Times Staff Writer

Jan. 1, traditionally a day of limelight and roses and an occasional fiesta for the UCLA football team, had suddenly become an open date on the calendar. A loss to Stanford had done the gravest damage. A tie with Washington completed it.

The Bruins wouldn't be going to the granddaddy of them all this year. Instead, they got stuck with one of the great-grandkids--a homely little moppet that goes by the name of Freedom Bowl.

When the booking was announced, strong safety Craig Rutledge's reaction was no different than any of his UCLA teammates.

"Obviously, it was a letdown," Rutledge said. "We had been in four New Year's Day bowls in my first four years at UCLA. We had been to three Rose Bowls. After a while, you come to expect it. I was disappointed."

But not altogether distraught. Once all the obligatory Freedom Bowl jokes had run their course-- Freedom's Just Another Word For Nowhere Else To Play --Rutledge sat down and gave the game some thought.

He could think of worse places to spend a postseason.

First, there was the site. Anaheim Stadium.

Rutledge played his high school football a few punts north of the Big A, at Placentia's El Dorado High School. He once appeared in a prep baseball championship game there. He's an Orange County kid.

"This is home for me," Rutledge said. "I'm just looking at this as some fun. I'll have a lot of friends there, my high school coaches. How often do you get to play your last game at home?"

Then, Rutledge considered the opponent. Brigham Young.

The name rings a bell. Rutledge had rung a few, too, when UCLA opened the 1985 season at BYU. He made 10 tackles and one interception he will never forget.

"They were coming off their national championship, and Robbie Bosco was their quarterback," Rutledge said. "In the first quarter, he throws this pass that I intercepted and returned for a touchdown. A 65-yarder."

That touchdown was the game's first, breaking an early 3-3 tie. Noting the fact that UCLA rallied in the final minute for a 27-24 victory, it was also a significant touchdown.

"A fun game," Rutledge recalls.

So, maybe some school from the desert will be hogging UCLA's old glory in the 1987 Rose Bowl. So, maybe hated USC will be on your TV dial New Year's Day, taking on Brent Fullwood and the Auburn Tigers. So, maybe Rutledge will end his collegiate career in a bowl that was not even around when he enrolled in UCLA in 1982.


Rutledge looks for silver linings and suggests that Tuesday's Freedom Bowl is more than a football game for UCLA. He calls it a mission, a humanitarian mission.

"Bowl games have done a lot for UCLA over the years," Rutledge said. "Maybe we can put something back into a bowl. Maybe we can help the Freedom Bowl.

"UCLA has to be great for the Freedom Bowl. This is like a home game for us. We'll bring a lot of fans.

"The Freedom Bowl is just trying to establish itself, and maybe we can keeping it rolling, so it can have another game. Having UCLA can't do anything but help."

It has already. Freedom Bowls I and II each failed to draw more than 31,000 fans, but advance tickets sales for Freedom III have reached 42,000.

For Rutledge, the trek from Placentia to Anaheim, five years later, has been a strange and twisted one.

Consider these highs and lows:

High: Rutledge came to UCLA generally regarded as the finest high school defensive back to come out of Orange County. At El Dorado, Rutledge had been a three-year starter, a two-time All-CIF selection, county defensive player of the year as a senior and a prep honorable mention All-America.

Low: Yet, after a freshman redshirt season, there was some doubt as to whether Rutledge would ever play at UCLA. Too slow was the rap. He spent 1983 buried on the special teams and began 1984 on the bench.

High: His career in desperate need of a break, Rutledge received two in early 1984. First, Joe Gasser went out with an injury. Soon after, Dennis Price followed. Suddenly, the position of strong safety was left wide open. Rutledge stepped in and immediately led the Bruins in interceptions with five.

Low: Opening 1985 as the incumbent starter at strong safety, Rutledge's knee pulled a trifecta on him. In a span of nine months, Rutledge underwent three arthroscopic knee operations--August '85, November '85, Spring '86. He still managed to start nine games in 1985 and play about half of the 1986 Rose Bowl.

High: An All-Pac-10 senior season, which included the team lead in tackles (96) and interceptions (6)--half of the interceptions coming in the Oregon State game. At the Bruins' postseason football banquet, Rutledge was named UCLA's most valuable player on defense. He accepted an invitation to play in the Japan Bowl, a January all-star game for graduating seniors.

When Rutledge looks back on the past five years, he cannot suppress a smile and a shake of the head.

