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Glory Day

Bill Plaschke/ THE RIVALRY/ USC vs. UCLA

Walk-on John Barnes got his shot 10 years ago on L.A.'s biggest stage and made the most of it

November 20, 2002|Bill Plaschke

MENLO PARK — A year before The Game, he watched it from the stands, having sneaked into the Coliseum bearing the student ID of a USC coed.

Three months before The Game, he dreamed about it from the bench, a fifth-string, non-scholarship quarterback who held a practice dummy.

One month before The Game, allowed into the huddle only because of injuries to others, he struggled to hide a learning disability that caused him to jumble up the plays.

Three weeks before The Game, he jumbled the plays so badly during a test that one of the coaches accused him of smoking pot.

Two weeks before The Game, another coach formed letters with his body on the sidelines to remind him of those plays.

A few days before The Game, when confirming that this kid would be actually his starting quarterback, the head coach closed his eyes and softly banged his head on a table.

Then John Barnes, the UCLA senior with a vagabond past and vague future, staggered into The Game.

It was 10 years ago this week.

Neither has been the same since.

He threw one touchdown pass against USC on an audible while his coach, Terry Donahue, was shouting, "No! No! No!"

He threw another touchdown pass on an audible that had receiver coach Rick Neuheisel shouting, "Oh my God! What is he doing?"

He threw for 384 yards that afternoon, 204 yards during a fourth-quarter comeback, and 90 yards on a game-winning touchdown pass.

He led the Bruins to a 38-37 victory over the Trojans that confirmed why The Game remains eternal.

It has no memory and holds no expectations.

It doesn't care who you were before kickoff, or who you will become later.

It is about one city, one afternoon, one moment.

John Barnes bears witness to how anyone with enough under his jersey can grab that moment.

He was starting for only the third time at UCLA. He was attending his fifth college. As a senior who had run out of time and transcripts, this was his last chance.

What he did with that chance will endure forever.

Even if, in keeping with the game's personality, his moment ended that night.

"I remember walking outside into the Rose Bowl after the game and they were cutting the grass," Barnes said, shaking his head. "Cutting the grass! It was like, man, it's over."

On the way to a Westwood party, Barnes was approached in a gas station.

Barnes took him for a fan, but he gave Barnes $5 and asked him to fill his tank on Pump No. 5.

"I went from hero to 'Five on Five,' " Barnes said.

Man, was it ever over!

Barnes never threw another pass in this country.

He never represented UCLA in another public function.

When he attended the UCLA-Stanford game recently, nobody recognized him.

When a search for him began last week, the athletic department didn't even have his phone number.

He lives today with his wife and infant in Silicon Valley, in a comfortable brick home in an upscale neighborhood full of technology soldiers succeeding in a similarly rough game.

Unless his plans change, this is where they will be Saturday, John and Cristy and baby Rowen, quietly celebrating a 10-year anniversary with baby toys and dog walks and memories of an afternoon that still outreaches description.

"About the best thing I can say about my story is, 'Only in America,' " said Barnes, now 33, but still maintaining that boyish grin while chewing sunflower seeds in his family room.

It could have been a fairy tale, but there were too many dragons.

It could have been a success manual, except Barnes says, "The road was too tough and too lonely. I could never recommend it to anyone."

It could at least have been an identity, except Barnes has shed that as easily as he once shed Trojan tacklers.

He has no videotape of the game, no souvenirs, no newspaper clippings. When he met his future wife, he was so worried about being mired in the past, he told her he had been UCLA's student manager.

He has only one photograph of himself in a Bruin uniform, one that he keeps in a home office he now uses in his job as a technology salesman.

It is of Terry Donahue hugging him while his world applauds him as he walks off the field on that November night.

That's all he needs to see.

One city, one afternoon, one moment.,

"I have been through so much in my life, there are times when I need to look back and say, 'What have I accomplished? What is there,' " he said. "For me, this game represents there."

*

The extended story of John Barnes begins with the short bus.

Growing up in Illinois, diagnosed with learning disorders that included dyslexia, he spent several years in special education.

He has not publicly revealed this before. He hopes his former teammates at UCLA will understand why.

"Every morning, running from my house to the short bus as it waited for me at the end of my driveway, all the other kids looking," he said. "That was tough."

He said the only way he could feel normal at school was through sports.

Is it any wonder, then, that when he graduated from Trabuco Hills High in Orange County, he wanted to continue playing football, even though he had no scholarship offers?

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