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Sam Dickerson's game-winning catch for USC in 1969 still cause for debate

Dickerson caught the game-winning touchdown pass that helped USC defeat UCLA, 14-12, at the Coliseum. Fans still argue over whether he was inbounds.

November 22, 2009|By Chris Foster
  • Former USC receiver Sam Dickerson holds a print of the play that made him famous in the rivalry game.
Former USC receiver Sam Dickerson holds a print of the play that made him… (Gary Kazanjian / For The…)

Everyone agrees on this much: Forty years ago today, USC receiver Sam Dickerson was somewhere inside the Coliseum when he was involved in two key plays that changed the course of a season -- and maybe more.

Exactly where he was is still the topic of debate.

Some joke that Dickerson's only shot at catching one late-in-the-game, fourth-down pass would have been if he were standing on Mt. Whitney.

And that follow-up touchdown grab, the one that is still cursed around Westwood? People -- well, UCLA people -- have suggested it was made somewhere near the steps of the Natural History Museum.

Whether there should have been a pass-interference call on the first play, and a touchdown ruled on the second, depends on whether your vision is framed in cardinal red or powder blue.

With USC driving and UCLA clinging to a 12-7 lead, Bruins defensive back Danny Graham was called for interference on the fourth-down play, even though UCLA witnesses said the pass to Dickerson was so high that it landed on the Coliseum track.

The game-clinching touchdown then came on a sliding catch by Dickerson near the back of the end zone, a 32-yard play with 1 minute 32 seconds remaining in the game that gave USC a 14-12 victory.

A win by UCLA would have put the Bruins in the Rose Bowl. Instead, USC made a then-record fourth consecutive appearance during a span in which the Trojans made a Jan. 1 trek to Pasadena seven times in nine years.

UCLA didn't play in the Rose Bowl again until the 1975 season, ending a 10-year absence that is the second-longest in school history, surpassed by only the current 11-year streak.

Old news?

Dickerson still hears about it from both sides, saying, "My favorite is a joke about a USC man about to romance a UCLA woman. She stops him and says, 'Only if you admit that Sam Dickerson was out of bounds.' "

So was he? "I latched on to the ball and dragged my feet because I knew I was near the back of the end zone," says Dickerson, a retired parks and recreation supervisor who lives in Modesto.

The moment resonates in USC's and UCLA's football programs even today.

USC Coach Pete Carroll had taken a road trip with some buddies and was sitting seven rows from the top of the Coliseum among a crowd of more than 90,000. "It's a great claim to fame to come to a game and be so far away I couldn't see the last touchdown," Carroll says, chuckling.

Steve Prince, then a UCLA student and now father of Bruins quarterback Kevin Prince, had better seats and a different view. "There is no way [Dickerson] could have been in bounds," Prince says, not chuckling.

The build-up

UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit, who came from Long Beach City College in 1969, was getting ready for just another game -- until he got to the Coliseum.

"We would usually get there four hours before the game and maybe 50 people would be there," recalls Dummit, who is now a financial advisor. "That day, we walked in and there were 75,000 people already in their seats. I thought, 'Hmm, this game is different.' "

Both teams were 8-0-1, the first time both had come in undefeated since 1952. Along with the Rose Bowl, a possible national title was on the line -- Michigan, coached by a 40-year-old upstart named Bo Schembechler, had upset No. 1 Ohio State earlier in the day.

"Back then, you go to the Rose Bowl or go home," says Graham, now an attorney based in Torrance.

The Bruins had been not been to the Rose Bowl since the 1965 season.

In 1966, backup quarterback Norm Dow, subbing for an injured Gary Beban, led the Bruins over the Trojans. "We were 9-1 and expected to be voted into the Rose Bowl," Dow recalls. But two days later, USC won election to the Jan. 1 game and hundreds of UCLA fans stormed onto the 405 Freeway, stopping traffic in protest.

In 1967, top-ranked UCLA saw O.J. Simpson do a 64-yard trample over its Rose Bowl and national title dreams. A year later, Simpson did it to the Bruins again.

In 1969, "O.J. was gone and we were a young team," says Jimmy Jones, who was then USC's sophomore quarterback. "USC had been pretty dominant during that run. It loomed in our minds that we didn't want to be the ones who dropped the ball."

Actress Raquel Welch, a former UCLA student, appeared at a pep rally for the Bruins the night before the game. "Unfortunately, we were sequestered in the hotel," Graham says.

Actors Bill Cosby and Anthony Quinn watched the game from around the USC bench. "Boy, UCLA got the better deal on celebrities there," Dickerson says.

The game

The tone was set by the defenses. USC's was dubbed "the Wild Bunch," UCLA's "the Quiet Bunch."

Dummit took a pounding, getting sacked nine times and having five of his passes intercepted.

"After the game, my brother and I were taking dates to a party and I was in the back seat," Dummit recalls. "I started getting cramps in my calves and my legs and my stomach. My brother had to pull over on the Santa Monica Freeway so I could get out."

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