From the front page of Saturday’s paper. Bill Johnson is a happy, happy man today.
Bill Johnson was once so fed up with the UCLA pistol offense, he began telling people he would give away his Rose Bowl seats.
To appreciate the gravity of such a statement, consider that Johnson has missed just one home game in the past 14 years.
Now, consider too that Johnson, 77, is legally blind.
In a voice that sounds smooth and young for his age, he describes Rick Neuheisel’s offense as “awful” and the “worst thing to happen to UCLA football.”
No. 21 USC visits the No. 17 Bruins at noon Saturday, in a game that will decide the Pacific-12 Conference’s South Division title. And for the first time in a long time, there is reason for ardent fans like Johnson to not only hope for, but “expect,” a win.
Johnson and about 10 others will be in the Rose Bowl parking lot by 6 a.m., all ready to dine on tri-tip, sip beer and — well, look forward to beating the Trojans.
Wrenching away Johnson’s tickets now seems a nearly impossible task.
Six years ago, he lost his voice for two days – a price worth paying as he celebrated UCLA’s first rivalry win since 1998.
It was Dec. 6, 2006, and the UCLA football team had beaten the Trojans for the first time in eight years. A three-pronged upset, Johnson calls it: In that 13-9 victory, the Bruins won bragging rights; knocked No. 2 USC out of a Bowl Championship Series title-game berth; and kept the Trojans from tying UCLA’s rivalry win streak of eight (1991-98).
“I don’t know what more you could ask for,” says the Chino resident.
The Bruins, of course, haven’t beaten USC since. The upset was but a blip in a decade-plus of Trojan dominance, one that predated Pete Carroll by two years and has continued for another two after his departure.
Through it all, Johnson has sat in the same seat in the southwest corner of the Rose Bowl, 17 rows up from the 5-yard line. It’s not the best seat in the house, but he can feel plenty of action and has easy access from the entry tunnel to the stadium.
Johnson, a retired framing contractor, lives alone in a condominium he bought in the 1970s. A housekeeper visits every four weeks, and a barber visits every few months. Early before games, his son and daughter-in-law pick him up. He brings a Sony Walkman and a set of earphones; when the game starts, he sits back and tunes it to 570-AM. He never misses a play.
“There’s people sitting around me,” Johnson says. “They don’t know what the hell’s going on and they have to ask me.”
“He really has an advantage,” says Scott Carrier, a friend who began attending games three years ago at Johnson’s behest.
The 12-hour game days leave him exhausted on the couch the next day, but Johnson wouldn’t have it another way. To him, it’s the only proper routine for a fan.
Johnson was raised on the doorstep of the Los Angeles football rivalry, less than a five-minute walk from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that UCLA and USC then shared.
When he was 10, he began parking cars on his parents’ driveway and lawn near the corner of Figueroa and 41st.
Years later, his teenage son attended John Wooden’s basketball camp. Both were hooked for good.
Johnson began going blind when he was 30. Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited and slow-progressing disease, eroded his sight: first went the night vision, then peripheral, then the rest. By the time he was 55, he could no longer work. He still considers himself fortunate.
His memory, after all, hasn’t been affected. He recalls a time when the Bruins knocked off teams like Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan. He remembers road-tripping with family and friends to Tuscaloosa and Tucson and being treated like a king.
If UCLA beats the Trojans Saturday, it might feel like that again soon.
Bruins head coach Jim Mora said earlier this week he didn’t believe in turning the tides. He stuck to his well-worn mantra of taking one game at a time, focusing his team in a series of disconnected, one-week windows.
Watershed moments, he’d leave those for fans and the media to declare.
“I don’t think in competitive team sports you ever turn the corner,” Mora said. “It’s a long, winding, uphill road the whole way.”
Perhaps, but even long, winding paths can come with markers.
And as well as Mora has coached his players, they sometimes still admit to the magnitude of Saturday’s game.
Tailback Johnathan Franklin, just a recruit when he watched UCLA’s 2006 win, remembers thinking that the Bruins were “headed to the top.”
Defensive end Datone Jones said he committed to UCLA over USC because he wanted to avoid the bandwagon and help build a program.
Both are seniors. Both have one last chance to prove themselves right.
On a very sunny day, Bill Johnson can make out the windows in his own home.
He hasn’t seen a football in decades.
Nevertheless, he will walk into the Rose Bowl Saturday, making his way 17 rows up to the southwest corner.
With sunglasses on, earphones popped in, he will plop back in the same armchair he has held for more than a decade.
If the tide turns, he’ll be the first to hear.
Then he’ll yell himself hoarse.