Chicken pox, whooping cough, measles, mumps,
Fumigate, inoculate, Bruin chumps!
This is L.A., baby, and you get drama any way you can. How's this for a treatment: Star black quarterback is in a Heisman duel with a big, blond rival; crosstown schools are preparing to fight for the Pac-10 crown, a Rose Bowl berth and, for one of the teams, a chance to stay in the fight for the national championship; suddenly one of the quarterbacks, the scrambling, electrifying kid with the Tootsie Pop in his mouth and the smile on his face, comes down with a case of the measles and nobody knows if he will be able to play in the big game; he's feverish, he's weak, he may have to crawl onto the field like Paul Newman going after George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke, for God's sake. It's fabulous. It's a TV movie already. Get Eddie Murphy for one guy and Sean Penn for the other, and we've got a big-screen feature.
Wait a minute. Did you say measles? That's when you get spots and your mom brings you toast while you lie in bed watching cartoons, right? That's a problem. Yes, it is. The writer has to make it pneumonia, at least.
Sorry, Hollywood, but it was definitely measles that USC quarterback Rodney Peete came down with before facing UCLA and its flame-throwing leader, Troy Aikman, last Saturday. What's more, when Peete ran onto the field at the Rose Bowl—without a hint of a stagger or limp—and led the undefeated Trojans to a rock-solid 31-22 win over the Bruins, before a near-capacity crowd of 100,741 fans, he exuded all the joy of a kid who had just been allowed out of the house after whipping a juvenile ailment.
November 28, 1988
"Thank you for bearing with me," said Peete to the press after the game. What he meant was that he was awfully sorry that he had caught this silly disease and made everybody needlessly speculate on whether he would play—even though he had said all along that he would have to be on his deathbed to miss this game. Not that measles is anything to sneeze at, understand. It's highly contagious and no fun at all for a week or so, what with the rash, fever and hacking cough. And, if you're an adult, the symptoms can be far more severe.
No wonder it wasn't clear until game time that Peete would be well enough to run and throw. He hadn't practiced until Friday, and his understudy, redshirt sophomore Pat O'Hara, was ready to start. But for a while you would have thought the 40 or so diagnosed cases of measles at USC were the second coming of The Masque of the Red Death.
Indeed, at midweek, hundreds of Southern Cal students lined up by the statue of Tommy Trojan (who was neatly wrapped in duct tape to prevent UCLA sabotage) for free inoculations. The football team got its shots on Tuesday night. The Los Angeles Times reported that Dr. Lawrence Ross, a specialist in infectious diseases at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, had said that the Bruin players, as well as the 100,000 fans expected for the game, would be at risk and recommended that the game be postponed. Right, doc.
Despite all the hoopla, the UCLA players believed Peete would play, and they didn't care a whit if he endangered their health. What if he breathed on them in a pileup? "It's just part of the game," said Bruins outside linebacker Carnell Lake with pure football logic. Said cornerback Darryl Henley, "Even if he had leprosy, I'd try to tear his head off."
You may recall that last year Peete threw two touchdown passes to rally USC to a 17-13 win over UCLA and put the Trojans in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State (a team they had lost to in that season's opener, and would lose to again on New Year's Day). Remember, too, that the Bruins always want to show that they are just as serious a football power as their neighbor up the Santa Monica Freeway. However, since 1967 USC and UCLA have met 16 times with a Rose Bowl bid at stake for one or both schools. Southern Cal has won 13 of those games.
This record haunts the Bruins' Terry Donahue. Despite the fact that he's the winningest coach in UCLA history (107-38-7) and his six straight bowl-game victories tie him with Bear Bryant and Bobby Dodd for the most consecutive years with a postseason win, Donahue knows that he toils in the shadow of Tailback U. As if to make the point that history was certain to repeat itself, O.J. Simpson, whose 64-yard touchdown gallop beat the Bruins 21 years ago, watched Saturday's game from the USC sideline.
Donahue wasn't a mellow man last week. "You can't play like that on Saturday!" he roared at his Aikman-led offense on Wednesday. "Get your butts in gear!"
Aikman, who was surely separated at birth from John Elway, was unavailable for comment. So many people want a piece of this soon-to-be-No. 1 NFL pick that, by order of the UCLA athletic department, he speaks to his public only on Mondays, occasionally Tuesdays and immediately after games. His words were superfluous, though. After Wednesday's workout, former UCLA coach Pepper Rodgers, who was in town for the big game, shook his head upon viewing Aikman in the flesh for the first time. "There is a quarterback," said Rodgers.
