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Family carries on after a tragic day at Rose Bowl

T.J. SIMERS

January 07, 2007|T.J. SIMERS

It's Friday, four days after the fact, and the three women in Ron Zavala's life are laughing. Lisa, 20, has been having a problem with the company computer, which proves she's Ron's kid, all right.

Patrice, 24, known as the cellphone queen in the family, gets the ringer on Dad's phone working, which means everyone in the small Glendora office at Purrfect Auto Service is now listening to the USC fight song.

"Obviously, we haven't turned the service off," wife Sandy says. "I guess I'm just waiting for him to call."

*

THERE WERE only a couple of moments remaining Monday in the Rose Bowl, the Zavala family whooping it up because, for longtime USC season-ticket holders, there's nothing like a Trojans victory.

Ron bought a huge motor home in the summer so the family could really tailgate. They had gone together to Arizona for a game, and it's still a family joke.

Ron took the motor home to the Rose Bowl days before the game, and the family spent the weekend tailgating. They got dressed up for New Year's Eve, went into Pasadena for dinner, and as Patrice says, "We haven't had that much fun in a long time."

They returned to the Rose Bowl to party into the night, and Ron joined the girls' boyfriends the next morning to play football. "The way he was throwing the ball, I'm surprised he didn't throw his arm out," Sandy says.

When it came time to go into the stadium, it wasn't soon enough for Ron. Ron's idea of showing up for a noon start is to be on hand by 8. He's always been that way -- just eager to watch his USC football.

"You miss a kickoff and he's flaming," Sandy says. "So we go into the Rose Bowl, but he knows we're going to be late and he's complaining. Now the tunnel is clogged with people and they're stopping us from getting to our seats. And I'm praying to God, please don't let them kick off."

They make it in time, Ron, Sandy, Lisa and boyfriend Brady sitting behind the goal post at the Michigan end, while Patrice and boyfriend Noah sit three sections away because the family could not secure six seats together.

Lisa has a new camera, a Christmas gift from Dad, and she realizes the game is ending and she hasn't taken any pictures. Lisa is Daddy's little girl, working with him at the auto store every day, and so she asks someone to take their picture together.

Ten minutes later, just before the game ends, Ron falls on top of his daughter. He doesn't say a word, doesn't do anything, just collapses.

Some people laugh, knowing it's been a long day of drinking for some. Lisa figures right away her diabetic father needs some food. Sandy asks him if he's OK, and as soon as they prop him up, Ron falls the other way toward Brady.

"The whole section goes quiet, and it's obvious it's not some old drunken fool who has fallen down," Sandy says. "I'm standing there about to lose my cool because they're trying to find a pulse and can't, 90,000 people and I'm yelling they can't find a doctor. Then this man looks at me, he's got a Michigan sweatshirt on, and he says, 'I'm a doctor.'

"The paramedics and firemen arrive, they're trying to revive Ron and the doctor in the Michigan sweatshirt steps back and says, 'I did all I can. I'm an obstetrician.' "

It's hard not to laugh the way Sandy tells the story, and she appreciates that. "I had exactly the same reaction," she says. "He probably thought I was insane, but 90,000 people and I get an obstetrician. If I had asked for a lawyer, I would have been swarmed."

The paramedics work on Ron. Three sections over, Patrice notices the commotion and figures Lisa's boyfriend has probably gotten into a fight. Everyone else just stands and watches. Sandy says, "But God bless those paramedics the way they worked. They never stopped. Never."

*

THE GAME ends, the USC celebration on the field starts and officials close a tunnel so Ron, medics and his wife can get to an ambulance.

"I'm still thinking he will come around," she says, although five attempts to shock him fail to get any movement. "I'm such a Pollyanna, I think once we get to the hospital magically things are going to get better. But two seconds after we're there ... [it's over]. I'm expecting an adrenalin shot to the heart, a glucose shot, and I'm thinking, what's the matter with these people, you don't have any needles?

"This man just turned 53. He's at a football game, he loves USC, he's having the best weekend ever with his family, he's feeling fine and he drops dead."

She's told it's sudden cardiac arrest, and it's sudden, all right. "If someone told me I would be going to the Rose Bowl and coming home a widow, I would never have believed it."

*

SANDY AND Patrice return from White's Funeral Home in Azusa, dropping off the clothes Ron will be wearing for Monday's viewing.

They are going to have Ron dressed in the USC shirt he bought at the Rose Bowl -- under his white shirt and suit. Sandy is also putting one of his favorite USC hats in the casket along with a copy of Tuesday's sports section on the Rose Bowl.

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