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Unrivaled moments

Times Staff Writer

Listen to the story that Petros Papadakis tells, his personal slice of the historic rivalry between USC and Notre Dame.

In the fall of 1998, the former USC tailback was determined to fulfill a dream by scoring against the Irish. Even better, he knew that the venerable Keith Jackson would be in the broadcast booth.

“I desperately wanted him to say my name on television,” Papadakis recalled.

The game stayed close into the third quarter as the Trojans drove to the two-yard line -- perfect for a back who specialized in short-yardage situations. This was his big chance.

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Except the coaches decided Carson Palmer should run a quarterback bootleg, leaving Papadakis the thankless task of faking a dive play into the line.

“I basically got destroyed,” he said. “Got the wind knocked out of me. I’m on the ground half-dead. Carson walks in for the winning touchdown.”

Still, Papadakis had one more shot at glory. Watching a tape of the game, he hoped Jackson might have praised his dramatic plunge. And, as he recalls, the announcer did. Sort of.

Chad Morton with a great fake!”

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This week, with third-ranked USC facing sixth-ranked Notre Dame at the Coliseum in a game with national championship implications, former players find themselves looking back.

Talk to Anthony Davis and Jerome Bettis, Pat Haden and Ricky Watters. Amid tales of dazzling runs and last-second scores, they mention recollections of a smaller, more personal nature, some touching, some funny, others downright embarrassing.

These moments remain every bit as vibrant to them as the big plays, a testament to the magnitude of the rivalry.

“Some of the other games you played, you might not even remember,” said Bettis, the former Irish fullback. “USC games -- you remember everything.”

Pop quiz

As a freshman in 1990, Bettis knew that playing the Trojans was important. He didn’t realize how important until the week before his team traveled to Los Angeles.

Coach Lou Holtz announced that players needed to know and appreciate the rivalry’s history, so there would be a test.

“Really, we had to take a test on it,” Bettis said. “A tough test.”

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The players were given historical facts dating back to the game’s inception in 1926. To this day, speaking from the NBC studio where he works as a football analyst, Bettis remembers the series started with a deal struck on a train out of Nebraska, largely because Knute Rockne’s wife, Bonnie, liked Southern California.

“We had to know things that happened 70 years ago,” he said. “If we didn’t pass that test, we didn’t get to go on the trip out there.”

Bettis earned a passing grade and recalls the thrill of playing a night game in the Coliseum -- “the crowd was amazing, electric” -- as Notre Dame stopped USC’s last-minute drive to hold on, 10-6.

The following season, with the Trojans visiting South Bend, Ind., Bettis figured he knew all there was to know about the rivalry. But walking out of practice the Monday before, he got another surprise.

Motor homes had already parked outside the stadium, staking their spots, fans raising flags.

“It was only Monday,” he said. “You realized -- this is serious.”

Promise kept

Every year about this time, Anthony Davis is bombarded with questions. People want to know about 1974, when he returned a second-half kickoff for a touchdown, sparking a 55-24 USC victory that ranks among the greatest comebacks in college football history.

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Davis would rather talk about something that happened two years earlier, off the field.

A few days before the 1972 game, the sophomore tailback told a local columnist that if he got a couple of good blocks, he could score some long touchdowns. When this prediction hit the papers, Davis found himself face-to-face with USC assistant Marv Goux.

The fiery Goux coached the defensive line, so they didn’t know each other well. But nothing meant more to Goux than playing Notre Dame, the sanctity of the game, and he laid into Davis.

” ... you can’t say stuff like that,” he screamed. “Now you’d better do everything you said or you’re the goat.”

The confrontation remains vivid to Davis for two reasons.

First, he made good on his boast, leading USC to a 45-23 victory with six touchdowns, two on kickoff returns. Second, he bonded with Goux, a friendship that lasted until the coach’s death in 2002.

