A year before The Game, he watched it from the stands, having sneaked into the Coliseum bearing the student ID of a USC coed.
Three months before The Game, he dreamed about it from the bench, a fifth-string, non-scholarship quarterback who held a practice dummy.
One month before The Game, allowed into the huddle only because of injuries to others, he struggled to hide a learning disability that caused him to jumble up the plays.
Three weeks before The Game, he jumbled the plays so badly during a test that one of the coaches accused him of smoking pot.
Two weeks before The Game, another coach formed letters with his body on the sidelines to remind him of those plays.
A few days before The Game, when confirming that this kid would be actually his starting quarterback, the head coach closed his eyes and softly banged his head on a table.
Then John Barnes, the UCLA senior with a vagabond past and vague future, staggered into The Game.
It was 10 years ago this week.
Neither has been the same since.
He threw one touchdown pass against USC on an audible while his coach, Terry Donahue, was shouting, “No! No! No!”
He threw another touchdown pass on an audible that had receiver coach Rick Neuheisel shouting, “Oh my God! What is he doing?”
He threw for 384 yards that afternoon, 204 yards during a fourth-quarter comeback, and 90 yards on a game-winning touchdown pass.
He led the Bruins to a 38-37 victory over the Trojans that confirmed why The Game remains eternal.
It has no memory and holds no expectations.
It doesn’t care who you were before kickoff, or who you will become later.
It is about one city, one afternoon, one moment.
John Barnes bears witness to how anyone with enough under his jersey can grab that moment.
He was starting for only the third time at UCLA. He was attending his fifth college. As a senior who had run out of time and transcripts, this was his last chance.
What he did with that chance will endure forever.
Even if, in keeping with the game’s personality, his moment ended that night.
“I remember walking outside into the Rose Bowl after the game and they were cutting the grass,” Barnes said, shaking his head. “Cutting the grass! It was like, man, it’s over.”
On the way to a Westwood party, Barnes was approached in a gas station.
Barnes took him for a fan, but he gave Barnes $5 and asked him to fill his tank on Pump No. 5.
“I went from hero to ‘Five on Five,’ ” Barnes said.
Man, was it ever over!
Barnes never threw another pass in this country.
He never represented UCLA in another public function.
When he attended the UCLA-Stanford game recently, nobody recognized him.
When a search for him began last week, the athletic department didn’t even have his phone number.
He lives today with his wife and infant in Silicon Valley, in a comfortable brick home in an upscale neighborhood full of technology soldiers succeeding in a similarly rough game.
Unless his plans change, this is where they will be Saturday, John and Cristy and baby Rowen, quietly celebrating a 10-year anniversary with baby toys and dog walks and memories of an afternoon that still outreaches description.
“About the best thing I can say about my story is, ‘Only in America,’ ” said Barnes, now 33, but still maintaining that boyish grin while chewing sunflower seeds in his family room.
It could have been a fairy tale, but there were too many dragons.
It could have been a success manual, except Barnes says, “The road was too tough and too lonely. I could never recommend it to anyone.”
It could at least have been an identity, except Barnes has shed that as easily as he once shed Trojan tacklers.
He has no videotape of the game, no souvenirs, no newspaper clippings. When he met his future wife, he was so worried about being mired in the past, he told her he had been UCLA’s student manager.
He has only one photograph of himself in a Bruin uniform, one that he keeps in a home office he now uses in his job as a technology salesman.
It is of Terry Donahue hugging him while his world applauds him as he walks off the field on that November night.
That’s all he needs to see.
One city, one afternoon, one moment.,
“I have been through so much in my life, there are times when I need to look back and say, ‘What have I accomplished? What is there,’ ” he said. “For me, this game represents there.”
The extended story of John Barnes begins with the short bus.
Growing up in Illinois, diagnosed with learning disorders that included dyslexia, he spent several years in special education.
He has not publicly revealed this before. He hopes his former teammates at UCLA will understand why.
“Every morning, running from my house to the short bus as it waited for me at the end of my driveway, all the other kids looking,” he said. “That was tough.”
He said the only way he could feel normal at school was through sports.
Is it any wonder, then, that when he graduated from Trabuco Hills High in Orange County, he wanted to continue playing football, even though he had no scholarship offers?
So, first, there was Saddleback College, where he was benched sporadically. He left before playing a second season.
Then there was Long Beach State, where he lasted only one week and never even met famed then-Coach George Allen.
