A father’s words angered him, then pushed him, through a tunnel of despair into an afternoon of brilliance.
Walking out of an empty Rose Bowl late Saturday afternoon, the UCLA quarterback finally found words of his own.
Ryan McCann hugged John McCann.
“You told me,” Ryan said.
The father said nothing. He had already said enough.
John McCann’s voice, constantly urging his son not to quit or pout after being demoted to backup quarterback two weeks ago, had just resonated through unranked UCLA’s head-swiveling, 35-24 victory over third-ranked Alabama.
It was his son who was forced into the game with UCLA trailing by a touchdown after only four plays.
It was his son who did not panic when he could have panicked, or collapse when he was pushed.
It was his son who went from benchwarmer to the first UCLA quarterback to beat a top-five team in a decade.
In a season opener filled with messages that a thunderous crowd and locker-room serenading band could not silence, it was his son who relayed perhaps the most important.
“No matter where you sit on the bench, you are always one game away, one play away, one minute away,” McCann said.
“My Dad told me that.”
The victory, on an unexpectedly glorious September afternoon, was many things for many people.
It was a Heisman introduction for DeShaun Foster, who sat upon the Crimson Tide like a houndstooth hat.
It was an NFL introduction for Freddie Mitchell, and if you don’t believe it, just ask him.
It was another teary-eyed entry on the resume of Bob Toledo, now working on a second page.
It was a 3 1/2-hour scrubbing of more than a year’s worth of controversy and disappointment.
It was redemption as only UCLA--OK, OK, they’re the gutty little Bruins again--can do redemption.
But none of it happens if, when Cory Paus goes down, Ryan McCann isn’t standing up.
The game was, what, one minute old?
The Bruins ran three plays, gained four yards, and to the sidelines jogged starter Paus, holding a right shoulder that had been smashed to the ground.
“I separated it,” he told McCann.
The next thing McCann remembered, he had grabbed a ball and was madly throwing it behind the bench.
“It happened so fast, I don’t even remember who I was throwing it to,” he said.
Al Borges, the Bruin offensive coordinator, turned and stared.
“Cory came off the field hurt, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, here we go . . . " Borges said. “Then I turned and saw Ryan whipping that ball like Goose Gossage.”
Up in the stands, McCann’s family from Westlake Village also stared.
“I was in shock,” said John, an actor. “I knew what I had been telling Ryan, but to have it happen this suddenly . . . I said a few Hail Marys.”
What he had been telling Ryan, since the moment the sophomore had been demoted two weeks ago, is something that fewer and fewer fathers tell their big-game collegiate athlete sons.
He did not tell Ryan to transfer, or to change positions, or to publicly complain.
“I told him to suck it up,” John said. “I told him, life is funny. You never know when things change. You have to always be ready. You are always just one play away.”
At first, the despondent McCann didn’t want to listen.
He thought of how, once Cade McNown took over the starting job here, he didn’t relinquish it for four years.
“He looked at me like, ‘Dad, I don’t want to hear all that,’ ” John recalled. “I told him, ‘Listen. You’ve got three more years here. Be a team player.’ ”
His father told him during phone calls and dinner visits. He told him so much, McCann finally listened.
He stayed late at practice to work with the starting receivers. He supported Paus to the point of laughing with him at a movie Friday night before the two game-eve roommates fell asleep.
“Not once has he complained or moped,” Borges said. “It had to be tough--I know I would have had to give myself a pep talk--but he never showed it.”
Then, suddenly Saturday, he had his chance to show everyone.
His first move was to approach his offensive linemen.
“I told them, ‘Stick with me, I can do this,’ ” he said.
His next move was to approach Alabama with just as much confidence.
His first play was a perfect screen pass. Two plays later, a nifty slant pass. Then he threw a pass to, well, nobody.
So it went for most of the afternoon, a great play followed by a misplay, a smart move followed by an inexperienced one.
McCann’s day was epitomized in the third quarter when he threw an ill-advised pass that was returned 91 yards for a touchdown by Alabama’s Reggie Myles, giving the Crimson Tide the lead.
He ran to the sideline and, after receiving a brief lesson by Toledo on his mistake, he asked the coach for another chance.
“He said, ‘Don’t lose confidence in me, Coach,’ ” Toledo said. “I told him I wouldn’t.”
Sure enough, three plays later, he was throwing again. This time he hit a wide-open Freddie Mitchell, who had beaten backup cornerback Hirchel Bolden, for a 46-yard touchdown.
“I have learned, there are good things and bad things, and you just have to hang in there,” McCann said.
While his statistics were decent--14 of 24 for 194 yards and one touchdown and three sacks--he was best at just hanging in there.
That is what UCLA needed. That is what the forgotten quarterback delivered.
Even with Paus returning in three or four weeks, this victory should have earned McCann a chance to hang in there for the rest of the season.
Not that the Bruins will have a choice.
Recently, according to his father, Ryan told him, “If I ever do get back in the starting lineup, I’m not coming out. They’re going to have to shoot me to get me out.”
His father told the story and smiled, like only fathers can smile.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.