Thanks for the Memories : Football: Each USC-UCLA game becomes a part of history, but for some the part is indelibly etched in the soul.
Two passes, two decades ago. But for four men, the replays go on forever.
Everybody has a favorite USC-UCLA game. Mention the 1960s and most people think of O.J. Simpson’s 64-yard run to beat the Bruins in 1967, considered by many the greatest game of the rivalry.
But that decade also produced two other contenders.
In 1965, Gary Beban hit Kurt Altenberg for 52 yards with less than three minutes to play: UCLA 20, USC 16.
In 1969, it was Jimmy Jones-to-Sam Dickerson for 32 yards with 1:32 to play: USC 14, UCLA 12.
All four men are middle-aged now, but mention those passes and they are young again.
In 1965, USC and UCLA were both undefeated in conference play going into their showdown for the Rose Bowl.
USC dominated into the fourth quarter, leading, 16-6, with four minutes left. Then, Beban hit Dick Witcher with a 34-yard touchdown pass and connected with Byron Nelson on a two-point conversion.
“It was not a big game for me,” Beban said, “up to that point.”
Not hardly. He had fumbled twice, thrown two interceptions, lost 33 yards on the ground and completed only two of eight pass attempts.
“It was not a good day,” Beban said, “but the throw to Witcher, that gave us a shot.”
Seconds later, Kurt Zimmerman’s onside kick was recovered by UCLA.
“Sometimes,” Beban said, “things just happen in the stars.”
Beban’s pass to Altenberg looked as if it were headed for the stars.
“We had tried the play earlier, and it was intercepted,” Beban said. “The idea was for Kurt, the split end, to run a post pattern, and the back, Mel Farr, to swing behind him. When I dropped back, Mel was the primary receiver.”
Not in Altenberg’s mind.
“All (Coach Tommy) Prothro wanted was a swing pass to Mel to get us in position for a field goal,” Altenberg said. “I lined up near the sidelines, right next to Prothro. He kept yelling, ‘Run, Altenberg, run.’ That doesn’t help you when the defensive backs are listening only five yards away.
“Prothro didn’t care because his idea was to dump the ball to Farr. But that wasn’t my idea.”
Instead, despite double coverage, Altenberg got open.
Beban reared back and fired, even though he couldn’t even see Altenberg at the time through the mass of cardinal and gold heading his way.
“I just did what I was trained to do by Tommy and Pepper (Rodgers),” Beban said, “throw it up and let the receiver run under it.”
Beban never saw the receiver, never saw the catch.
“I was down on the ground at the time,” he said, “with one of those SC guys rolling on top of me. The crowd let me know he had caught it.”
It wasn’t an easy catch, on the run in the gathering darkness of the Coliseum.
“Whatever,” Altenberg said, “I never doubted I would catch it.”
Ball and receiver merged at the five-yard line. Altenberg celebrated all the way to the Rose Bowl, where UCLA went on to beat Michigan State, 14-12.
In 1969, both teams again met without a conference loss.
UCLA had gone ahead, 12-7, with a little over three minutes to play.
At that point, Jones, the Trojan quarterback, had completed only one pass all afternoon. But he hit three of four to ignite a 68-yard drive.
The drive seemed headed nowhere when a fourth-down pass sailed over Dickerson’s head. But UCLA defensive back Danny Graham was called for interference.
One more shot.
From the 32, Jones sent Dickerson into the darkness at the closed end of the Coliseum on a route that would take him first on a post pattern, then on a sharp angle to the corner of the end zone.
“It still remains very vivid,” Jones said. “For Sam and me, that was our favorite pattern. He had the perfect speed and gait for that pattern, and we always seemed able to hook up on it. We were just becoming a passing team in those days. We were coming off the Mike Garrett-O.J. Simpson era and just starting to pass.
“I remember I rolled right, faked to Clarence Davis and then settled behind right tackle. The rush was really coming up, so I had to load up and add some loft to my throw.”
Did he ever.
“I thought it was one of the highest passes I’d ever seen,” Dickerson said. “It seemed like a long time coming down.”
Dickerson had broken free of the defense in the end zone. But for how long?
He was running out of time. And space.
“I could see the flag out of the corner of my eye,” he said, “and I knew I was close to being out of bounds. I dragged my feet and slid out of bounds all the way to the fence.”
And there he lay, suspended in time, while an official, seemingly in slow motion, moved his arms to make the call.
“I was sure I had made it,” Dickerson said. “But I didn’t know if the refs were.”
Finally, the signal.
Touchdown. Victory. And, eventually, a 10-3 Rose Bowl win over Michigan to finish the season at 10-0-1.
Dickerson, 40, who works for the recreation department in Modesto, has a tape of that catch. And he still watches it regularly--just to make sure.
“Every time I watch it,” he said, “I wonder, will I still be inbounds? Or will the script change?
“Everywhere I go, I run into people who remember that pass that got us to the Rose Bowl.”
Jones, 39, a minister working on affirmative action programs as a counselor and as a part-time coach in Harrisburg, Pa., is a little further removed.
“Every now and then, I’ll take the film out and show it to some friends,” Jones said, “but it seems like a long time ago.”
Altenberg, 45, a Southern California furniture distributor, is never far removed from his catch.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Twenty-five years later and people are still coming up and talking to me about the catch. Everybody in the city seems to know about it.
“The first night I got the video of the game, I played it from midnight to 3 a.m., over and over.”
Beban, 43, president of a Chicago brokerage firm, said the impact of the play didn’t hit him immediately.
“I’ll always remember,” he said. “It was when I was walking to my car. There was a newspaper already out with the headline, ‘Bruins upset Troy.’ And the word upset was upside down. That’s when I felt the real impact.”
He, too, has a video of his magic moment.
“I really don’t go back and look at it that much,” he said. “My sons (Paul, 19, and Mark, 13,) are into hockey and lacrosse.
“This is just something Dad did, a long, long time ago.”
All four men believe that their moment in the sun has shone so long because it came against their archrival. “This is the game that involved everybody you played with your whole life, for and against,” Altenberg said. “That game was actually more important to us than the Rose Bowl.”
Altenberg came to Westwood Wednesday to speak with Coach Terry Donahue.
“I just wanted to tell him,” Altenberg said, “that all us old ballplayers support him. Every one of these games is unique, almost a season within itself.”
Even across the country in Pennsylvania, Jones has his concerns about Saturday’s USC-UCLA matchup.
“If USC is not ready to play a hard game,” he said, “it could be a sorrowful one. The most embarrassing thing is when you lose to a team you are supposed to beat. But to lose to UCLA when you are supposed to beat them would be even a little more so.”
Dickerson thinks that beating UCLA may be even bigger for the Trojans than beating Notre Dame.
” . . .UCLA may be the biggest because you have to live with them all year,” he said.
Beban, was asked if his throw to Altenberg is at the top of the list.
“Anybody who plays at UCLA or USC has to have two sets of highlights,” he said. “Allthings that happened outside the rivalry are one thing. But you have to put UCLA-USC in a special category.
“For UCLA this year, this could make up for a lot of mistakes made during the season. Regardless of what happens in a season, this is a season.”