"I got more out of UCLA than I ever dreamed of," he said. "I started for three years when, at first, it looked like I'd never be more than a special teams player."

And a slow one at that.

"Yeah, my foot speed was questioned by the scouts," Rutledge said. "I ran a 4.7 40 in high school. But I was only 17 years old. You mature a lot in college. Through all the weight training and physical work you do, you're going to improve your speed."

Rutledge got down to 4.6, not bad for a strong safety, before the knee gave out. Still, he insists, "my time in the 40 was identical before the third (operation)."

Three knee operations. Rutledge shakes his head again.

"And I watched them all," he said. "I should write my thesis on arthroscopic surgery. By now, I could probably do it myself."

Knees and speed will again become major issues with Rutledge shortly. The pros beckon, and Rutledge, at 6-1 1/2 and 186 pounds, is projected as a middle-to-low round NFL draft choice.

The scouting report on Rutledge reads: Good hitter, but tends to over-play on the run, which tends to hurt pass coverage.

Rutledge's rebuttal?

"I guess I am classified as an aggressive player," he said. "I'm aggressive on the run; that's my strong point. But I actually enjoy playing the pass more.

"It's funny. I'm better at something I don't like to do as much."

One way or another, as draft choice or free agent, Rutledge plans to see just how far he can take this football thing.

"It's a big step up from high school to college, and pro football is another step," he said. "I definitely want to give it a chance. I'm interested in being a professional something . I'll try to do that, but I'm not hinging my entire career on that."

So if not the NFL, what then?

"Well, I guess it'll be the regular grind," Rutledge said. "I had a pretty general education at UCLA. I'd like to get into business or marketing, maybe real estate. Get my feet wet."

In other words, Rutledge's career is still hinging on football.

Rutledge's roommate, best friend and golfing partner is Matt Stevens, the UCLA quarterback. Rutledge remembers the first time they made acquaintances.

"I intercepted him," Rutledge said.

The year was 1980, and both Rutledge and Stevens were high school juniors. Stevens was then the quarterback for Fountain Valley High, Orange County's top-ranked team that season. Fountain Valley opened that season at El Dorado.

"We upset them, 14-10," Rutledge says with pride. "I intercepted two of Matt's passes and ran one back for a touchdown. That's really how we met."

Five years later, Rutledge shared a dorm with Stevens, watching daily as his friend received much of the heat for UCLA's 7-3-1 finish and road away from the roses.

This was, after all, a team most preseason polls had ranked in the top 5--one placing the Bruins as high as No. 2.

"It was hard on him," Rutledge said of Stevens. "He's so good-spirited, he'd kind of suppress it. But after a while, the whole thing starts to wear on you.

"Joe Fan sees us going 7-3-1 and gives Matt all the blame. Maybe it looks like that on TV, but, in truth, Matt Stevens is only one of 120 football players at UCLA."

Rutledge, instead, places the blame on too-great expectations.

"We were ranked No. 2, No. 4, No. 5, and that gives you a false impression of your ability," he said. "You start believing it, when you're really not that good.

"Reporters and sportswriters are ranking us that high when we had lost three of our four offensive linemen, our best wide receiver (Mike Sherrard) and the Pac-10 defensive player of the year (Mark Walen). We lost Eric Ball for the whole year. We were not the same team."

Then came the season-opening 38-3 thrashing at Oklahoma.

Then, everyone pretty much realized that this, truly, was not the same UCLA team--not the one that embarrassed Iowa in the Rose Bowl a few months earlier.

Still, a return trip to the Rose Bowl was within grasp until the Stanford and Washington games on back-to-back November Saturdays. But after the tie at Washington, it was goodby Pasadena, hello Anaheim.

The difference between the two bowls is greater than an hour's drive on the freeways. And that notion, Rutledge says, is something UCLA Coach Terry Donahue is working overtime to minimize.

"Five years ago, UCLA missed out at the Rose Bowl and wound up in the Bluebonnet Bowl instead," Rutledge said. "And we got killed by Michigan. That was a game nobody wanted to play.

"Coach Donahue has made a point in practice of not taking this game any differently than any other bowl game."

Now the Freedom Bowl--that's something new for the Bruins. A step down, yes, but not a downer, Rutledge insists.

"A lot of people will make the trek from UCLA to Anaheim, and BYU will draw a lot of fans," he says. "The Freedom Bowl is selling tickets and that makes me happy. Maybe we can get something going here. Maybe we can get it started."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World