An injured walk-on receiver became a part of UCLA football folklore by standing his ground Saturday before the Bruins’ 38-20 win against rival USC at the Rose Bowl.
Sam Handler suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp, but he became the center of attention when he planted his feet at midfield and refused to allow the USC band’s drum major to march onto the field.
The drum major historically sticks his sword into the center of the field, and Handler was protecting the UCLA logo.
“My intentions were to show USC that the Rose Bowl is our house and we were not going to back down,” Handler wrote Monday in an e-mail. “And maybe I wanted to get a rise out of the fans and get them ready for the battle of Los Angeles.”
It became a moment.
The drum major and a band official had words with Handler before security escorted the sophomore off the field. Handler was not detained. The USC band then came onto the field and the drum major’s sword never touched the logo or the field.
“For us players to know an injured guy has our backs, has the whole program’s back, is pretty awesome,” receiver Jordan Payton said. “He was protecting the house.”
Handler said the idea was hatched when he was watching television with a friend, Peter Dante, an actor who played the quarterback in the 1998 movie “The Waterboy.”
“We were watching ESPN and we saw the preview commercial for our game, and then we were discussing how disrespectful it is how the USC mascot stabs our field with his sword,” Handler said.
Two years ago, UCLA officials prevented the drum major from sticking it to UCLA’s logo by threatening to ban the USC band from playing at halftime.
Handler took a less bureaucratic approach. He became more determined after watching UCLA Coach Jim Mora during pre-game warm-ups as USC players were milling around the logo.
“He stood firm, protecting our logo, and that fired me up,” Handler said. “It was then that I decided that I was going to defend our turf.”
Dante, who is usually on the sidelines during games, had planned on joining Handler but he got stuck in traffic.
“I had to be a one-man wrecking machine and protect the Rose Bowl and the UCLA logo,” Handler said.
On Sunday, Handler received a hero’s welcome in the locker room from teammates. Most learned what he did after Saturday’s game, via social media.
“Everyone was giving him high fives,” quarterback Brett Hundley said. “I told him I’d take him out to lunch.”
Mora, like his players, found out after the game.
“I called him and asked what happened,” Mora said. “He said the team was leaving the field and that guy looked like he was going stab it. He felt like he had to do something. From what I have heard, he is a UCLA football legend now.”
UCLA defensive backs Ishmael Adams and Priest Willis were injured in the USC game. Adams suffered an ankle injury. Willis suffered what Mora said was a “head trauma.”
Willis was not at practice Monday. Adams did individual work before leaving early to get treatment.
Mora said that Adams was “a lot better than I thought he would be today.” Willis was more serious, he said.
“We’re not sure what extent it was,” Mora said. “All head trauma is significant. This wasn’t significant where we are overly concerned.”
Adams is a starter who plays cornerback, safety and nickel back. He also averages 23.3 yards on kickoff returns and 10.4 on punt returns. He has scored three touchdowns, two on interception returns and one on a kickoff return.