Last Saturday, I was one of 93,000 people at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. I was wearing Cardinal and Gold and I was on my feet for almost four hours, cheering for the USC Trojans to beat the Stanford Cardinal. For the weeks leading up to this game, winning it was deemed an impossibility, so as I stood during the third overtime period, I could hard believe we were not only still in the game but had a good chance of winning it!
With USC on NCAA sanctions and unable to compete in a bowl game at the end of the season, with a young head coach who took the job before learning of the sanctions and with a team comprised of mostly sophomores and freshmen (because juniors and seniors were allowed to leave the program without penalty to play somewhere else when the sanctions came down), the Trojans were definitely underdogs. And, consider this: we were going up against quarterback Andrew Luck, the predicted Heisman Trophy winner and consensus #1 NFL draft pick; Stanford had not lost a game this season; it had beaten those opponents by an average of 25 points. The Cardinal has the swagger down pat and uses it to their advantage. What else do you expect from a team whose motto is "win with cruelty." Yep, those Tree huggers were going to kill us on the field.
But, no one told Trojan Nation! We didn’t care about the odds (we were eight-point underdogs). Arriving near campus at 12:30 for a 5:00 pm game, the parking lots were full as fans poured onto campus. Every Trojan showed his allegiance by wearing a Cardinal T-shirt. The energy on campus was higher than it had been in years. It was a real party!
But, despite the high level of energy, we all knew we had little chance to win. Nationally televised and considered by many to be the Trojans' "bowl game," this was shaping up to be a huge contest...but also a huge disappointment for Trojan fans. How could we possibly beat those guys?
And then the game began. Stanford received the ball first and marched right down the field to a touchdown. It was immediate and painful. I thought to myself that this could be a 50-point slaughter…or worse. (Remember, Stanford wants to “win with cruelty.”) And, after dominating them for so many years, dating all the way back to the days of our treasured head coach John McKay, those Tree lovers have a lot of built-up frustration aimed squarely at the Trojans. If they beat us by a hundred points, it still wouldn’t make up for our years of dominance and theirs of futility.
But, something strange happened at that game. The Trojan football team played the Stanford Cardinal tough. We scored when we could and, after a halftime deficit, we came out of the chute in the second half and even spotted them a ten-point lead. We had them on the run; they actually looked nervous – like, perhaps, they might even lose the game. And, how did the Trojans achieve this? They played good, (mostly) error-free football; they stretched for every yard; and they worked like maniacs to contain Luck. No botched coverage on this Saturday. For a QB who had been sacked only two times in six games, our defense sacked him twice. We intercepted their golden boy and scored off the interception. We took Stanford to three overtimes, a rarity in college football. We almost had ‘em, but for a fumble into the end zone in the third OT.
Meanwhile, The Trojan Marching Band (otherwise known as The Spirit of Troy) kept the fan base pumped and energized and pretty much put to shame the ridiculously cocky Stanford band, including that always-obnoxious Tree. The spirit was back in the Coliseum…and all for a team with no chance of going anywhere at the end of the season.
I could feel it as I stood in the Coliseum that day. The tide was changing. There we all were, cheering for a team that began the game with no chance to win because that team was showing us it was a play away from winning. At the end of the third overtime, we were still in the Coliseum, cheering. We were applauding this team’s heart and soul.
It was a loss…but it was really a win. A win for the team. A win for the fans.
As the mother of a child who competed in high school varsity sports, you learn to understand that it’s not always about winning, although I’m not stupid: a win always feels better than a loss. But, you want your child to play to the best of his abilities and you want the effort to come from the heart, especially if you know there’s virtually no chance of winning. You want to see good sportsmanship and pride. You want to see toughness. If you see the effort, then you don’t really care about the outcome.
And, that’s how I felt on Saturday. The Trojan football team played hard and tough. When it was over, I shed a tear – not for the loss but for the glory of the game. This little team that couldn’t…very nearly did and it was a sight to behold.
We’ll get ‘em next year. That’s almost a given. And, no matter what, our boys will win with pride – not with cruelty – because they are Trojans.
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