Taylor Embree knows Saturday will be “weird.”
The UCLA wide receiver and his father talk before every game, a ritual in the four years Taylor has played for the Bruins.
Sometimes Taylor is at the team’s hotel, other times on the bus headed toward the stadium. Saturday, they won’t need a phone.
They’ll meet in person in the tunnel at the Rose Bowl. It is UCLA’s Senior Day and Jon Embree, Colorado’s head football coach, will be minutes away from trying to ruin his son’s last home game.
“I don’t know what he’ll be able to talk to me about,” Taylor says. “I mean, we’re going to win, so….”
Jon has another view. “This will be bragging rights for eternity,” he says.
Taylor has no doubt who will own those. “Someone is going to have a bitter Christmas dinner,” he says, referring to his father.
Rarely has a head coach plotted against his son on the other sideline. The late Jack Elway did it when he was San Jose State’s coach and son John was the quarterback for Stanford. Theirs was a four-game series, each winning two.
The Embrees have a one-time, winner-take-all situation and are looking forward to the experience.
“There has been trash talk all year leading up to this,” says Natalyn Embree, the wife-mother-referee of the house. She feigns neutrality by saying, “I have a jersey that is half UCLA and half Colorado.” But no one sits this one out.
“I will tell Taylor to have a nice game, but I hope Colorado ends up winning,” Natalyn says.
Taylor says he is fine with that, and is hoping that Connor, his 20-year-old brother, and Hannah, his 14-year-old sister, also take his father’s side. “Then I can hold it over the whole family,” he says.
Both sides need this game.
UCLA, despite a roller coaster of a season, is in a first-place tie among eligible teams with Arizona State in the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division. That means the Bruins still hold out Rose Bowl hopes and, if they fall short of that, a victory Saturday would make them eligible to participate in a different bowl game.
Colorado defeated Arizona on Saturday for its first Pac-12 victory, but Jon, who is 2-9 in his first season as head coach, would like the Buffaloes to put an end to a 22-game road losing streak.
Beyond the teams, though, this one is intensely personal.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we both want to maximize it,” Jon says.
Taylor put it a little more plainly:. “Whoever wins this game is going to be talking a whole lot of smack,” he says. Which, he adds, is “nothing new in our house.”
Taylor and Connor, a receiver at Kansas, are third-generation football players.
John Embree was a receiver for the Denver Broncos. His sons Jon and Sean were tight ends at Colorado, where Sean won a national title in 1990.
Football, especially Colorado football, was passed from father to son. When Taylor’s second-grade teacher asked him to lead the class in the Pledge of Allegiance, he said he didn’t know it.
“I knew the Colorado fight song before I knew the Pledge of Allegiance,” Taylor says. “She let me sing the fight song instead.”
Taylor’s grandparents’ house was a treasure chest of trophies and photos of his grandfather, father and uncle.
And now Linda Embree, Taylor’s grandmother, has created another coveted prize. She framed a newspaper article that previewed this game as “The Embree Bowl.” Saturday’s winner gets it.
That it is UCLA’s Senior Day only adds to the family intrigue.
Parents usually accompany their sons onto the field during pregame ceremonies. But Jon won’t be able to stand beside Taylor. “I have to get my team prepared and I don’t want this to be a distraction,” Jon says. “We’ll find some time after warmups.”
Jokes Taylor, whose 130 catches place him seventh on UCLA’s career list: “It won’t be anything like, ‘Good luck.’”
There has always been competitiveness in their relationship.
“I have the broken chairs to prove it,” Natalyn Embree says. “They would chase each other around and put chairs in each other’s way. Jon’s a big kid at heart.”
Basketball, pool, shuffleboard, video games, it didn’t matter. Jon and his sons played to win.
Taylor recalls a game of Tiger Woods Golf in which his father needed a 60-foot putt to win. “I told him if he did I would run butt naked through the neighborhood.”
Jon made the putt.
The only break Taylor got was that he was allowed to wear boxer shorts on his run.
But, as Taylor recalls, that didn’t mean he got off easy.
“We lived on a hill with three other houses on our street,” he says. “It was night, so I figured I’d just do this fast.”
His dad had other ideas.
“By the time I got to the top of the hill,” Taylor remembers, “Dad had knocked on everyone’s door and got the neighbors out.”
As competitive as they were, though, Jon never pushed football on his sons. In fact, he made them take a year off from the sport in junior high, “just to make sure they weren’t playing just because of me,” he says.
It was inevitable.
“My first word was ‘ball,’” Taylor says.
With Jon working as an assistant with Colorado (1993-2002), UCLA (2003-2005) and the Kansas City Chiefs (2006-08), Taylor has been attending practices since the age of 4.
“I didn’t realize how blessed I was to have a dad like my dad until I was in elementary school,” Taylor says. “He was the cool football coach.”
The coaching jobs have left Jon little time to see his son play in college. Instead, he downloads UCLA games to his iPad and watches on Friday nights.
But when it’s important, Jon was there. He took a few days off as Colorado’s football coach in spring to see his son graduate from UCLA.
“I had to be right down in front,” he says.
He’ll be front and center again on Saturday.