Friday, November 30, 2007

Sports: USC vs. UCLA, the day before game day

Last year, I was there.

I had a 3-game mini-plan. There were probably 30% USC fans in our section as many UCLA fans sold their tickets rather than go watch the Bruins lose. I almost did the same.

Plaschke in today's LAT has the where is he now story of Eric McNeal who got the interception that preserved the Bruin victory by keeping USC out of the end-zone and thus out of the National Championship game.


A week before the big game and the kitchen floor is sparkling.

"I do the mopping around here," Eric McNeal says.

A week before the big game and the bathrooms are shining.

"That's also my job," he says.

A week before the big game, and Eric McNeal is sitting at the dining-room table of the modest Carson home he shares with his parents, figuring out his work schedule.

Today, clean the house.

Tuesday through Friday, report to a nearby warehouse to drive a forklift.

"Maybe I'll add Saturday to my schedule," he says idly.


"Oh, wait," he says, smiling. "That's right."

Oh, wait. That's right.

Four words, two sentences, forever describing the author of one of the biggest moments in USC-UCLA football lore.

Only once in this rivalry's 76-game series has one man made one play to keep the other team out of the national championship game.

Only once has the winning play been made by a man who started one game in his college career.

Only once have circumstances so forgettable flared into something so memorable.

The man was McNeal. That play came last season when, with 1 minute 10 seconds remaining, the UCLA linebacker tipped and intercepted a John David Booty pass to seal a stunning 13-9 victory.
A couple of months later, he was being ignored by the NFL, Arena League, every league.

"When you didn't play that much in college, it's hard," he says.

Today, out of uniform and out of scholarship, he is working as a forklift driver to help pay tuition for his final quarter of college.

To save money, he lives in his childhood home, his game ball wrapped in a plastic bag and buried under some clutter.
Both of McNeal's parents are UCLA graduates.

He loved UCLA so much, he committed there during his junior year at Gardena Serra High.

He loved it so much, he didn't transfer when every coach who recruited him departed with Bob Toledo.

He loved it so much, even when he was forced to move from big safety to undersized linebacker, even when it became obvious that he would never start under Karl Dorrell, he refused to leave.

After not playing one down against Oklahoma two seasons ago, he wept.

Then he decided he would never say another word.

"I love the school and I wasn't going to do anything to hurt it," McNeal says. "I was going to keep my mouth shut and stick it out."

Even that didn't work. By the time he took the field for the final home game of his career against USC last fall, he was playing only in passing situations.

"You tell children to work hard and things will turn out all right . . . well, that's not always the case," says his mother.

And then, this being the USC-UCLA game, they did.

"He never complained, he never asked for more time," says linebackers coach Chuck Bullough. "Then he finally had his moment."
Go Bruins!



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