They were two boys growing up in the Bay Area, captivated by a college football rivalry half a state away.
Atonio Mafi and his older brother, Tita, pretended they were their heroes, mimicking a YouTube video of pregame jawing between UCLA and USC from 2008 in the middle of the Rose Bowl field.
Atonio would pull on a blue shirt, acting like a Bruin because he liked the color, while his sibling, two years older, would take on the persona of a Trojan.
They would get in each other’s face, seeing if one could intimidate the other. There was never any doubt in Atonio’s mind who won the sibling rivalry.
“Me, for sure,” he said earlier this week.
Atonio would go on to become a Bruin in real life, experiencing the cross-town rivalry for the first time as a freshman defensive lineman last season during UCLA’s 34-27 victory on that same Rose Bowl field.
“It’s things kids dream about,” Mafi said, “playing in those big games.”
Even Chip Kelly, the Bruins coach who likes to say that every game is the Super Bowl, acknowledged that his players treated this as a bigger game based on their familiarity with so many Trojans from childhood.
“Yeah,” Kelly said Wednesday before his Bruins (4-6 overall, 4-3 Pac-12 Conference) continued their preparations to play USC (7-4, 6-2) on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum. “I accept that.”
Those preparations included boarding up the bronze Bruin statue that was vandalized last year as well as the statue of legendary basketball coach John Wooden outside Pauley Pavilion. Across town, a legion of USC students stood guard on a 24-hour basis to protect Tommy Trojan, the statue that had been mummified in protective wrapping.
This game just means more. Kelly got so excited during last year’s game that he jumped into the arms of long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker after a big play, momentarily exposing a flash of his ample belly.
The coach also narrated a video that was shown during a pep rally on campus two days before the game. It showed a bear cub sliding down a snow-covered mountain while trying to join his father at the top, symbolizing the baby Bruins.
“Sometimes he falls back down and he finds himself at the beginning,” Kelly said in the video. “He’s at the bottom. He looks like he’s worse off than he ever was, except he’s not -- not at all. He’s made his mistakes and he’s learned what he’s learned, he knows what he knows.”
Kelly went silent, until the cub reached the top.
“The bear goes over the mountain and sees what he can see,” Kelly continued, “which is going to happen Saturday.”
Indeed it did, allowing the Bruins to take ownership of the Victory Bell for the first time since 2014. They have enjoyed hearing it rung while trying to make third-down stops at the Rose Bowl and have sometimes gazed at it longingly while walking through the lobby of the Wasserman Football Center.
“I usually walk out of the front in the lobby and I always look at it,” senior linebacker Krys Barnes said. “Gotta make sure it stays here this year.”
The Bruins practiced in a driving rainstorm that everybody seemed to enjoy except the punt returners. “It was a little different catching the ball, had to focus a little more,” said receiver and punt returner Kyle Philips, “but it was a nice little switch up.” … Kelly said defensive lineman Elijah Wade (unspecified injury) and linebacker Bo Calvert (NCAA suspension) would not play against the Trojans and that safety Quentin Lake (wrist) was unlikely to play. “I don’t think so,” Kelly said of Lake, “[but] you never know.”