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BILL PLASCHKE

Common Ground

Often-Contentious Garfield-Roosevelt Rivalry Has a Way of Bringing Neighborhood Together, Even if It Is Being Held on Foreign Turf This Year

November 03, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

They step outside the cluttered kitchen that is Grandma's Original Tamales, onto a sidewalk brushed with a football breeze, two days before the game that brings them home again.

Three attended Garfield.

Three attended Roosevelt.

Above them flaps a homemade banner celebrating today's 65th version of this rare high school rivalry.

Around them flies the bull.

"Garfield will win just like they did last year," says salesman Richard Rodriguez.

"Oh, yeah? Who won the year before that? It will be Roosevelt," says retiree Mando Perez.

They growl, then grimace, then the strangest thing happens.

As tales cross and legends connect, they grin.

Rodriguez talks about how his best customers are Roosevelt graduates.

Perez notes he has recently attended four Garfield graduates' funerals.

Remember the time the players began walking into the stadium side by side so neither team would be singled out for fan abuse?

How about the postgame fight between players broken up by parents holding back players from their own team?

By the end of the conversation, the six acquaintances are talking about mutual friends and shared laughs.

"It may be hard for some to understand, but this game is not about football," Perez says, shrugging. "It is about friends."

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The "friends" meet again tonight at 7 in the Coliseum.

It will be Garfield against Roosevelt in a battle between two underdog schools located three miles apart in the same underdog East Los Angeles neighborhood.

The winner will remember it forever.

Ray Rodriguez, former Roosevelt star and a linebacker on the USC national championship team in 1972, once gave a speech in which he talked about playing at Notre Dame and in the Rose Bowl . . . and how none of it compared to playing against Garfield.

The loser will also remember it forever.

"The things you see after a loss are horrible," says Richard Rodriguez, who has attended every big game since 1965. "Kids crying, coaches crying, complete devastation."

For the community, however, it is simply the game that will be remembered forever.

Remembered by the writing on the chalkboard behind the counter at Grandma's. The score is annually scribbled there on the Saturday morning after the game.

People stop in front of it. They point at it. They argue over it. It brings them together. It keeps them there.

"Somebody will come in to buy lunch and start talking about bad refereeing," says Hilda Corella, an assistant manager. "Then somebody else will come up and talk about how one team got lucky. Then everybody is talking."

Corella attended Roosevelt. Her husband Ernest attended Garfield. Her boss and cousin, manager Richard Gonzales, also attended Garfield.

So she sits on the Garfield side. But she still cheers for Roosevelt.

"I cheer," she says, "then I duck."

But afterward, she celebrates, like most of the crowd celebrates, win or lose, combined alumni parties, dancing all around. In an often-ignored community, this game is special, something that can't be copied or stolen. This game is theirs.

"Because of all the first- and second-generation immigrant families at these schools, the game is like a return to Ellis Island," says Ray Santana, a Roosevelt grad and public defender. "This game is their homeland."

Which makes this year's decision to move the game to the Coliseum from East Los Angeles College pretty silly.

So what if 22,000 seats were sometimes not enough? So what if there were long lines and a full house an hour before the game?

Garfield officials, who run the game this year, decided they wanted the increased services offered by the Coliseum. In doing so, they moved one of this country's greatest neighborhood games out of the neighborhood.

Who knows how many people will be left behind?

"My streak stops this year, I'm not going," announces Richard Rodriguez, who once wore a giant bulldog head as the Garfield mascot. "This game has always been about the community, and it should stay in the community."

It says much about the rivalry that the game is a homecoming for both teams. Despite the hostilities on the field, it is the sort of event where two entire processions and bands can coexist.

Some agree that the most courageous act in recent years was not by a player, but a drum major who accidentally threw his baton across the field during a routine.

Despite booing and jeering from the other school, he calmly walked over, picked it up, and finished the act.

Was he from Roosevelt or Garfield? The guys telling the story Wednesday didn't say.

"This game belongs to us," Perez said. "All of us."

Two teams, one neighborhood.

Thirty-three years ago, Roosevelt basketball star Richard Cuadra asked Garfield prom queen Linda Contreras to accompany him to the big game.

This being their first date, she brought along her sister and a friend from Garfield, while he brought along a friend from Roosevelt.

After arriving at the stadium, Cuadra purchased the tickets, handed her one, then said the words she still remembers today:

"Meet me by the tree after the game."

With that, he and his buddy rushed over to the Roosevelt side, leaving her party to watch from the Garfield side.

"I just stood there dumbfounded," she remembered.

If you are at the Coliseum tonight, you can ask her about it.

Five years after that first meeting, Richard and Linda were married.

Today, 28 years and two children later, my two colleagues are still together and still attending the big game.

But always on the Garfield side.

"He's been making it up to me ever since," Linda said.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

*

EAST LOS ANGELES CLASSIC

Garfield vs. Roosevelt at Coliseum, 7 p.m.

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