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It doesn't run in the Tyler family

Wendell, one of the all-time best at UCLA, doesn't mind that his son is going to play for USC

November 29, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Here comes the question, the one Wendell Tyler has learned to expect. He laughs and says, "Oh, man."

It is morning, still early enough for the former UCLA football star to be drinking coffee, calling into the bedroom for his son.

That would be Marc Tyler, one of the top high school running backs in the nation. The same Marc Tyler who will soon head for college -- at USC.

"He was a Bruin fan growing up," Wendell offers by way of mitigation.

Marc emerges on crutches, his leg broken in a playoff game a week earlier. He wears a USC sweatshirt and a USC cap tugged down over a deadpan expression.

"I still like the UCLA basketball team," he says.

Which only makes his father laugh more.

"That's how it's always been," Wendell says. "Everybody likes UCLA basketball and USC football."

Still, the question lingers. How could the offspring of a famous Bruin -- the fifth-best rusher in school history -- end up in cardinal and gold? With the Bruins playing the Trojans at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, you have come to their Encino apartment for a more substantive answer.

They live here, south of the family's Antelope Valley home, while Marc attends a private school in Westlake Village. Their place looks exceedingly temporary, with a television on the floor, an extra mattress leaning against the wall. Among the few decorations is a USC poster.

Not that Marc is officially a Trojan, not yet. Signing day remains months off, so his promise to the team remains simply that. His repeated avowals, however, leave little doubt.

"A Trojan for life," he says, adopting the company line.

Thirty years ago, such talk would have made his father cringe.

Wendell carried the ball for UCLA during what he calls "a special time," an era when the program celebrated one winning record after another.

His junior season in 1975 still ranks among the best in UCLA history, the small, quick runner gaining 1,388 yards while leading his team past USC and then top-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

When Marc came along, Wendell guessed the boy might possess comparable skills, a suspicion confirmed while watching him play flag football.

"He dipped in, dipped back out and went down the sideline," the father says. "You can't teach that."

While Wendell had made a career of skittering around tacklers, Marc grew taller and stronger, liable to lower a shoulder. Yet they shared traits beyond that round face, similar eyes. When Marc watched film of his dad in the NFL, playing for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, he saw it.

"We move the same," the younger Tyler says.

So when Marc gained almost 2,200 yards as a junior at Oaks Christian High, people naturally pictured him in a UCLA uniform. And the Bruins recruited him early, former assistant coach Eric Bieniemy coming around.

If Wendell ever imagined his son in blue and gold, he never got pushy about it. Even now, he remains notably cautious discussing his old school.

Yes, he likes Karl Dorrell as "a good person." No, he has not stayed close to the program.

It goes like this, he says: Any burning loyalty for alma mater has been tempered by a more-recent devotion to Christianity. His life, he says, is "much bigger than hating someone from 'SC."

None of which fully explains his son's secular conversion.

The recruitment process was hectic if only because Oaks Christian, an upscale campus beside the Ventura Freeway, had gathered an all-star team led by Notre Dame-bound quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The hype was such that administrators built extra bleachers and hired security guards to walk the sideline.

As Marc narrowed his choices, Bieniemy left UCLA for an NFL job and questions temporarily arose about whether Marc could meet the school's academic standards.

About that time, the Bruins stopped coming by as often. When they eventually offered Marc a scholarship, it was too late.

Any thoughts of following in paternal footsteps had given way to watching the Trojans vie for national titles the last few years. "Being from California, everyone wants to go to 'SC," Marc says.

Oaks Christian Coach Bill Redell suggests another possible motivation.

"I think he wanted to have his own identity," Redell says. "I think he felt it might be better to get out from under [his father's] shadow."

NCAA rules prohibit the USC and UCLA coaches from discussing active recruits, so those are pretty much the only answers you will get. After a morning of being patient and polite with a visitor, Wendell says he'd rather not talk about the subject anymore.

These days, he is more concerned with his son's recovery. In a first-round playoff game Nov. 17 against Playa del Rey St. Bernard, Marc went down awkwardly.

"I heard it," he said of the injury. "I looked at my leg and it was weird."

Doctors have estimated the recovery time at four months.

With his leg in a heavy cast, Marc hasn't decided if he will brave the Rose Bowl crowds Saturday. Wendell mentions they might just as well watch on television.

Either way, Marc's allegiance will be as clear as the three letters spelled across his sweatshirt. Which raises another issue.

What about his father? Which team will the former Bruin root for?

Wendell smiles. So many questions to answer.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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