“I showed up for spring workouts, went to the equipment room to get a football to throw, and they said that only scholarship guys get footballs,” he recalled. “So I left.”
Sight unseen, he then drove to Western Oregon College, an NAIA Division II school in a small town south of Portland.
The facilities were so bad, he never showered in the locker room after practice. The coaches weren’t that impressed with him either, benching him after the first game.
“I thought, how bad can it be?” he said.
He soon found out when he transferred to UC Santa Barbara, had a decent season ... and then the program was dropped.
The next day, sitting on his couch with a beer, Barnes saw Tommy Maddox appear on television to announce he was turning pro.
“I thought, ‘There’s a place for me,’ ” Barnes said.
So, in the spring of 1992, with no connections or advocates, he dressed in a suit and put his tapes in a briefcase and showed up for a meeting with the UCLA coaches.
“Here I was, a senior trying to walk on,” he said. “I thought I had to look good.”
Said Neuheisel: “We thought, who is this? He wanted to join the program and we thought he wanted to invest our money somewhere.”
He tried out for quarterback coach Homer Smith while wearing the suit, actually showing him his drop-back footwork in dress shoes.
When it appeared they weren’t going to throw him out, he showed up for classes, even though he had not been officially admitted.
He spent a week living in his car, leaving it only to sleep on a buddy’s couch at night.
He finally found a room in an apartment, began riding his bike down Wilshire to practice every day, began lifting weights and avoiding alcohol, getting serious.
“A senior, a walk-on, his first year here ... it was like he was a waste,” said Charlie Smith, then the student manager who became a close friend. “I was working there for the longest time before I ever even heard anybody mention his name. Why would anybody spend any time on somebody like that, with no future here?”
After starter Rob Walker was injured early, Donahue made the point again by telling Barnes that he would remain fifth string because the scholarship guys needed their chances.
“Riding that bike home every night, brakes broken, stopping it with my feet, I would still envision what it would be like if I played,” Barnes said. “What decisions I would make. How I could lead us.”
He practiced his drop-back moves under a streetlight near his apartment. He sat outside the coaches’ office so they would see him studying the plays.
He moved the scout team in practice against the first-team defense, even changing his cadence to draw them offside.
Everyone finally noticed. The Bruins had lost their first two conference games, so why not? After he’d given a stirring Friday night speech before a game against Washington State, Barnes was given a start.
And now the hard part began.
He threw an interception early in that game, and was benched for what he thought would be forever.
“He walked back to sit next to me on the bus, and you could tell he had been crying, his career was over,” Smith said.
Then, when he was given another chance, he realized that, with his learning disability, he would need help figuring out the complicated offense.
So he confided in Neuheisel, who calmly told him it was no big deal, that he would help him as long as it didn’t mean circumventing the other coaches.
“Sure, I acted calm. I didn’t want John to see me running into a room shouting, ‘Oh no, we’re dead!’ ” Neuheisel said. “But it was very, very unusual.”
Together, they worked on helping Barnes remember the offense.
And when Barnes couldn’t, Neuheisel stood on the sidelines, contorting his body like a Y or a Z to remind Barnes of his primary receivers.
“It was crazy, like somebody doing the ‘YMCA’ dance over there,’ ” Barnes said. “But it worked.”
Then came The Game, when Neuheisel simplified the Bruin signs so that all Barnes had to do was nod at J.J. Stokes, and the receiver would run downfield for a bomb.
“But I didn’t think he would do it on third down on our 10-yard line!” said Neuheisel, the Washington coach who is still close to Barnes today. “I about died.”
The throw was perfect, the run was dazzling, the touchdown was scored with 2:04 remaining as the Bruins took a lead over USC that they never lost.
It was a moment Barnes never repeated.
A couple of weeks later, he was given a scholarship, and it allowed him to finish school, but the glory died.
He played football in Italy one year, enjoying sights such as offensive linemen smoking on the sidelines, experiencing adventures such as calling the wrong plays in Italian.
Then he turned to a life of selling, which is what he had been doing for years anyway.
“All this taught me that you never give up, that good things will happen if you hang in there long enough,” he said, an example of all that is possible with college athletics. “Believe me, I got as much out of that game as UCLA did.”
Oh, plus a little acting job in an acclaimed movie.
Barnes played the Alabama quarterback who handed the ball to Tom Hanks’ character.
“The 1992 game was something I’ll never forget, and the movie was perfect,” Neuheisel said. “John Barnes was UCLA’s Forrest Gump.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com.