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Sam Dickerson’s game-winning catch for USC in 1969 still cause for debate

Everyone agrees on this much: Forty years ago today, USC receiver Sam Dickerson was somewhere inside the Coliseum when he was involved in two key plays that changed the course of a season -- and maybe more.

Exactly where he was is still the topic of debate.

Some joke that Dickerson’s only shot at catching one late-in-the-game, fourth-down pass would have been if he were standing on Mt. Whitney.

And that follow-up touchdown grab, the one that is still cursed around Westwood? People -- well, UCLA people -- have suggested it was made somewhere near the steps of the Natural History Museum.

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Whether there should have been a pass-interference call on the first play, and a touchdown ruled on the second, depends on whether your vision is framed in cardinal red or powder blue.

With USC driving and UCLA clinging to a 12-7 lead, Bruins defensive back Danny Graham was called for interference on the fourth-down play, even though UCLA witnesses said the pass to Dickerson was so high that it landed on the Coliseum track.

The game-clinching touchdown then came on a sliding catch by Dickerson near the back of the end zone, a 32-yard play with 1 minute 32 seconds remaining in the game that gave USC a 14-12 victory.

A win by UCLA would have put the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. Instead, USC made a then-record fourth consecutive appearance during a span in which the Trojans made a Jan. 1 trek to Pasadena seven times in nine years.

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UCLA didn’t play in the Rose Bowl again until the 1975 season, ending a 10-year absence that is the second-longest in school history, surpassed by only the current 11-year streak.

Old news?

Dickerson still hears about it from both sides, saying, “My favorite is a joke about a USC man about to romance a UCLA woman. She stops him and says, ‘Only if you admit that Sam Dickerson was out of bounds.’ ”

So was he? “I latched on to the ball and dragged my feet because I knew I was near the back of the end zone,” says Dickerson, a retired parks and recreation supervisor who lives in Modesto.

The moment resonates in USC’s and UCLA’s football programs even today.

USC Coach Pete Carroll had taken a road trip with some buddies and was sitting seven rows from the top of the Coliseum among a crowd of more than 90,000. “It’s a great claim to fame to come to a game and be so far away I couldn’t see the last touchdown,” Carroll says, chuckling.

Steve Prince, then a UCLA student and now father of Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince, had better seats and a different view. “There is no way [Dickerson] could have been in bounds,” Prince says, not chuckling.

The build-up

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UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit, who came from Long Beach City College in 1969, was getting ready for just another game -- until he got to the Coliseum.

“We would usually get there four hours before the game and maybe 50 people would be there,” recalls Dummit, who is now a financial advisor. “That day, we walked in and there were 75,000 people already in their seats. I thought, ‘Hmm, this game is different.’ ”

Both teams were 8-0-1, the first time both had come in undefeated since 1952. Along with the Rose Bowl, a possible national title was on the line -- Michigan, coached by a 40-year-old upstart named Bo Schembechler, had upset No. 1 Ohio State earlier in the day.

“Back then, you go to the Rose Bowl or go home,” says Graham, now an attorney based in Torrance.

The Bruins had been not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1965 season.

In 1966, backup quarterback Norm Dow, subbing for an injured Gary Beban, led the Bruins over the Trojans. “We were 9-1 and expected to be voted into the Rose Bowl,” Dow recalls. But two days later, USC won election to the Jan. 1 game and hundreds of UCLA fans stormed onto the 405 Freeway, stopping traffic in protest.

In 1967, top-ranked UCLA saw O.J. Simpson do a 64-yard trample over its Rose Bowl and national title dreams. A year later, Simpson did it to the Bruins again.

In 1969, “O.J. was gone and we were a young team,” says Jimmy Jones, who was then USC’s sophomore quarterback. “USC had been pretty dominant during that run. It loomed in our minds that we didn’t want to be the ones who dropped the ball.”

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Actress Raquel Welch, a former UCLA student, appeared at a pep rally for the Bruins the night before the game. “Unfortunately, we were sequestered in the hotel,” Graham says.

Actors Bill Cosby and Anthony Quinn watched the game from around the USC bench. “Boy, UCLA got the better deal on celebrities there,” Dickerson says.

