Memories are something else he can hold on to

Times Staff Writer

If Erik Affholter had followed his head instead of his heart, he might never have made one of the most memorable catches in USC football history.

But he might still be collecting an NFL paycheck.

As a junior at Oak Park High in 1982, Affholter gained national attention when he kicked a 64-yard field goal, a state record that still stands.

Recruiters, of course, took notice and scholarship offers soon poured in from across the nation, coaches all but guaranteeing Affholter an opportunity to bring his powerful right leg to the major college football program of his choice.


Affholter, though, wanted to be more than a specialist.

“I enjoyed playing the game,” the 41-year-old father of three says from his home in Anthem, Ariz. “I liked being on the field, being part of more than just two or three plays a game as a kicker.”

So when USC offered an alternative, he jumped at it.

And by the time the 6-foot, 180-pound Affholter graduated in 1989, few remembered he’d ever kicked. He was the Trojans’ all-time leading receiver, a 1988 All-American split end and a fourth-round pick of the Washington Redskins.

None of his 123 receptions was as unforgettable as a juggling, corner-of-the-end zone catch he made against UCLA 20 years ago this week.

“No!” announcer Keith Jackson exclaimed on the television broadcast before reversing himself. “Yes! They call it [a] touchdown. He bobbled it after the ball got to him but apparently regained it just before he slid out.”

The fourth-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Rodney Peete provided the winning points in a 17-13 USC upset at the Coliseum on Nov. 21, 1987, sending the unranked Trojans to the Rose Bowl and the fifth-ranked, Troy Aikman-led Bruins into denial. Aikman offered the postgame opinion that UCLA was still the better team and Bruins fans protested that the winning touchdown was a gift from the officials. Affholter, they argued, had not secured possession of the ball before sliding out of bounds. Replays were inconclusive.

“Here in Arizona, literally two doors down, we’ve got a UCLA guy who still can’t get over it,” Affholter says. “I just laugh. It’s fun to talk about, but literally they can’t get over it. For UCLA, that was probably their greatest team of all-time.”


Adds the former receiver, referring to the coach of that UCLA team, “Every time I see Terry Donahue, he grabs his heart and tells me I made him cry.”

So, was it a good catch?

“Oh, yeah,” says Affholter, who in the last 19 years has fallen to 11th on USC’s all-time receptions list. “It’s still good today. That’s what the referee said. That’s all that matters. There was no instant replay, but I say if it went to the instant replay today, they’d still call it good, having called it good on the field.”

In the immediate aftermath, though, even he was unsure.

“In the probably one to two seconds that I was actually on the ground before I could see the referee make the call,” Affholter says, “it seemed like a lifetime of doubt because it certainly was close. Certainly, there was a moment of doubt.”

Affholter, who despite a hard-partying reputation assumed a starring role in the USC offense, helped the Trojans reach the Rose Bowl again in the 1988 season, again denying Aikman and the Bruins. But in the spring of 1989, about a month after he was drafted by the Redskins and traded to the Green Bay Packers, the former kicker suffered a broken ankle during a pickup basketball game in New York City.

That and other subsequent injuries derailed his pro career, which consisted of seven catches for 68 yards in four games with the Packers in 1991.

Of course, it was his decision to put himself in harm’s way.

“I could have definitely been a pro kicker,” insists Affholter, who kicked only sporadically at USC but still managed a 48-yard field goal and, in a 38-15 victory at Arizona in 1988, twice booted extra points after scoring touchdowns. “But I was a pro wide receiver. Unfortunately, my body unraveled.”

Says Affholter, “If I was a kicker, I might still be kicking.”

Instead, after a brief tenure as a high school coach this fall in Flagstaff, Ariz., he’s moving to Ventura County to work as a mentor, personal trainer and fundraiser for a foundation he and two partners co-founded 10 years ago. The nonprofit operates a sports academy on the site of the old Oxnard High campus.

“I’ve been working predominantly with kids for the last 11 years, training and mentoring high school-aged kids,” Affholter says.

He has no regrets, he says, about his chosen path.

“If I could do it all over again, yeah, sure, I might just kick,” he says, laughing. “But you can’t take the records away. I graduated as the all-time leading receiver in the history of USC.

“I don’t know if I’d exchange that for a longer NFL career.”

Or the catch against UCLA.

“That one,” he says, “is going to be remembered forever.”