Trojan coach Larry Smith was on edge all week, too. On Thursday, Smith, who has put together an 18-4 record in his two seasons at Southern Cal since making the move west from the University of Arizona, closed practice to the media, a rare move for a man noted for his openness. Afterward, a newspaper reporter asked Smith how Peete, who had watched practice in his street clothes, was walking. Smith looked incredulous. "With two legs!" he snapped. "He's a normal human being!" Later, in his office, Smith sighed. "It's ridiculous," he said. " 'How's he walking?' "
In seven years at Arizona, where Smith compiled a 48-28-3 record, he beat archrival Arizona State five years in a row, even though the Sun Devils, who were ranked as high as sixth in 1982, and fourth in '86, were nearly always favored. But this USC-UCLA thing, he admitted, was different—particularly this year, with so much riding on the outcome. The game had a "vastness" to it that he'd never experienced before. After a time, he chuckled in resignation. "Have you ever heard of a game of this magnitude affected by a simple childhood disease?" he said. "All this buildup and here comes the simplicity of life walking in."
On Saturday the simplicity of life was captured in the precision and velocity of Aikman's arm. He completed 32 of 48 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns—10 yards to split end Reggie Moore and 26 to quarterback-turned-receiver Brendan McCracken. The 32 completions established a school record, as did his 23 TD passes on the season. However, the 6'3½", 217-pound Aikman can't be defined by mere statistics. Whether he was firing lasers to flanker Mike Farr, who made nine catches for 75 yards, or floating a beautifully timed pass to McCracken, Aikman looked every inch a pro. He's what the NFL had in mind when it built its game.
Not long ago somebody asked Dallas Cowboy president Tex Schramm what he thought of when he pondered the Cowboys' sorry record this season. "I'm thinking of Troy Aikman," said Schramm. "I cannot tell a lie."
Some of Aikman's passes traveled so fast they seemed to hop, like live fastballs. "I've never seen a ball move that fast," said USC cornerback Chris Hale, who had seven tackles and broke up three Aikman throws. "I really didn't want to catch the things."
"When I was a sophomore in high school I had a pitch timed at 93 miles per hour," said Aikman a while back. "I can throw a football 52 miles per hour, but Elway can throw 55."
Even a few more mph wouldn't have been enough to overcome this USC defense. The Trojan defenders, who came into the game ranked first in the nation against the run (67.6 yards per game), followed a simple game plan: Shut down the Bruin rushing attack and play a deep zone to prevent Aikman from winding up and throwing long. It worked. UCLA finished with only 73 yards on the ground, and Aikman's longest completion was 26 yards.
The Bruins, who will take their 9-2 record to the Cotton Bowl for a battle with Southwest Conference champion Arkansas, controlled the football for 20 minutes of the first half. Nonetheless, the Trojans went to the locker room at halftime with a 21-16 lead, thanks to good field position; a timely sack by outside linebacker Michael Williams that left the Bruins with a fourth-and-16 on their one-yard line; two rushing touchdowns, including a one-yard Peete sneak behind the mammoth Trojan offensive line that might have risked infecting the entire Bruin pileup; and a nifty 29-yard scoring reception and run by Peete's favorite receiver, split end Erik Affholter.
The animosity between these two schools extends beyond the field of play. UCLA backers like to say that USC, a private, very expensive school, is a refuge for rich wastrels—the University of Spoiled Children. Trojans see UCLA as huge and ordinary—the University of Common Little Adults. The Rose Bowl stands were full of private snits and group tauntings between supporters of both institutions, but the players seemed concerned only with the matter at hand.
"The student body, the band and faculty—they pretty much take care of the hatred," said USC cornerback Ernest Spears, who got the first interception of his career on a leaping stab of an Aikman pass in the third quarter. "Winning is what we're interested in."
That certainly is what interests Peete, who completed 16 of 28 passes for 189 yards and no interceptions. He is one of those rare competitors who elevates the zeal of everyone on his team. After the intermission he engineered a 51-yard touchdown drive and another march that ended with a 21-yard field goal by Quin Rodriguez. Mostly, though, Peete gave the ball to Aaron Emanuel, the Trojans' 6'2", 225-pound tailback, and got out of the way. The fleet and powerful Emanuel carried 27 times for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Twenty-one of the carries and 100 of the yards came in the second half.
Emanuel, a junior with immense, but largely unrealized, talent, hopes his performance against UCLA is a harbinger of better times ahead. Throughout his career at USC he has been plagued with injuries, and he missed all of last season after being suspended from school, and briefly jailed, for punching a female student. "When you have a chance to step into the tailback position here, well, I hope this is a start," said Emanuel in the Trojans' near-empty locker room, well after the game had ended. Only his father, Anthony, a former pro boxer who dwarfs his son, looked on in silent approval.
Peete had long since left, in the clutches of his watchful, concerned mother, Edna. "What am I going to do now?" she responded to a questioner. "Give him some chicken soup and hot tea. Just like my mom did for me."
Here's to mothers and the recuperative powers of their children. But watch out, Mrs. Peete and Rodney. You may have snuffed the measles, but this week Notre Dame comes to town. Prepare for Irish flu.