“To him, Notre Dame was like war,” Davis said. “Every year before we played them, our eyes would meet. He’d look at me like, ‘You ready

Green jerseys

In the fall of 1977, Mike Golic was a teenager at Notre Dame Stadium, watching his older brother, Bob, play linebacker for the home team.

The Irish -- underdogs to fifth-ranked USC that day -- warmed up in their traditional blue and gold but returned for the kickoff in green jerseys.

“I remember being in the stands and it was an absolute zoo,” Golic said. “We saw those green jerseys and everybody lost their minds.”

The gimmick translated into a 49-19 upset victory that went down in Notre Dame lore. Afterward, Mike made his brother describe every detail about what happened between warmups and kickoff, when the players found the jerseys hanging in their lockers.

“He said they were completely surprised,” Golic recalled. “They went bananas.”

Skip ahead six years. By 1983, Mike was playing defensive end for a struggling Notre Dame team and Coach Gerry Faust tried the same trick.

While most of the team hollered and bounced around the locker room, Golic recalled feeling underwhelmed. Been there, done that, he thought. But it worked.

Notre Dame won convincingly, 27-6, and even the skeptical Golic figures the green made a difference.

“If you put those jerseys on, you’ve got to win,” he said. “You lose, it looks pretty bad.”

Holiday spirit

When J.K. McKay thinks of Notre Dame, he thinks of Christmas.

McKay played receiver for the Trojans in the early 1970s, a golden age for the rivalry. For three straight years, the team that won the game also won the national championship.

The stakes were even higher at home, where McKay had to face his father, legendary USC coach John McKay, who died in 2001.

“In our house, we had a good Christmas if we beat Notre Dame,” J.K. said. “And a crummy one if we didn’t.”

Though his teams prevailed in 1972 and ’74, the younger McKay recalls a painful moment from the 1973 game in South Bend. The Trojans had fallen behind and were driving.

“I caught a pass right in front of our sideline and got hit and fumbled,” he said. “It was the only time I fumbled the ball in my life.”

A defender fell on top of him, pinning him to the ground, as Notre Dame recovered.

“I remember looking over and all I could see were my dad’s shoes,” he said. “He was wearing black shoes. I’ll never forget them.”

With the turnover, the Irish insured a 23-14 victory and the McKay household was headed for less-than-cheery holidays.

“Oh, the look on his face when I got up,” McKay said of his father. “He didn’t talk to me for about six months after that.”

Talking smack

So many of the players grew up watching USC-Notre Dame on television, keeping track of the winner year by year.

“You always knew it was special,” said Pat Haden, the former USC quarterback who is now an analyst on Notre Dame’s NBC broadcasts. “Even when you were playing in it, you knew there were going to be more great players and great games after you left.”

Haden and other former players speak of the rivalry in nearly reverential terms.

As Mike Golic said: “There’s really a lot of mutual respect. They didn’t taunt you and you didn’t taunt them.”

Until last year.

In 2005, the undefeated Trojans featured Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and soon-to-be Heisman winner Reggie Bush.

The Irish had climbed back into the top 10, led by a charismatic new coach, Charlie Weis.

A bunch of the old guys traveled to South Bend -- Davis, Ronnie Lott and Anthony Munoz led the USC alumni; Watters, Tim Brown and Joe Montana showed up for Notre Dame. They watched a classic, USC winning, 34-31, on Leinart’s last-second quarterback sneak.

In the fourth quarter, with the lead changing hands, Watters said the former players -- guys in their 30s and 40s, if not older -- started yelling at each other from their respective sidelines.

“They were talking smack to us,” he recalled. “We were pointing at them, jumping on the field. One of the referees told me I had to back up.”

It might have seemed silly, but Watters insists that playing in a USC-Notre Dame game is “like a baptism,” an experience that lingers. The memories -- large and small -- never fade.

Goux used to preach that to his USC players. Davis recalls that every year before the game, the assistant coach gave a speech about taking part in what he considered the greatest rivalry in college football.

“Win or lose, you are some of the most fortunate young men in America,” Goux would say. “Gentlemen, you will never forget this.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com


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