USC-Texas relived: An oral history of what the players remember from the 2006 national championship

USC running back Reggie Bush walks off the field after his second quarter fumble to Texas during the 2006 national championship game at the Rose Bowl.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
Matt Leinart, Vince Young, Lendale White and others recount the 2006 national championship game between USC and Texas at the Rose Bowl. The Longhorns beat the Trojans, 41-38. (Video by Zach Helfand and Robert Meeks / Los Angeles Times)

USC-Texas relived: An oral history of what the players remember from the 2006 national championship

The confetti was still falling as John Walker hobbled away from history and into an empty locker room.

He was 22. He had just played the biggest football game of his life. And he had lost.

Nauseous, he buried his head in his hands and he wept for he’s not sure how long.

“An eternity,” he said.

He kept asking himself: “Is this it? Is it over?”

John Walker, a cornerback from the San Fernando Valley, played a bit role in coach Pete Carroll’s record-setting era at USC, but this game is forever ingrained in him: The night USC and Texas played perhaps the greatest college football game in history.

The night a USC team thought to be invincible ended up with a big, ugly smudge on the canvas of its masterpiece.

Eleven years have passed since that evening at the Rose Bowl, and almost all the participants have moved on to things other than playing football.

They are lawyers and business owners, salesmen and coaches. Some have NFL pensions and graduate degrees. Two from USC died young. One from Texas went to jail.

Many USC players say they still haven’t watched a replay of the game.

Some say they hardly think about it at all. Some say they think about it daily. Some have never gotten over it.

Like Walker.

“Believe it or not, brother, I have not shaken it,” he said.

“I believed that it was divine at that moment, and you couldn't tell me otherwise. There was nothing in my spirit that could've convinced me that we weren't primed to be considered the greatest team in the history of collegiate sports.”

And when USC didn’t win? “It was a paradigm shift in my life as a 21-, 22-year old, just trying to figure out how the world works,” he said.

As USC and Texas prepare to play Saturday for the first time since that night, The Times interviewed more than 30 of the game’s participants — players from both sides — with Walker’s question in mind: When you play in the biggest game of your life at 18 or 22 years old, how does it change your life?

There are stories about on a player who tried would try to run away from the game, about that fateful fourth-and-two, Vince Young’s 3 hours and 59 minutes of invincibility, and what happened after:

First quarter

USC is a little surprised by the talent of Texas when the game starts, but no one doubts the outcome… until USC forces two turnovers, advances twice into the red zone and only comes away with seven points. The quarter ends in a disappoint 7-0 USC lead.

Listen to USC's Dominique Byrd, Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui and Jimmy Miller talk about the first quarter.

Second quarter

The second quarter is a wild one — with plenty of controversy. First is the most head-scratching play of the game: Reggie Bush’s attempted pitch to a teammate way downfield. Replay appears to show the ball traveling forward, which would’ve been a penalty for USC but not a turnover. The play is not reviewed. Later, USC squanders another scoring opportunity when quarterback Matt Leinart throws an interception at the goal line. And then, controversy: Texas takes the lead on a Vince Young run and pitch to running back Selvin Young. On replay, however, Young's knee is seen touching the ground before he released the ball. Officials later say there was a glitch in the replay system. There is no review. Texas takes a 16-10 lead into halftime.

Listen to USC's Chris McFoy, Kyle Moore and Brad Walker talk about the second quarter.

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Third quarter

USC has been in close games before, but usually Coach Pete Carroll makes crucial halftime adjustments. When USC begins the third quarter, it realizes there is no adjusting for Young, who continues a brilliant game. The first doubts creep in. But Texas misses a chip-shot field goal and it’s anyone’s game at the end of the quarter. USC leads 24-23.

Listen to USC's Travis Tofi, Keith Rivers and Lawrence Jackson talk about the third quarter.

Fourth quarter

Bush escapes and flips into the end zone to give USC a bigger cushion, then, after a Texas field goal, Leinart finds Dwayne Jarrett in the end zone to put USC ahead, 38-26. Some Trojans think the game is over. But there is still Young’s excellence to account for, as well as a crucial dropped pass and a famous fourth-down stand.

Listen to USC's Matt Leinart, Sam Baker, Brandon Hancock, Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui, Kyle Williams, LenDale White, Lawrence Jackson, Frostee Rucker and Texas' Michael Huff and Vince Young talk about the fourth quarter.

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Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

How do you remember the 2006 Rose Bowl? Let us know in the comments.