For Thanksgiving, the editors gave this typist leftover turkey and stale cranberries.
“Got an assignment,” the editor said, unsuccessfully muffling a giggle. “Revisit the USC-Notre Dame game 40 years ago, Nov. 30, 1974. Remember that one?”
Remember? Do Palm trees grow in Palm Springs?
He didn’t want a column. He wanted resurrection of a nightmare.
If you spent any extended time in South Bend, Ind. — say as a student — you will never forget. Notre Dame ahead, 24-0, late in the second quarter. USC scores a touchdown in the last 10 seconds on a short pass, Pat Haden to Anthony Davis. They go for two and miss. No big deal.
Notre Dame entered the game 9-1 and No. 5; USC 8-1-1 and No. 6. USC was a four-point favorite, mostly because the game was in the Coliseum, where Irish national title hopes often go to die.
This death came quickly, stunningly. Davis returned the second-half kickoff 102 yards. On the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame’s ballcarrier was stopped at the eight-yard line. It wasn’t a tackle; it was a total body dislocation. There were 83,552 people in the Coliseum that day. All now smelled blood.
Seconds into the final period, the Trojans led, 48-24. The final score was 55-24. The Alps haven’t seen as big an avalanche. At USC, they refer to this game merely as The Comeback. Why not The Shillelagh Stomp? The Irish left town with only three leaves on their clover.
Davis scored four touchdowns in the game and gets the bulk of the credit. The editor wanted the game revisited through the eyes of quarterback Haden and wide receiver J.K. McKay.
They were not hard to find.
Haden is USC’s athletic director, McKay its director of football operations.
The interview was in the same office, beautifully redecorated in made-over Heritage Hall, that McKay’s father and legendary football coach, John McKay, made his headquarters.
This was the easiest interview they will ever do. An old Domer wanted to talk about the 1974 game. They were pinching themselves. Could it get any better than this? It was a chance for their own version of the current Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels movie. They could have been Smug and Smugger.
But, unlike the 1974 game, there was no piling on.
In that game, Haden threw two scoring passes to McKay and set up several others with long bombs. They had both grown up USC and Notre Dame fans, were best friends and teammates at Bishop Amat in La Puente and were both romanced by the Irish. They might have gone that way, had not the elder McKay sat his son down one night, knowing wherever one went, the other would follow.
“A lot of the stuff about us over the years has been made up,” J.K. McKay said. “But this is 100% true. He looked at me and said, ‘I need the quarterback.’”
In three seasons as Trojans, 1972-1974, they won two national titles and never lost a Pac-8 game, or a game in the Coliseum.
They are both 61. Through nearly 50 years, the bond has never loosened.
“He can’t die first,” Haden said. “I couldn’t do the eulogy.”
Said McKay: “Ditto.”
Both are lawyers, both had successful careers away from sports, each was best man in the other’s wedding. Both returned to USC when duty called. When Haden became athletic director, he immediately called McKay.
“I was at the Grand Canyon, with my wife and kids, looking over the rim, when he called,” McKay said. “He told me he wanted me to run football. I thought about it for five seconds and said ‘yes.’ My wife asked me how much they were paying me. I told her I had no idea.”
They can be serious. They can also be Penn and Teller, minus the props.
McKay: “I was always open.”
Haden: “That’s because they always put a nose guard on you.”
Haden: “I can assure you, he hasn’t lost a step. Some guys you couldn’t overthrow. J.K., you could.”
McKay: “Receivers are supposed to look for the quarterbacks’ eyes. He was so short, you looked for his forehead.”
What do they remember about John McKay’s halftime speech that day?
J.K.: “Not much, actually.”
Haden: “He was in the other room, admiring himself in the mirror.”
When the game ended and the last Leprechaun had been stomped into Los Angeles soil, Haden and McKay walked back to their off-campus apartment. They lived together, of course.
“We usually got in the car and drove back,” Haden said, “but this was too overwhelming. Our last game ever in the Coliseum, our last game playing there together. I had already been accepted as a Rhodes Scholar and was thinking about that.”
McKay said, “It was amazing. The students, the whole campus, going wild.”
Later that day, Haden proposed to his wife, Cindy.
“She said she wanted to see the result of the Rose Bowl before she committed,” Haden said.
They have been married for 31 years. Before she dated Haden, she dated McKay. Of course.
Haden quickly made sure Cindy would say yes. USC beat No. 3 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl as Haden threw a late touchdown pass to McKay and added a two-point conversion.
“Kicked their butt, 18-17,” Haden said.
Notre Dame beat No. 1 Alabama in the Orange Bowl and USC won half of the national championship.
“Our foes became our friends,” Haden said.
Eventually, the typist shuffled back across campus, trying to bolster his spirits with memories of ND-SC, 1966. Irish 51, USC 0. Would an editor assign a 50-year-anniversary column on that one in two years?
Not likely. Not in this town.
Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes