This is just about the dumbest place you can wedge yourself on a Saturday afternoon — the Trojan campus bookstore, about an hour before a USC-UCLA football game. It’s sweating room only, digging through stacks of marked-up sweatshirts on a post-Black Friday frenzy with the intent on making it out of there and over to the Coliseum by kickoff.
Unfortunately, it was a case of painting myself into this cardinal-and-gold corner with a previous numbskull move.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa . . .
First, a little more context.
Fr. Tom Kelly will tell you it’s not a sin at all to root for USC. Even if they’re taking on rival Notre Dame. Just don’t tell his bosses.
“You know there are more Catholics on that USC coaching staff than there are on Notre Dame’s,” contends Fr. Tom, not to be confused with the former Trojan Hall of Fame broadcaster by the same name, and values.
One of those Trojan Catholics happens to be Ed Orgeron.
Fr. Tom has become one of Orgeron’s major supporters these days, believing his head coaching status should be changed from interim to permanent. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe Fr. Tom says extra prayers for Coach O.
Only because once upon a time, he was asked to do so.
It goes back to a story Fr. Tom tells about being outside church one day after a Christmas Day late-morning Mass, and meeting a woman out on the steps who engaged him in a conversation. She said she was from Northern California.
And she happened to be wearing a USC pin on her jacket.
“Hey, USC . . . I’m a big fan of the program,” Fr. Tom told her.
“Well, my son is one of the coaches for the team,” she replied.
She then turned and yelled: “Edward! Come over here and meet this priest.”
Over came Ed Orgeron, most likely wondering what his mother’s ulterior motives might be.
“I would appreciate it if you kept him in your prayers,” she continued, with her son still standing there.
Fr. Tom said that could be arranged.
To emphasize she meant business, Mrs. Orgeron added: “You know, I’m a Marine.”
Fr. Tom, who has done a lifetime of ministry work with those in the armed forces, which has taken him on trips to the Middle East, said he felt himself physically straight up as she told him that.
In retelling the story now, Fr. Tom says he feels he got a keen insight — from mom herself — as to what makes Coach O the man he is today, and win or lose Saturday, he had the right stuff going forward.
I had learned more about Fr. Tom’s affection for USC a couple years ago, when my wife and I were at his Manhattan Beach family house for dinner. We ate on the patio, and because it was a cool night, Fr. Tom went inside and came out with a USC jacket for me to wear.
“You keep that,” he insisted when I tried to return later as we were leaving.
“I want to see you wear that.”
And ever since, Fr. Tom hasn’t forgotten about that jacket.
“Hey, next time I see you at a USC game, wear that jacket, would ya?” he asks.
It causes me to straighten up.
So now it’s about a year ago, on the day of the USC-UCLA football game at the Rose Bowl. On that Saturday morning, I made a trip to a Santa Monica homeless shelter to help give out donated clothes from our church.
I reached into the closet and grabbed the first jacket I could reach as I left the house. A USC jacket. One of several I probably have in there.
The chill of the November morning made it all the more vital that those in need received as many blankets, shirts and shoes as we could scrounge up for that monthly visit.
As I was pouring cups of coffee for those waiting in line, one of clients there noticed my USC jacket and started talking to me about how the Trojans were going to be beat the Bruins that afternoon.
Here was someone who needed this jacket more than I did. Without him asking, I took it off and handed it to him. Talk about making someone happy — and warm.
It only took about 10 seconds to realize: That was the jacket Fr. Tom gave to me.
If God was testing me on this one, I thought I could get a pass. As much as I wanted to get that particular jacket back, I thought that, of all people, Fr. Tom would one to understand what just happened.
But then again . . .
“Hey you still have that USC jacket?” Fr. Tom asked not long after that.
A wave of guilt not to hurt his feelings, instead of confiding about how an act of goodwill, somehow came over me.
Is it kosher to lie to a priest?
“The only way I wouldn’t have it is if a homeless person needed it more than me,” I said, trying to gauge the situation.
To Fr. Tom, it meant it was still in my possession.
Great, now I’m skirting the truth to a priest. Where’s a good act of contrition when you need one?
Or, I could just replace the jacket and not tell him.
In other words, make it worse.
Last week, Fr. Tom called to say he was able to break free from his current post at Vandenberg Air Force Base and would be able to get out to Saturday’s USC-UCLA game. He’d got tickets through his close friend, Dr. Bill Stetson, the former Trojan All-American volleyball player and a top orthopedic surgeon in Southern California.
“Hey, wear that jacket to the game, would you?” asked Fr. Tom. “I’ll try to find you at the tailgate.”
That didn’t happen, because we were arriving late to the game after taking the Thanksgiving holiday to see family in Arizona.
As we’re driving somewhere near the Salton Sea, the cellphone rings.
“I want to see you at 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday,” Fr. Tom said on the other end. “And wear that jacket! If USC wins, I want to see you there in that jacket in the front row.”
Did I mention how many sporting good stores, department stores, websites and even Salvation Army stores between L.A. and Yuma I’ve searched the last few days for a USC jacket that looked just like the one he gave me?
This last-ditch effort led me to the temptation of trying to find a replica jacket at USC book store Saturday afternoon. Nothing.
Except this one red sweatshirt with the large “USC” letters on the front that looks similar. It’s just not the same jacket.
I grabbed it anyway. How much deeper can I bury myself in all this?
The truth, sure, it may set me free in this scenario. As well as begging for forgiveness. But as of late Saturday night, the plan is to be there bright and early Sunday morning, front pew, wearing this brand new USC sweatshirt — no matter if the Trojans win or lose to the Bruins.
So help me God. And Coach O.