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BILL PLASCHKE

A friend across the line

The Roosevelt-Garfield rivalry brings together Jose Victoria and Chris Moreno, who are inseparable, except for tonight.

November 06, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

They sit next to each other at the kitchen table like oversized stuffed animals propped up on a bedroom shelf.

They are grown young men, but with the eyes of children.

They are natural enemies, but with the hearts of brothers.

"You're stronger," Jose Victoria says.

"You're faster," Chris Moreno says.

They grew up together in this East L.A. neighborhood, in the shadow of a freeway, bars on their windows but freedom in their friendship.

They were in grade school together, Boy Scouts together, youth sports together, separated only by six cluttered blocks that they would happily skip to share a tamale dinner or Madden marathon.

Victoria is tall and thick with a smooth, boyish face, Moreno is shorter and rounder with a beard, but they act like twins.

"We were always the two biggest kids," Victoria says.

"So we just sort of stuck together," Moreno says.

Meeting for this interview at Victoria's house this week, they laugh at each other's jokes, finish each other's sentences, pat each other on the back in the firm but gentle way of those who are connected.

"My best friend," Victoria says.

"Yeah, best friends," Moreno says.

All of which shades this most vibrant of Friday nights in a deep streak of vicious.

For the 75th time in this city's greatest sports rivalry, soul mates like Jose Victoria and Chris Moreno will be asked to tear each other's heart out.

Victoria is a senior defensive lineman for Garfield High. Moreno is a senior offensive lineman for Roosevelt High.

At East Los Angeles College tonight, their teams will meet in that street-splitting battle for neighborhood ownership known as the East L.A. Classic.

Victoria will rush the quarterback. Moreno will line up directly across from his buddy and try to stop him.

After spending 18 short years living shoulder to shoulder, they will spend two long hours fighting helmet to helmet, taking their place in a battle that started long before they were born, trying to forge a memory that will last the rest of their lives.

Their words say it won't be hard. Their voices say it will be nearly impossible.

"You know, when the game starts, the friendship thing goes away," Victoria says.

"Oh yeah, sure," Moreno says.

"But I mean, if I knock you down, I'll pick you back up," Victoria says.

"Oh yeah, same here," Moreno says.

It's easy for the fans, as many as 25,000 packing the 20,000-seat stadium, cheering and booing everything from their rivals' quarterbacks to their tuba players, emotions flying far from the fray.

It's harder for the players, who can't just duel with their mouths, who actually need to block the buddy who once loaned him lunch money, or tackle the pal who once saved him from a bully.

"This is not like a match between two rival teams in some English soccer league," says Javier Cid, the Roosevelt coach. "This is like a match between the Williams sisters, this is a game of family."

The schools, while separated by about six miles, are part of the same long block that spans generations of neighbors torn in their allegiances.

This isn't like USC-UCLA, where some of the competitors simply grew up near each other.

Victoria and Moreno grew up with each other. Just look at their clothes.

"I remember wearing a T-shirt once that really felt tight on me, and I was like, hmmm," Moreno says.

"Yeah, it was a shirt you borrowed from me one night when you slept over," Victoria says.

This isn't like the Dodgers and Angels, who might be seeing each other for the first time in a year.

Victoria and Moreno talk at least three times a week, hang out on weekends, and share the most personal memories.

"Remember that time I beat you in a McDonald's eating contest?" Victoria says.

"Yeah, I quit because you were disgusting," Moreno says.

Because of position changes and injuries, they have lined up across from each other for only one play in their careers, last season during an extra-point attempt.

However, playing on opposing youth league teams in eighth grade, Moreno hit Victoria so hard, he gave him a concussion.

"Man, that hurt," Victoria says.

"I felt bad for a long time," Moreno says.

Tonight they cannot afford to feel bad. Not with both players considered team leaders and important cogs. Not with all eyes watching them.

"My friends are all saying, 'Ohhh, you're going against your homeboy, how you gonna handle it?' " Victoria says.

"I hear the same thing and I'm like, 'Hey, I'll be cool,' " Moreno says.

For two kids who never asked for any of this, it will never be any hotter.

They met in second grade at Our Lady Of Guadalupe School, the two biggest kids in a class photo saved by Victoria's mother, and soon became inseparable.

They would play basketball on a goal in Victoria's backyard, run errands for candy money at a local market, and even act together on a local drama club stage.

"Remember those Shakespeare plays we were in?" Victoria says.

"Yeah, like the one where I had to play a girl," Moreno says.

"Almost as bad as the one where we had to sing," Victoria says.

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