POCKET FULL OF Miracles
For those USC fans mourning that their team is not in New Orleans for Monday’s Bowl Championship Series title game, there’s always this:
The unknown, unlikely, unconscious kid who ruined your season was at least good enough to play in a postseason bowl.
The Toilet Bowl.
“A bunch of guys from my church got together on New Year’s Eve to play flag football, we do it every year, it’s my big game,” said Tavita Pritchard, chuckling over the phone with an innocence that surely grates on even the gentlest Trojans fan.
Seeing as how Pritchard was the quarterback who led Stanford over USC in one of the biggest upsets in college football history, certainly he racked up some huge passing numbers against the fellow parishioners?
“Well, no, I didn’t play quarterback,” he said.
He didn’t play quarterback. Of course not.
Before stepping on the Coliseum field against the Trojans as a 41-point underdog in October, he had never really played as a collegiate quarterback.
By the end of Stanford’s 4-8 season, he was back on the bench.
A few weeks later in the Lake City Community Church “Toilet Bowl” in Tacoma, Wash., he was a running back and wide receiver.
After which, he returned to a home he shares with his parents, aunt and seven siblings, the Trojans’ conqueror spending his holiday break sleeping on couches and floors.
Who knows, he’s a talented young athlete who may one day become Tom Brady.
But for now, the Trojans have to live with the fact that their national championship was stolen by Greg Brady.
“I hope to do many more things in my life,” said Pritchard. “But I’ll admit, given the circumstances, I don’t think anything will ever replicate what happened that day against USC.”
As the sports world watches Ohio State play LSU on Monday night for the BCS national championship, perhaps it’s a good time to remember that day.
If not for the 24-23 loss to Stanford, USC would be at the Superdome.
If not for one of the freakiest games in any sport in 2007, USC would probably be winning there.
The bowl season has shown that, of all the top teams in college football, the Trojans again have probably the most talent, some of the best coaching, and arguably the most momentum.
What they don’t have is Oct. 6.
What they couldn’t stop, when it counted, was a kid with no collegiate starts, no collegiate touchdown passes, and only one collegiate completion.
“Even now, looking back, it’s like, wow,” said his father David.
Pritchard, a redshirt sophomore, was named the starter six days earlier after T.C. Ostrander suffered a seizure.
He was picked to lead a team that had been outscored, 141-51, in its previous three Pac-10 games.
He was playing a USC team that his coach had previously called perhaps the best in college football history.
He was playing them on a Coliseum field where the Trojans had not lost in six years.
“It was a great challenge, and I love great challenges,” said Pritchard, a nephew of former Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson. “But I’m sure at some point, I said, ‘Oh crap.’ ”
The game took on an even more ominous tone when he realized his father and football mentor would not be at the game. David, an ordained minister, had previously agreed to officiate at a wedding in Tacoma.
“When I signed up for the wedding, I looked at the schedule and saw they were playing USC, and figured I could miss that one,” David said. “I thought, if he does play, they’ll be down 40-0 when it happens.”
When Tavita phoned his father shortly before the team left the hotel for the late-afternoon game, David was crying because he couldn’t be there, but was still able to offer up one last prayer.
“May God give you peace,” said the father, “because you’ve got nothing to lose.”
All week, he had tried to ignore it. But the moment Tavita Pritchard walked onto the Coliseum field for warmups and looked around at the ancient, rising rows of empty seats, he finally saw.
“If I ever got butterflies, it was right then, looking around at that huge stadium, realizing that in one hour, it will be filled with people screaming at me,” Pritchard said. “That sort of got to me.”
He spent most of the rest of his pregame session lying on the floor of the cramped visitors’ locker room, closing his eyes in prayer.
Yet when he returned to the locker room at halftime, Stanford trailed only 9-0, and those eyes were wide.
The Stanford offense had just 48 total yards, yet the team trailed by just nine points?
“I started getting on our offense, especially our seniors, talking like, if we could just do anything, we had a chance,” Pritchard said. “At that point, I really thought we had a shot.”
Then, they didn’t.
Even with John David Booty struggling with a broken finger, the Trojans took a 23-14 lead into the final 11 minutes. There was no way a hopeless kid could lead an undermanned team out of this mess, could he?
“If I thought about it, I never would have been able to do it,” Pritchard said. “But because I was so new, I didn’t have time to think, I was too busy just trying to call the right plays.”
The first of those plays came on third and five midway through the quarter. Pritchard rolled out and found Mark Bradford for a 17-yard completion, fueling a long drive that led to a field goal that closed it to 23-17.
The kid completed three of four passes on the drive. The intimidation was gone. From Los Angeles to Tacoma, they were starting to feel the shock.
“You could tell, he was suddenly in a zone,” said David, who watched from a friend’s house while taking a break from the wedding reception. “I’ve seen that look before.”
After Booty and his broken finger tossed another interception, Stanford needed to go 45 yards in 2:50 for the victory.
Then on the first big play of the drive, Pritchard went from a zone to the Twilight Zone.
On fourth and 20 from the USC 29-yard line, Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh decided to forsake hand signals and shout in the play himself.
With nearly 90,000 fans screaming around him.
“I’m like, ‘You got to be kidding me,’ ” recalled Pritchard. “Coach was picking now to shout in the play? I couldn’t hear him. I could barely hear myself. I had no idea what he was saying.”
So the kid did what any kid does when he can’t understand an adult.
“I nodded to him like I knew what he was talking about, turned back into the huddle, and called my own play,” Pritchard said.
It was “double go.” It was a pass down the middle to Richard Sherman. It worked, going for 20 yards and a first down, setting up more . . . chaos.
On fourth and goal from the USC five, Stanford players chaotically ran on and off the field, leading to an illegal substitution penalty.
“It was complete nuts,” said Pritchard. “We had all kinds of people running around.”
But from the chaos came a brainstorm. Before the penalty, Stanford noticed USC defenders overplaying huge receiver Evan Moore. So after the penalty, Pritchard threw up a jump ball in the corner of the end zone to Bradford, who was going one-on-one with Mozique McCurtis.
Bradford won the jump. Moments later, after a final interception of Booty, Stanford had won the game.
This time, Harbaugh’s instructions were screamed into Tavita Pritchard’s ears.
“He told me, after I take a knee to end the game, grab that football and don’t give it to anyone,” Pritchard said. “Tuck it up under my arms and take it home.”
So he did. And home is where it sits, on a shelf in his parents’ Tacoma house, the end of one team’s season, the memory of one kid’s lifetime.
Pritchard started six more games after the USC victory, winning only one of them.
During that time he threw three touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
He was back on the bench in the season finale against Cal, and will have to earn his way back into the starting lineup this spring.
But he owns that ball. He owns the student hugs and old-timers’ cheers that have followed him for months. He owns the DVD that will be watched at his parents’ house forever.
And for the rest of his life, he can say that, for one moment, he owned a bit of a dynasty, a piece of an era, and Trojan Nation was unfathomably his.
“It’s one thing to hear 90,000 people scream,” Tavita Pritchard said. “It’s another thing to hear 90,000 people stop screaming.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
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