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THE FREEDOM BOWL : UCLA'S CRAIG RUTLEDGE : You Can Go Home to Orange County

December 25, 1986|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

Jan. 1, traditionally a day of limelight and roses and an occasional fiesta for the UCLA football team, had suddenly become an open date on the calendar. A loss to Stanford had done the gravest damage. A tie with Washington completed it.

The Bruins wouldn't be going to the granddaddy of them all this year. Instead, they got stuck with one of the great-grandkids--a homely little moppet that goes by the name of Freedom Bowl.

When the booking was announced, strong safety Craig Rutledge's reaction was no different than any of his UCLA teammates.

"Obviously, it was a letdown," Rutledge said. "We had been in four New Year's Day bowls in my first four years at UCLA. We had been to three Rose Bowls. After a while, you come to expect it. I was disappointed."

But not altogether distraught. Once all the obligatory Freedom Bowl jokes had run their course--\o7 Freedom's Just Another Word For Nowhere Else To Play\f7 --Rutledge sat down and gave the game some thought.

He could think of worse places to spend a postseason.

First, there was the site. Anaheim Stadium.

Rutledge played his high school football a few punts north of the Big A, at Placentia's El Dorado High School. He once appeared in a prep baseball championship game there. He's an Orange County kid.

"This is home for me," Rutledge said. "I'm just looking at this as some fun. I'll have a lot of friends there, my high school coaches. How often do you get to play your last game at home?"

Then, Rutledge considered the opponent. Brigham Young.

The name rings a bell. Rutledge had rung a few, too, when UCLA opened the 1985 season at BYU. He made 10 tackles and one interception he will never forget.

"They were coming off their national championship, and Robbie Bosco was their quarterback," Rutledge said. "In the first quarter, he throws this pass that I intercepted and returned for a touchdown. A 65-yarder."

That touchdown was the game's first, breaking an early 3-3 tie. Noting the fact that UCLA rallied in the final minute for a 27-24 victory, it was also a significant touchdown.

"A fun game," Rutledge recalls.

So, maybe some school from the desert will be hogging UCLA's old glory in the 1987 Rose Bowl. So, maybe hated USC will be on your TV dial New Year's Day, taking on Brent Fullwood and the Auburn Tigers. So, maybe Rutledge will end his collegiate career in a bowl that was not even around when he enrolled in UCLA in 1982.

So?

Rutledge looks for silver linings and suggests that Tuesday's Freedom Bowl is more than a football game for UCLA. He calls it a mission, a humanitarian mission.

"Bowl games have done a lot for UCLA over the years," Rutledge said. "Maybe we can put something back into a bowl. Maybe we can help the Freedom Bowl.

"UCLA has to be great for the Freedom Bowl. This is like a home game for us. We'll bring a lot of fans.

"The Freedom Bowl is just trying to establish itself, and maybe we can keeping it rolling, so it can have another game. Having UCLA can't do anything but help."

It has already. Freedom Bowls I and II each failed to draw more than 31,000 fans, but advance tickets sales for Freedom III have reached 42,000.

For Rutledge, the trek from Placentia to Anaheim, five years later, has been a strange and twisted one.

Consider these highs and lows:

High: Rutledge came to UCLA generally regarded as the finest high school defensive back to come out of Orange County. At El Dorado, Rutledge had been a three-year starter, a two-time All-CIF selection, county defensive player of the year as a senior and a prep honorable mention All-America.

Low: Yet, after a freshman redshirt season, there was some doubt as to whether Rutledge would ever play at UCLA. Too slow was the rap. He spent 1983 buried on the special teams and began 1984 on the bench.

High: His career in desperate need of a break, Rutledge received two in early 1984. First, Joe Gasser went out with an injury. Soon after, Dennis Price followed. Suddenly, the position of strong safety was left wide open. Rutledge stepped in and immediately led the Bruins in interceptions with five.

Low: Opening 1985 as the incumbent starter at strong safety, Rutledge's knee pulled a trifecta on him. In a span of nine months, Rutledge underwent three arthroscopic knee operations--August '85, November '85, Spring '86. He still managed to start nine games in 1985 and play about half of the 1986 Rose Bowl.

High: An All-Pac-10 senior season, which included the team lead in tackles (96) and interceptions (6)--half of the interceptions coming in the Oregon State game. At the Bruins' postseason football banquet, Rutledge was named UCLA's most valuable player on defense. He accepted an invitation to play in the Japan Bowl, a January all-star game for graduating seniors.

When Rutledge looks back on the past five years, he cannot suppress a smile and a shake of the head.

"I got more out of UCLA than I ever dreamed of," he said. "I started for three years when, at first, it looked like I'd never be more than a special teams player."

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