A '70s connection

Times Staff Writer

It had been a regular sort of evening until the man in the bright yellow blazer showed up.

The varsity football players from John Muir High in Pasadena had gathered for their annual season-ending banquet at a country club beside the Rose Bowl. Dinner was served. Speeches were made and trophies handed out.

Exactly the way high school football banquets are supposed to go.

Then came the man in yellow. It took a while for people to notice him, short and stocky, wearing a smile instead of his better-known scowl.

He stood quietly in the doorway, waiting, a shopping bag in hand.

With only a few days left before New Year's, so close to the 1979 Rose Bowl game, he had other things to do. But everyone knew why, and for whom, he had come.

*

Michigan will play USC in the 93rd Rose Bowl game Monday, which is fitting because this story is all about the Rose Bowl. At the end, in the middle, all the way back to the beginning.

Start with the 1968 game, USC versus Indiana. The top-ranked Trojans, led by tailback O.J. Simpson, won 14-3 and took the national championship.

Not so far from the stadium, in a quiet Altadena neighborhood, a boy named Victor Wright watched on television. Until that day, he said, "I wasn't sure what life was about, what I wanted to do."

The game worked magic on him. He saw the players in their sharp uniforms, heard the crowd, could imagine sprinting across a green field marked by careful white lines.

Wright was too young to join a Pop Warner league, so he hung around his older brother's team.

"I would stand on the side and go through the drills and calisthenics, run laps with them," he said. "I couldn't wait till I could play."

He was a USC fan but, watching games on television each weekend, grew to like another team. This one was from the Midwest, dressed in maize and blue with winged helmets, a frequent visitor to Pasadena on New Year's Day.

The Michigan Wolverines became his other favorite team.

*

As Wright was becoming a fan, Bo Schembechler was becoming a legend.

Taking over as the Michigan coach in 1969, he guided the Wolverines to an upset victory over rival Ohio State and an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl. It was the start of a historic career, 21 seasons without a losing record and no fewer than 10 trips to Pasadena.

His teams won with hard-nosed football, adopting the snarling persona of their leader. Stalking the sideline in a blue cap adorned with a yellow "M," Schembechler embodied the stereotype of the demanding, temperamental coach.

Players, officials, sportswriters -- no one escaped his wrath. But away from the game, those close to him saw another aspect to his personality.

He could be funny and caring; willing to go out of his way to help people in need, even those he had never met.

Youngsters were a particular favorite. Out on recruiting trips, Schembechler would pull over to watch a youth team in the park, singling out a player, saying: "He's gonna be a good one."

Many of these stories have come to light since Schembechler, 77, died of heart failure Nov. 17.

"Bo was a common man," said Jamie Morris, a star tailback at Michigan in the 1980s who later worked beside him. "He related to the common man, and he never lost touch."

Watching on television from California in the early 1970s, Wright couldn't have known any of this. Yet he sensed something about Schembechler and remembers thinking: I could play for a coach like that.

*

Old photographs show a kid with a bushy Afro and an even bigger smile. Asked about Wright, acquaintances mention his sense of optimism and happy nature.

Back in 1976, he was also strong and fast and determined -- all the ingredients to be a schoolboy athlete.

"Victor could play tailback, fullback, anywhere on the field," said Bill Paul, who coached him in junior high. "He ran track too."

On a rainy September afternoon in 1976, the 15-year-old was playing for Muir's sophomore team against nearby St. Francis High. Three decades later, he can recall details of the game.

Muir was losing badly, facing third down and long. The quarterback threw a pass that was intercepted, which sent Wright scrambling to tackle the defender who had snatched the ball.

At 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds, Wright squared himself to hit the ballcarrier but arrived at the same moment as a teammate and was nudged off-kilter.

"When I felt the impact," he said, "it was on my left side."

His body tingled, falling, curling into a fetal position. Electric shocks streaked up his arms and legs, hairs standing on end.

"I had these bell tones in my ears," he said. "My vision went out, and all I saw were different-colored stars."

