Something was very wrong last weekend at the Rose Bowl. George Villafuerte wasn’t there.
The UCLA fan had not missed a Bruins home football game since Harry Truman was president and John Wooden was coaching at Indiana State Teachers College. It took a sore throat, nagging cough and queasy stomach to keep him away from Pasadena on Saturday, the 92-year-old confined to his Reseda apartment.
The Bruins played as if something was amiss, losing to San Diego State for the first time after having previously gone 21-0-1 in the series. The result didn’t make their longtime fan feel any better about having not been able to attend.
“It was just an impossibility for me to go,” Villafuerte said over the telephone, apologizing for his raspy voice.
For almost three-quarters of a century, it was nearly inconceivable that Villafuerte would stay away. His 70-year streak of attending UCLA games started in the late 1940s when the team played home games at the Coliseum and Villafuerte sold programs. He eventually got a job as an usher and accompanied the team when it moved to the Rose Bowl for the 1982 season, later watching games as a fan once he retired about 20 years ago.
That means Villafuerte was there for every home high of the Terry Donahue era and every low of the Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel years. He never considered abandoning his team, even though he has trouble driving to games now and the Bruins have hit another lull under coach Chip Kelly.
“It’s going to be a tough season for UCLA this year, I know, but I’m still with them,” Villafuerte said. “I still love them. They’re my Bruins.”
They’re happy to have him, honoring his loyalty last season during a halftime ceremony of the final home game against Stanford. Villafuerte was shown on the video scoreboard during an on-field tribute and received a No. 70 jersey to commemorate his streak.
“I didn’t think they were going to do all that,” he said with a chuckle. “I just thought they were going to announce that I had been there.”
Villafuerte has been seemingly everywhere in Los Angeles sports over the years. He worked Lakers, Clippers, Trojans and Bruins games when they played at the Sports Arena and was an usher for Dodgers, Rams, Trojans, Raiders and Bruins games at the Coliseum.
He also became a fixture on UCLA’s campus, befriending nearly every coach and attending as many sporting events as he could even though he didn’t go to school there. Villafuerte wanted to become a Bruin but didn’t have the grades after returning from service in the Army during the Korean War.
He never became a UCLA alumnus, just an institution.
“He started coming to our practices to watch the team,” former men’s volleyball coach Al Scates said. “At the end of the year, he would always come and take a photo with the team. The guys would be all sweaty after the workout and then George would jump in.”
Villafuerte’s love for UCLA was rooted in the school’s almost universal athletic success and his friendships with Bruins coaches and players. Scates attended a recent birthday party for Villafuerte at an Italian restaurant at North Hollywood and was amused when his longtime friend played the maracas with a band that was performing.
It never mattered that Villafuerte is a lifelong bachelor without children, because Los Angeles has become one extended family. Besides working so many sporting events around town, his job teaching social studies and coaching multiple generations of students at Our Mother of Good Counsel School in Los Feliz left him with a legion of admirers.
“Everywhere you went it was, ‘Hey, coach!’ ” said Tim Holleran, who has known Villafuerte for more than 50 years. “It almost became a family joke because you couldn’t go anywhere without one or three people who knew him.”
Holleran considers Villafuerte family because the man informally adopted Holleran and his three brothers when they were growing up, often introducing them as his sons. Holleran also worked as an usher at the Coliseum alongside the father figure when he was in high school.
Like any good Bruin, Villafuerte said he preferred the Rose Bowl to the Coliseum. He never seems to occupy the same seat twice these days, benefiting from alumni friends who give him tickets or buying a general admission ticket but sitting in a reserved section thanks to ushers who are just happy their old pal has graced them with his presence in the half-empty stadium.
The years have robbed Villafuerte of his memory of the specifics of most UCLA games but could do nothing to erase the sting of watching them lose to San Diego State on television. Maybe it was best he caught only the end of the game.
“I was so disappointed,” Villafuerte said. “I was hoping that they would at least beat San Diego State because I don’t think they’re going do too much against Oklahoma.”
That’s not to say that the Bruins’ most devoted fan doesn’t want to be there. He hopes to start another streak Saturday when the Bruins (0-2) face the fifth-ranked Sooners (2-0) as heavy underdogs, if only he can find somebody to drive him to Pasadena. Villafuerte has seen enough UCLA games to realize the possibility of the improbable.
“With the Bruins,” he said, “you never know.”
Kelly said guard Michael Alves would sit out the game against Oklahoma because of a lingering back issue, the third consecutive game he will miss. … Cornerback Darnay Holmes (ankle) has practiced this week after missing the season’s first two games, but Kelly said his status remained uncertain for Saturday. … Defensive lineman Martin Andrus practiced Wednesday after being held out earlier in the week because of a leg injury. … Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, when asked if punters were allowed to attend the players-only meeting held Sunday: “Yes, yes, yes. They are people too.”