The former UCLA football player glistened with tough, his blade prosthetic a shiny blur as he sprinted into the Rose Bowl.
This popular offensive lineman who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident 16 months ago brought the blue-clad crowd to its feet Saturday night as he led UCLA out of the locker room for the second half against Arizona State, thousands cheering the epitome of a gutty little Bruin.
If only they had seen what happened next. If only they had seen their powerful Bruins symbol jog off into the deep embrace of the popular volleyball player who has been quietly carrying him through this nightmare.
If only they had seen she was a Trojan.
His name is Nick Ekbatani, and he is all UCLA.
“UCLA has a certain grit, a certain underdog feel, and that is how I resonate,” he said.
Her name is Kelli Tennant, and she is all USC.
“We’re strong, we’re traditional, I’m a Trojan through and through,” she said.
They couldn’t be more different. They couldn’t be more connected.
They began dating in the summer of 2012, a couple of years after each had graduated. Their courtship had consisted of only a handful of dates before Ekbatani’s motorcycle was broadsided by a taxi that crushed his left leg and led to amputation below the knee.
Tennant could have run from him. Instead, she ran to him, beginning an extraordinary journey during which they have used their disparate experiences to help each other grow.
“She is the epitome of a Trojan, and I am the epitome of a Bruin, but we have come together on this great adventure,” said Ekbatani.
This Thanksgiving week is perhaps a good time to celebrate this adventure, a tale that exposes a neat little secret about this country’s unique college sports rivalry.
For all its vitriol, Saturday’s 83rd renewal of the USC-UCLA football game at the Coliseum is about two schools but one community, two visions but one destination, two heartbeats but one city’s soul.
“I think we’re just another example of how, at the end of the day, USC and UCLA is really all one big supportive neighborhood,” Ekbatani said.
They were once highly regarded varsity athletes who couldn’t wait to beat those kids down the street. Tennant, who was honored on the 2005 Pac-10 all-freshman team, remembers emotional volleyball matches. Ekbatani, who started all 12 games in 2008, was in uniform for the infamous 13-9 UCLA victory in 2006.
They constantly refer to their schools as their families. Yet they form a new crosstown kind of family. They have dated mostly nonstop since the accident, using the lessons from their alma mater not to tear each other down, but to hold each other together.
Tennant, 25, has used her Trojans-inspired resilience to help care for Ekbatani through his 11 surgeries and countless setbacks as he learned to walk again.
Ekbatani, 26, has used his Bruins-fed optimism to help inspire Tennant as she has advanced in her career as a local television sports broadcaster.
She comforts him as he adjusts to new prosthetics, fights through new surgeries on the constantly infected upper leg, and endures phantom pains. He challenges her to view the world in a more daring, selfless way.
Their relationship could be seen recently on the streets of Santa Monica outside their modest apartment. With Ekbatani running for the first time on his new blade. Tennant ran behind him, to check on his form, until they finished the block-long jog together in a tearful hug.
Said Ekbatani: “In many ways, I am blind and she is my eyes.”
Said Tennant: “He is the one who has helped me see.”
Their competing schools have come to support them. Ekbatani is currently working on his master’s degree at USC through a Swim With Mike scholarship for physically challenged athletes. Tennant consistently finds inspiration in UCLA athletes through volleyball camps and her television jobs.
“They’re always hassling each other about their schools, but I really think that’s another way of flirting,” said Paige Killian, a close friend of Tennant. “For them, this USC-UCLA thing is all love and laughter.”
It started with an email from the UCLA kid to a USC administrator. Ekbatani was a family friend of Tim Tessalone, USC sports information director, so he asked him for advice in starting a career in broadcasting. Tessalone recommended that, among others, he should contact Tennant, who was a freelance reporter for several local networks.
“I thought it would be good to set him up with some former athletes who were broadcasters, I thought Kelli would be a good role model,” said Tessalone, chuckling. “I guess she turned out to be a little more than a role model.”
Ekbatani and Tennant felt a connection during their first meeting, and hung out a few times before Tennant left to work at a volleyball camp in Orlando, Fla. It was then, on July 14, 2012, that he suffered the crash which left him in a coma for a day and nearly cost his life. Because their relationship was so new, Tennant didn’t even learn of the accident until several days later, on Facebook, sending her into shock that only increased when she suddenly received an email from him.
“He wrote ‘I got in an accident, I lost my leg, but I miss you and I can’t wait to see you,’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘How is he even thinking of me, he doesn’t even know me.’”
At this point, she could have walked away, but he had stirred something inside of her. She might have been afraid to see him, but she was more afraid not to see him. She flew home, bought a stuffed Tigger toy from Target, and walked into his hospital room to see him lying there with the sheet pulled aside and the amputation visible.
“Yet he has this smile on his face like a little kid on Christmas, I didn’t even notice his leg was gone, he looked perfect,” Tennant recalled. “I went up, I gave him a hug, and it was like, ‘This is it, I’m in…. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I need to do this, I need to be here.’”
He told her he loved her. She told him to go easy on the morphine. He asked her to marry him four times. She told him the timing was not exactly ideal for this conversation.
“I should have been dead, I realized we’re not going to be here forever, I wanted to be with Kelli, and I wanted to make sure she knew it,” he said.
Their first hospital date, an ICU picnic, ended with Ekbatani being rushed away for emergency surgery for an infection. Tennant ended up in the parking lot, in the front seat of her car, holding several chocolate strawberries, and wondering what she was doing. Another date ended with another infection and another ER visit that caused doctors to perform a ghastly procedure that caused her to walk from the room. Yet she never left. The traditional Trojan was also becoming her own sort of gutty little Bruin.
“Kelli is such a godsend, it was unbelievable, it was like she saw something in him and wouldn’t let him go,” said Chris Joseph, former Bruins lineman and close friend of Ekbatani.
At one point during his most difficult rehabilitation times, he tearfully asked her to give him some space. She tearfully left town to work some college volleyball broadcasts and didn’t see him for nearly two months. Then last December, she invited him to her birthday party, and they haven’t been apart since.
“When someone is the love of your life, you can get through anything,” Tennant said. “He has taught me so much about the power of selflessness.”
Though Ekbatani now walks normally on a life-like prosthetic, and hopes one day to compete in the Paralympics, there are still at least two surgeries in his future as doctors continue to battle infection on his left femur. Yet even as Tennant’s career blossoms and her days become busier, she is seemingly always there.
Their friends notice how she will casually stretch out her arm for him to grab if he needs help standing up, or step close enough to him so he can support himself on one of her belt loops.
“She situates herself near him in a great girlfriend way, unspoken but strong,” said Killian.
In the meantime, Ekbatani puts himself directly in Tennant’s vision, cheering and motivating her to push herself.
“I’ve become who I always wanted to be with him,” she said.
On Saturday she will be a Trojan, decked out in cardinal and gold. Sitting next to her at the Coliseum, Ekbatani will be a Bruin, decked out in blue and gold.
They will spend three hours cheering against each other. And then, together, hands on shoulder or elbow or belt loops, they will stand and hug and head home.