Eventually, he could make out shadows of teammates standing over him. Wright wondered why he was still on the ground, why he could not simply roll over and stand up.

*

The Wright family still lives in the same house, tatty yellow and brown, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. The neighborhood has no sidewalks and, with an equestrian center nearby, it is not unusual to see horses ridden on the street.

Victor stays in a back room cluttered with mementos of his 45 years -- letters and game programs, albums fat with snapshots. A leopard-print blanket covers his bed, various medical devices on a shelf behind.

In the quiet of a Monday afternoon, his staccato words are punctuated by a chugging respirator that pushes air through a tube, keeping him alive.

"I was in Huntington Memorial Hospital," he said, recalling the months after his spinal cord severed, paralyzing him from the neck down. "That's when I first met him."

Visitors flowed past Wright's bed in the fall and winter of 1976. The community rallied around him, stories appearing in a local newspaper, students holding a bike-a-thon to help pay medical bills.

His scrapbooks contain letters from politicians, autographed photos of former Dodgers outfielder Dusty Baker and sportscaster Jayne Kennedy. Otis Page, a USC lineman at the time, gave him a watch.

From all those memories, Wright tells a favorite story of a visitor who arrived unannounced in late December.

Michigan was playing USC in the Rose Bowl and, somehow, Schembechler had gotten word that Wright was a fan. He came to the hospital.

The injury still fresh, the young man unable to speak, so Schembechler did all the talking.

For the next few minutes, he chatted about the Rose Bowl and recruiting in Southern California, always on the lookout for a prospect with size and a good 40-yard dash time.

"He said that he had talked to a number of people about me and heard that I was a good player," Wright recalled. "I don't know if he told me that just to cheer me up."

Before leaving, Schembechler told him one more thing.

"He said that he wouldn't forget me."

*

Paralysis could not dim that smile. In the months after his injury, Wright still talked about the future, still watched football on television every chance he got.

Occasionally, his family would dress him in a No. 32 jersey like O.J. Simpson, prop him in a wheelchair with a portable respirator and take him to a Muir game. Wright stayed very much a part of the campus culture.

"This was one of those tragedies that brought the school together," said Chuck Malouf, a Muir teacher for more than 30 years. "He was quite an inspiration, whenever you had a bad day you'd think of him and you didn't feel so bad."

Determined to graduate with his class, Wright took courses from home. After the 1978 football season -- which would have been his senior season -- the players invited him to their banquet and gave him an award.

As it happened, Michigan was once again in the Rose Bowl to face USC that season.

And, by now, you probably know the man in the yellow blazer was Schembechler.

Muir's coach at the time, Jim Brownfield, had sent an invitation through a friend with Michigan connections. Schembechler, so busy in the days leading to the game, couldn't make any promises.

"I knew he was scheduled for TV interviews, this and that," Brownfield said. "I didn't think he would come, so I never told anyone."

The banquet was halfway finished when Brownfield noticed Schembechler standing in the doorway. The high school coach stopped the proceedings and waved him to the front of the room.

Schembechler spoke briefly to the team, talking about how much he loved the Rose Bowl even though his teams had struggled to win in that stadium. Then he walked over to Wright, taking a Michigan helmet and football from the shopping bag.

"Victor's parents were there," Brownfield said. "Tears in their eyes."

All these years later, Wright's condition makes it difficult for him to convey the emotion of the memory. Lying flat on his back and looking mostly toward the ceiling, he speaks in that cadence dictated by machinery.

News of Schembechler's death saddened him, he said plainly. He remembers Schembechler bending down and whispering in his ear at the banquet.

"Stay in school" -- that is what Brownfield recalls Schembechler saying. Wright's mother and father, now old and in failing health, can't remember the exact words. Neither can Wright.

It doesn't really matter.

The helmet remains mounted on the wall at the foot of Wright's bed, up high where he can see it. The football hangs beside it.

The important thing, Wright said, was that Schembechler showed up. The coach remembered him.

"Victor Wright Night" will be held at John Muir High at 7 p.m. on Jan. 18. Information: (909) 973-4938.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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