For all practical purposes, Petros Papadakis is pretty used to being peppered with pickled, poison-pen proclamations.
“The Twitters and texts and emails all blow up this week,” he was saying the other day.
It’s the buildup for USC-UCLA. It’s part of the deal. You can’t always just shoot the messenger. Unless . . .
“Friday, my mailman left me this elaborate drawing of a Bruin squashing the head of a Trojan,” he said.
So now, they’re going postal on him.
If neither the Trojans nor the Bruins had anything to really gain from Saturday’s annual meeting at the Rose Bowl – aside from city bragging rights — Papadakis might have had more to lose. Having to step into the broadcast booth for the second year in a row, attempting to convince everyone watching and listening that he has no agenda, might seem like a losing cause.
“There’s so much pride, and anger, and bile,” Papadakis said of the rivalry game. In some sense, it’s the same with the reaction he gets.
As a former Trojans tailback who also shoots his mouth off daily on his sports-talk radio show, Papadakis exposes himself to criticism from either side when, as the Pac-10 analyst for Fox Sports Net, his job is to explain what’s going on.
“It’s fun and I love doing it,” he admitted before Saturday’s game. “But it’s really a challenge to sound impartial.”
Not to be impartial. But to simply come across that way.
“All the USC people think I overcompensate and I’m too critical,” he lamented, “and all the UCLA people just hate me without hearing what I say. It’s a hard perception to get around.”
New USC athletic director Pat Haden has admitted that, during his many years analyzing Notre Dame games for NBC, he would deep down be pulling for USC in their annual rivalry game but had to make sure he called things down the middle.
Papadakis says he’s trying to do the same thing. But for him, maybe that’s tougher. It reminds us of a line that Papadakis once used to describe himself: “I’m a walking contradiction. I’m the only person in the world who can sit on the fence and watch myself go by.”
Sure, Papadakis (1997-200), his father, John (’70-’71) and his older brother Taso (’94-’96) played at USC. But then, his younger brother, Demetri, walked on as a fullback at UCLA and was on the roster last year. A shoulder injury at the start of this season caused him to leave the team and concentrate on his studies. His cousin, Ana, was also a UCLA pole vaulter.
For what it’s worth, Papadakis was all but sure he’d be going to UCLA out of Palos Verdes Peninsula High until the school canceled his recruiting trip.
“They dropped me,” said Papadakis, who ended up taking a scholarship to Cal before transferring to USC. “But I never harbor any animosity.”
Take the way last year’s game ended, when USC faked running out the clock, scored on a long touchdown pass, and then jumped around in celebration on the sidelines, leading to UCLA players yelling back and coming on the field.
“I thought USC’s reaction inflamed UCLA – that was a bad deal — and in that moment, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to handle it,” said Papadakis.
Play-by-play man Barry Tompkins ended up saying during the fracas: “This takes the shine off the win, to be honest with you . . . funny game, isn’t it?”
“Hilarious,” Papadakis replied with heavy sarcasm.
“That rubbed UCLA the wrong way,” he said later. “Not that you can be rubbed the right way playing your arch rival.”
Or that anything Papadakis says can rub anyone right.
So, today, where does Petros stand in the rivalry? As far away from those trying to dissect his every word.
At around dusk today, he was asked to join the UCLA radio pregame game with Wayne Cook and Matt Stevens. Producer David Vassegh tried to convince Papadakis it wouldn’t be wise, saying he feared for his safety. Papadakis had a TV production meeting anyway and couldn’t make it. Just as well – he snuck into the UCLA radio booth and had a hot dog pre-game meal with Bruins play-by-play man Chris Roberts.
“No one threatened me,” Papadakis said.
During the broadcast, there weren’t many opportunities for the viewers to second-guess his observations. Usually, it depended on whether you watched the game with your heart instead of your eyes.
Late in the second quarter, the ball came lose on a carry by UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin. USC’s Malcolm Smith picked it up and ran 69 yards for a touchdown.
It only took one replay for Papadakis to calmly say: “That ball is out well before the knee came down.”
After further review, the officials confirmed as much.
Moments earlier, UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on USC receiver Robert Woods.
“They kind of ran into each other,” Papadakis said during the replay. “Not exactly sure Zumwalt meant for it to be that way, but at real speed, that’s a vicious hit. Woods did a good job protecting himself trying to absorb it. . . (Zumwalt) is explosive and instinctive.”
A USC fan’s response had to be: Why didn’t Papadakis come down harder on Zumwalt? A UCLA fan’s response could have been: How was that vicious? It was unintentional.
At the end of the day, Papadakis said he’d hope that not just USC or UCLA fans, but all of those who watched on Fox Sports Net, wouldn’t have any idea what school gave him a diploma.
“I hope I impart insight and emotion and the overall unique feel of our rivalry here in L.A., not just to the local audience but to the national audience, that’s all,” he said. “It’s nothing more than what we try to do every week.”
Interpret that as you may.