For quarterback Brett Hundley, it’s one final family affair at UCLA
Pale, white smoke hovers close to the ground, carrying a sweet aroma of grilled meat. The morning’s quiet has given way to blasting music and excited chatter.
On this perfect day for football, the man they call “The Gov” takes one last stroll through Parking Lot H outside the Rose Bowl.
Hard-core fans come here to tailgate before UCLA games, setting up brightly colored canopies on the dirt and cooking on their barbecues. The Gov likes to walk among them, dressed in blue from his cap all the way down to his sneakers.
Sturdy in the manner of a former college running back, he ambles from one group to the next, his smile widening whenever someone calls out.
Hey Gov, you need a cold beer? they ask. Have something to eat.
Everyone knows the Gov will not be back. Just one more year, they plead, but he shakes his head so they thank him and say their goodbyes.
“These people show a lot of love,” he says, tasting a bowl of gumbo that has been shoved into his hands. “I’m going to miss it.”
When the Bruins face Kansas State in the Alamo Bowl next week, the Gov — also known as Brett Hundley Sr., the star quarterback’s father — will cheer from the seats.
But it won’t feel quite the same.
The Hundleys have done their best to travel from Chandler, Ariz., to attend every UCLA home game since their son joined the team in 2011.
That big grin and gregarious manner have made Hundley Sr. a favorite not only in Lot H but also among fans who form a corridor outside the stadium as the Bruins players walk in.
This isn’t the grown-up NFL — moms and dads play a big role in college football. They show up at practices. They cheer every victory and suffer through every loss. And it makes a difference to young players.
“Family is huge to me,” Brett says.
The Hundleys expect a far different environment after their son jumps to the NFL this spring. Hundley Sr. hopes to attend most of Brett’s pro games but doesn’t expect to find the same sense of community in those parking lots.
“It turns into a business,” he says. “But it’s time to move on.”
So the regular-season finale against Stanford last month marked a bittersweet moment. The last four years have been an emotional journey for both father and son.
Late in the third quarter, a sliver of hope remains.
The Bruins have looked flat for most of the afternoon, falling behind by 18 points, but the crowd comes to life as Brett completes two quick passes for a first down. Up in Section 5, Hundley Sr. leans forward, placing both hands on the rail in front of him.
“C’mon now,” he says for perhaps the 50th time since kickoff.
The ushers have given him an unused seat in the handicapped section so he has a better view of the action and room to stretch his legs.
Not the most excitable of fans, Hundley Sr. refrains from jumping up and down or stressing over every play. Every once in a while, just before the snap, he guesses at the next call or a coming blitz, thinking out loud.
“It’s not like I get knots in my stomach,” he says. “I know football.”
His foot taps on the concrete as the Bruins rip off a series of runs. Two more passes move UCLA deep into Stanford territory.
“Take what they give you,” Hundley Sr. hollers, as if his son might hear him down on the field.
Whenever the Hundleys have something important to discuss, they head for the La-Z-Boy recliners in the downstairs family room.
It was the fall of 2010 when a teen-aged Brett sat beside his father to announce that he had changed his mind about signing with Washington and would commit to UCLA instead.
“Right after he took that final recruiting visit,” Hundley Sr. recalls. “I knew he’d zeroed in on something.”
Playing for the Bruins has meant staying relatively close to home.
As a player expected to single-handedly lift UCLA’s program to a higher level, Brett needed family support. Fans dubbed him “The Savior” from the very beginning and coaches installed him as starter after his redshirt freshman year.
Though the Bruins amassed winning records in 2012 and 2013, some people wanted more — like a trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day — and voiced their discontent on Internet forums.
Hundley Sr. took the unusual step of frequenting one of those message boards, signing in as “Gov.” The criticism made him want to fire back, but he settled for preaching patience.
“He never got belligerent about it,” says Tracy Pierson, publisher of Bruin Report Online. “It’s hard not to get sucked in, but he stayed above the fray.”
His restraint earned him respect among fans, and a joke about running for governor of California got him a new nickname. His son watched it all, saying: “I know he has my back.”
Dad was there for advice on every big decision. They talked about switching schools when UCLA fired coach Rick Neuheisel in 2011. They faced an even tougher choice as Brett considered turning pro after last year’s lopsided victory over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
The player wanted to return for one more shot at leading his team to a championship, which seemed like the right move to his father.
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Hundley Sr. says. “I always try to stay positive.”
The men from his barber shop, back in Arizona, keep texting during the Stanford game. What the heck is going on with UCLA, they ask, but Hundley Sr. doesn’t have much to tell them.
The Bruins’ third-quarter drive fizzles out and, a few minutes later, Brett misses on three straight passes.
“Flat,” his father mumbles. “Just flat.”
The offense is trying for too many big plays, Hundley Sr. figures. No one looks in sync to him. But as UCLA slips nearer to defeat, as he sits back in his seat again, his words carry no hint of bitterness.
“One of those days,” he says. “It is what it is.”
With about seven minutes remaining, Brett hits his right hand on a defensive lineman’s helmet and has to come off the field, an unfortunate ending to an unfortunate day.
After the 31-10 loss, which costs the Bruins a spot in the Pac-12 title game, the quarterback sounds like his father — quietly resigned — as he tells reporters: “It was a big game for us and we just didn’t do what we had to do.”
Leaving the stadium with his hand wrapped in ice, he pauses a moment beneath the lighted Rose Bowl sign.
“My last game here,” he says. “It doesn’t feel good.”
Fans wait outside the gate to ask for autographs that he cannot sign with that injury. Brett patiently offers to pose for snapshots instead. A UCLA officials steps in after a few minutes to lead him away.
The postgame routine goes like this: Brett climbs aboard the team bus and waits until the fans disperse, then sneaks off to Lot H to be with his family.
Most of the crowd has gone home, leaving only scattered cars. His mother waits there with an uncle and aunt and some cousins. His girlfriend shows up to give him a hug.
Everyone leans in to look as Brett pulls the tape and ice off his swollen hand. The Gov remains to the side, drinking a beer, waiting until the small talk ends and his son eases over.
“Think about how far this team has come,” Hundley Sr. says. He is talking about three seasons of nine or more victories and three bowl games since Brett took over at quarterback. “You were a big part of that.”
Brett nods but obviously does not feel like talking football, so the conversation shifts to plans for the evening. Maybe dinner at a restaurant in the Valley.
A few more fans stop by, stragglers wanting to offer a final thank you. The Gov tosses his empty can into the trash and says: “There are a lot of memories at this place.”
The setting sun has left them in darkness, that sweet barbecue smoke replaced by dust in the air from cars pulling away and a more acrid scent of burnt charcoal briquettes dumped onto the ground.
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