The game

The tone was set by the defenses. USC’s was dubbed “the Wild Bunch,” UCLA’s “the Quiet Bunch.”

Dummit took a pounding, getting sacked nine times and having five of his passes intercepted.

“After the game, my brother and I were taking dates to a party and I was in the back seat,” Dummit recalls. “I started getting cramps in my calves and my legs and my stomach. My brother had to pull over on the Santa Monica Freeway so I could get out.”

Clarence Davis, who had replaced Simpson as USC’s tailback, came into the game leading the nation in rushing. He was held to 37 yards.

“We didn’t make it happen offensively,” says Jones, who has been a minister and youth counselor in Harrisburg, Pa., the last 30 years. “You need to make good plays to win. Sometimes you need a little luck.”

One break went USC’s way before the game. UCLA’s tie was in conference, against Jim Plunkett and Stanford. USC tied Notre Dame, so the Bruins knew another tie would send USC to the Rose Bowl.

“We had to go for two [after] both touchdowns because of that,” Dummit says.

Dummit’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Gwen Cooper gave UCLA the lead with 3:07 left.

Jones, who had completed only one of 13 passes to that point, connected on three in a row to get USC up the field until the Trojans stalled, facing fourth and 10 near midfield.

“Coach [Tommy] Prothro called me over and said, ‘When you get back in the game, just take a knee,’ ” Dummit remembers. “For the first time that night I thought, ‘Geez, we’re going to win this.’ ”

But then . . .

“I ran a curl pattern and was ready to jump for the ball and felt someone on my back,” Dickerson says.

That someone was Graham.

“Around sunset, the Coliseum grass gets wet. No excuses, but my back foot slipped,” Graham says.

Dickerson: “The ball was only about nine feet high, but I had made a catch just like it against Oregon State.”

Graham: “Yeah, he could have caught it -- if he were on stilts.”

The requirement that the pass must be “catchable” for an interference call was years in the future.

“The rules said it was pass interference at the time,” Graham says.

On the next play, Dickerson ran a curl-post. Doug Huff, the UCLA cornerback, bit on the fake.

“I laid it out there and hoped,” Jones recalls, and 90,184 fans at the Coliseum inhaled.

Says Dickerson: “The ball seemed to stay up there forever. There was a brick wall five or six yards behind the end zone and I rolled into that. I looked up and the ref was signaling touchdown and our guys were running at me.

“It was the first time I was scared that night. I knew how hard our guys hit. I started yelling, ‘Come on, come on, it’s not over.’ ”

Soon, though, it was, as Dummit’s last pass was intercepted.

The aftermath

Prothro left the Coliseum in such a state that he forgot the briefcase he carried everywhere, even on the sidelines.

“I’m told that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Graham says. “Coach Prothro never got over that game.”

A year later, Prothro left UCLA to take over the Los Angeles Rams.

“Coach Prothro could accept O.J. Simpson,” says Dow, who was then UCLA’s freshman coach.

“The 1969 game he couldn’t. In 1967, O.J. ran wild. In 1969, the refs ran wild.”

The 1969 Bruins held their 40-year reunion in October. The highlight tape that was shown excluded moments from the USC game, according to Dow, who says, “A lot of guys still feel that there was something they were cheated out of.”

Not all of them.

Graham said after the game, “It seems like my whole life just went down the drain.”

But he and his girlfriend went out and ate Chinese food in Santa Monica . . . and later married.

“I have a loving wife, Nora, three beautiful daughters and six grandkids,” Graham says now. “I’ve been blessed.”

USC beat Michigan, 10-3, in the Rose Bowl and finished third in the final Associated Press ranking.

The following season, Jones and Dickerson played in a historic game when USC became the first fully integrated team to play in Alabama and beat the Crimson Tide.

Dickerson spent 32 years working for the city of Modesto and beat colon cancer in 2006, though he now suffers from anemia.

Still, he says, “I’m 60 and I continue to play softball and flag football.”

Occasionally he gets the question, was he in or out?

“He was in,” Dummit says. “At the time I didn’t think so, but he was in. I can live with that.

“The pass interference call? Well . . .”

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes


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