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T.J. SIMERS

Lou Zamperini dishes it out, even at Pete Carroll

Event draws 95-year-old former USC athlete whose book about his odyssey during World War II is a bestseller. His stories at a fundraiser include jabs at the former Trojans football coach.

June 18, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Former USC and Olympic track and field star Lou Zamperini, left, speaks alongside Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll at a Winforever event at the Grammy Museum on Saturday.
Former USC and Olympic track and field star Lou Zamperini, left, speaks… (Susana Capra / Capra Photography )

Pete Carroll is back in town and onstage. He's sitting beside Lou Zamperini. They are here in the Clive Davis Theater in the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live.

It's a "Winforever" event, Pete Carroll's approach to achieving success, which probably should be called "Winoccasionally" since he moved to Seattle.

Uncle Pete is not amused, and right away it's like old times.

Zamperini is 95, a former USC student and inspirational speaker now. He's telling everyone what it was like to be stranded on a raft in the Pacific Ocean for 47 days during World War II, no drinking water after a while, wrestling sharks and eating a four-footer's liver to remain alive.

I figure the best Carroll can do is talk about the time he found himself in troubled waters against UCLA and had to suffer while explaining how he lost to Karl Dorrell's football team.

It's that kind of here-and-there night, Zamperini meeting Adolf Hitler and Carroll running from the NCAA.

PR whiz Steve Webster gives everyone a chance at evening's end to personally tell Carroll he can't win without a quarterback in Seattle.

Moderator Yogi Roth is terrific and does his best to find common ground in this inaugural "Always Compete" fundraiser with two men who mean something entirely different when they say, "Never say die."

Zamperini is talking about his bomber crashing, nine of 12 killed, a comrade later dying on the raft. He finds land only to become a Japanese prisoner, and later when released is blown away and nearly dies in a typhoon.

Roth mentions something about overcoming obstacles, and Carroll recounts what it's like to be a coach fired by the Jets and Patriots.

You know what they say in sports: You really don't learn something about someone until the bullets start flying.

Zamperini makes the 1936 Olympic team out of USC, goes to Berlin, and Jesse Owens is his roommate. Zamperini runs the 5,000 meters, finishes eighth, but has a great finishing kick. Hitler asks to meet him.

"No big deal," Zamperini explains. "We thought of him as a dangerous comedian. His mannerisms, stomping his feet, that mustache."

A decade later Zamperini is the one still living, but how many times does he think he will live no more? He turns to alcohol after the war, and cannot sleep without dreaming of "the Bird," the Japanese guard who tortured him the most.

"I dreamed of strangling the Bird every night," he says. "I got married, woke up in a cold sweat and found my hands around the throat of my wife thinking it was him. That scared me to death."

Apparently it does her as well.

"In time she's filing for divorce," he says.

Zamperini accepts her invite to meet Billy Graham. It changes his life. He never has another nightmare. He forgives everyone, he says, and goes to Japan to say so.

But the Bird won't see him.

"I never have a bad day," Zamperini says, and he's sounding just like Carroll. "I'm a great believer in Scripture: All things work together for good. The other secret is to have a cheerful countenance at all times. I think you live longer; you're healthier."

Carroll says his mother taught him to believe something good is about to happen no matter how badly things appear. Zamperini is the living embodiment of that.

Carroll is working in Seattle, but back here now raising funds to make it "A Better L.A." and to inspire through Winforever. It's just the way he has been raised, he says.

But I worry about him. I like him, tease him as much as possible, and remember when he used to keep score of who won each news conference. I always felt badly about his losing record.

He competes in everything, but I don't like his chances now of one-upping the guy beside him.

"My mother didn't believe I was dead," Zamperini says. "She put the $10,000 life insurance for me in the bank. When I came home we drew out the $10,000 and sent it back."

I'm polite. I do not mention Reggie Bush.

"The insurance company sends the money back to us. They say the announcement of her son's death was no fault of his own, so we must keep it."

The military tells him he's entitled to $7.60 in travel pay for the 47 days he was adrift in the ocean.

"They send the bill to Washington," he says. "We get a letter back saying: 'Request denied; travel unauthorized.' "

The laughter makes it easy to understand why he was on Leno recently.

And Time magazine calls "Unbroken," the detailed account of his resilience and tortured life, the top book of 2010.

"Three days after he's on Leno," Carroll tells the audience, "his book is No. 1 again in the nation."

Carroll also wrote a book; I'm sure someone read it.

"It broke my heart when Carroll left 'SC," Zamperini says with a twinkle. "But then I sat down and started thinking about it and I found four good reasons why he should leave."

Carroll leans forward.

"I'm not going to tell you what they are," Zamperini says, and how good is that?

It's now the Lou Zamperini Show, Carroll playing second fiddle and maybe beginning to understand how Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel felt.

"I was asked if anything good came out of being a prisoner of war for 21/2 years," Zamperini says. "Yeah, I was prepared for 55 years of married life."

A moment later he's talking about an interrogation he endures after being captured. He faces six Japanese officers dressed in white. One of them says he was just graduating from USC when Zamperini was arriving as a freshman.

"Out of the six he was the most obnoxious," Zamperini says. "I couldn't believe he was a Trojan, so I finally had to come to the conclusion he had to be a third-year transfer from UCLA."

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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