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As top moments go, Jerry Neuheisel's pass to lift UCLA over Texas is a doozy

Bill Plaschke: Jerry Neuheisel's pass to get UCLA past Texas is best moment of year

For pure drama, the greatest moment in Los Angeles sports this season was created by Alec Martinez, twice, with one goal that put the Kings into the Stanley Cup Final and another that won the Cup in double overtime.

For pure artistry, the greatest moment was created by Robbie Keane, whose overtime goal, followed by a celebratory somersault, gave the Galaxy an MLS championship.

For greatness, the moment was Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter against Colorado. For grandeur, it was Mike Trout’s first career walk-off home run, a three-run shot against the Tampa Bay Rays.

For history, it was the moment Adam Silver threw Donald Sterling out of the NBA. For histrionics, who will forget the moment Pat Haden dashed to the sideline at Stanford to fight on with the referee?

My favorite moment was none of the above. My favorite moment didn’t involve a championship or a record or a superstar or even a starter. My favorite moment involved a benchwarmer who for one moment unexpectedly wrangled a star so bright, three months later he is still blinded by it.

“I can’t express to you how much it still feels like a dream, like I didn’t really do it,” Jerry Neuheisel said.

For the many Bruins fans who have spent this fall stopping Neuheisel on the streets and thanking him, it is the clearest reality of the season, the one wondrous moment of overachievement in a year that ended in disillusionment.

Yes, it really happened, the son of a fired UCLA football coach and former Bruin quarterback stepped out of the cobwebs to lead the Bruins to their most unlikely comeback victory of the season. Yes, on Sept. 13 in the AT&T Stadium palace that houses the Dallas Cowboys, Neuheisel replaced injured Brett Hundley in the first quarter and threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Payton with three minutes left to give UCLA a 20-17 victory.

That pass was the moment. You remember it, right? A pump fake, then a perfectly thrown ball down the left sideline that Payton grabbed at the two-yard line and carried into the end zone.

Back in the Pac-12 Networks studios in San Francisco, father Rick Neuheisel could be seen pumping his fists and screaming. When the game ended, Jerry’s mop of blond hair could be seen shaking above a mass of blue jerseys as he was carried around the field.

It was Jerry’s first appearance as a quarterback in nearly a year. It was only the third quarterback appearance of Neuheisel’s two active seasons with the team.

“This is the most cliche story you’ve heard in college football,” Neuheisel said.

And, oh yeah, it came three seasons after his father Rick was fired as Bruins coach, a move that nearly led Jerry to seek a transfer. But he stayed even though many thought that he didn’t deserve his spot on the team. He stayed even though he had no chance to play while Hundley was running the show. He will continue to stay even though he graduates in the spring and will have a tough time beating out heralded incoming freshman Josh Rosen next fall.

“I know a majority of people were saying, ‘He’s only there because of his dad, he doesn’t deserve it,’ “ Neuheisel said. “But I couldn’t leave. I can’t leave. I just have too much love for the Bruins.”

Finally, on that September afternoon, for the first time, the loyal kid’s career loved him back, and it was a sight to see.

“I would say only my teammates, coaches, family and probably a handful of other people believed I could do that,” Neuheisel said. “Yeah, a dream.”

That dream began with the Bruins nightmare of Hundley suffering an elbow injury in the first quarter. Neuheisel, who stands on the sidelines wearing headsets and signaling the plays when he is not holding on placekicks, made his first good call before he went into the game.

As he saw Hundley staggering toward him in pain, Neuheisel realized he would be summoned, but he couldn’t locate his helmet, so he shouted for Hundley to fall down on the field so the Bruins wouldn’t be charged a timeout while he found it.

He made his second good call at halftime, with the Bruins trailing, 10-3. The kid who has never led this team suddenly stood in front of them and gave a heartfelt speech.

“I basically told them I had been preparing for this moment my whole life,” Neuheisel said.

That moment arrived, finally, after a 58-yard punt return by Ishmael Adams gave the UCLA the ball on the Texas 33 with 3 minutes 6 seconds remaining. The Bruins trailed by four points. As Neuheisel ran onto the field, he was stopped by offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.

“Coach Mazzone said, ‘You wanna go for it?’ “ Neuheisel said. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.'"

The kid who grew up studying film with his father saw the play developing in slow motion, single coverage, Payton running down the sidelines, time for a pump fake.

“I saw the Texas defensive back look me directly in the eye, and that’s when I knew this was going to work,” said Neuheisel, who lofted a perfect pass to Payton as he streaked past the fooled defender. “Payton caught it and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?'"

The Bruins defense held, the Bruins offense managed one last first down to seal it, the game ended, the blue jerseys swarmed the field in a giant hug, then reality finally sank in for Neuheisel when he heard Coach Jim Mora giving one last instruction.

“I heard him shout to the guys, ‘Pick him up, pick him up,’ “ said Neuheisel, who was carried by teammates while he spread his arms wide and screamed through his blue mouthpiece in a celebration photo that was reprinted nationwide.

“I’ve never seen somebody carried on the field in a game that didn’t have national championship implications” Neuheisel said. “It felt like I was up there for an hour.”

Also going viral was father Rick’s celebration scene in the Pac-12 Networks headquarters, where he was working as an analyst.

“Pinch me, pinch me … we need a shower in this studio,” Rick said on the air.

UCLA officials had to drag Neuheisel from the field for postgame interviews because he didn’t want to take off his pads. When he finally entered the crowded news conference room, he smilingly said, “Usually, holders don’t get to talk.”

The Bruins boarded a flight back to Los Angeles and arrived in the early-morning hours. Even though he said his cellphone was quickly filled with 100 calls and 250 texts, Neuheisel said it wasn’t until he sat on his apartment couch with his girlfriend Nicole Knox at 5 a.m. that this farfetched moment was confirmed.

“My girlfriend and I stayed up all night to make sure we could watch the highlights on ‘SportsCenter,’ ” he said.

Since then, Neuheisel admits, “I’ve watched it more times that I care to tell you. I’ve watched every YouTube video. I’ve seen 15 different angles of the throw. I’ve seen 10 different angles of my dad watching the throw. If my kids ever think I couldn’t do something like this, I’ve got video evidence.”

His life has since been filled also with anecdotal evidence. Folks are always approaching him without even saying his name or referencing any details about the game.

“People come up like we’re old buddies,” he said. “They just say, ‘Thanks.'"

Someone once actually approached him in a field in the middle of Sequoia National Park with a gesture of gratitude. The only thing stranger than the location was the man’s school affiliation.

“He said, ‘Are you Jerry Neuheisel?’ and I said, ‘Was it the blond hair that gave it away?” Neuheisel said. “He said, I’m a USC fan, I want to shake your hand, that’s the best game I’ve ever seen.”

Neuheisel’s time as a starter barely lasted a week, as Hundley quickly recovered from the injury enough to play in the Bruins’ next game 10 days later. Neuheisel has played for only a few minutes since, when he replaced the injured Hundley in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale against Stanford.

The moment was gone as quickly as it arrived. But some things never leave.

“I still get goose bumps when I watch it,” Neuheisel said. And here’s hoping he always will.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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