat USC on the gridiron the entire time I was a student.
As years passed, getting thrashed by a Heisman winner became understandable. There is no shame in being beaten by a great, at least that’s what we tell ourselves. It’s the losses to the bad teams that you can’t explain. The losses to teams you should beat when the stakes are high.
A few years ago, after defeating USC for the third straight time, we met Stanford at the Rose Bowl. It was Brett Hundley’s last year and all we had to do was beat a subpar Cardinal team in order to play Oregon for the division title. We had a toughness we hadn’t seen in a decade. Jim Mora Jr. made UCLA football relevant again, and finally it was feeling good to be a Bruin once more. Then we got routed 31 – 10. It wasn’t close. It was over before halftime.
Sometimes I try not to watch as much UCLA football, but that’s futile effort. It just hurts less when I can view the scores on the ticker at the bottom of the screen. But with every year comes hope and I can’t keep from having unrealistic expectations. This time we have the best quarterback in the country in Josh Rosen. A player that Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports reporter and author of The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, thinks would be the best quarterback in his draft and very likely its number one pick.
We wish we didn’t feel this way about a team or a sport, but it’s good in the long run. We exercise our ability to love through bleak moments. Imagine what we would lose if we could choose to not love it. There is always hope that it won’t be the same as before. That this year we’ll catch Oregon and Stanford and win the Pac 12. There is the chance that great things will happen.
This is the plight of many in the City of Angels. Los Angeles went twenty years without an NFL team and no one really took notice because we have two of the biggest college programs in the country. We always waited for the rivalry game, the one that more often than not determines the conference winner and who goes to the Rose Bowl. But the on the field aspect is only one part of the rivalry. We, like the players on each team, grew up together and went to the same high schools. We live with each other. We work with each other. We marry each other. We can’t get away from each other. It’s the proximity factor that other rivalries don’t have that makes this one special.
Like in 2006, when the arrogant USC machine (with their Heismans and National Championships) was looking at another title run, and came into the Rose Bowl against a UCLA team that had lost seven straight. It was supposed to be a blowout, but like I mentioned these rivalry games are different. The Bruins’ defense showed up and stopped USC on those 4th down attempts that Pete Carroll loves to go for near midfield. We kept the lead for most of the game. The Bruins played better than they had all year, but it still felt like just a good effort, and that USC was eventually going to rip it open.
Then it started to come undone. USC was driving down the field and looking to take the lead. The score was 13 – 9 and the Bruin defense couldn’t stop the Trojans anymore. With a little over a minute left in the game, USC was threatening outside the twenty yard line when their quarterback, John David Booty, dropped back to pass. It was a short throw to the left and there waiting was the Bruins’ fifth-year senior Eric McNeal who jumped, tipped the pass into the air, gathered himself and finished it off with a diving interception. UCLA quickly went three-and-out, and after a 60-yard punt USC was in need of an 80-yard drive with only enough time left for one play. The Hail Mary failed, the game went final, and UCLA beat the #2 ranked USC 13-9, ending their national title hopes. I remember watching on TV and hearing Brent Musberger invoke the title of that 1966 Bruin team, “the gutty little Bruins have done it!”
My sister was there for it and called me from somewhere in the stands and I couldn’t hear a thing she said over all the joy. On Saturday, we start at Texas A&M and I’ll have my Modelo Especial ready.