Former UCLA football player Nick Ekbatani and former USC volleyball player… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The former UCLA football player glistened with tough, his blade prosthetic a shiny blur as he sprinted into the Rose Bowl.
This popular offensive lineman who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident 16 months ago brought the blue-clad crowd to its feet Saturday night as he led UCLA out of the locker room for the second half against Arizona State, thousands cheering the epitome of a gutty little Bruin.
If only they had seen what happened next. If only they had seen their powerful Bruins symbol jog off into the deep embrace of the popular volleyball player who has been quietly carrying him through this nightmare.
If only they had seen she was a Trojan.
His name is Nick Ekbatani, and he is all UCLA.
"UCLA has a certain grit, a certain underdog feel, and that is how I resonate," he said.
Her name is Kelli Tennant, and she is all USC.
"We're strong, we're traditional, I'm a Trojan through and through," she said.
They couldn't be more different. They couldn't be more connected.
They began dating in the summer of 2012, a couple of years after each had graduated. Their courtship had consisted of only a handful of dates before Ekbatani's motorcycle was broadsided by a taxi that crushed his left leg and led to amputation below the knee.
Tennant could have run from him. Instead, she ran to him, beginning an extraordinary journey during which they have used their disparate experiences to help each other grow.
"She is the epitome of a Trojan, and I am the epitome of a Bruin, but we have come together on this great adventure," said Ekbatani.
This Thanksgiving week is perhaps a good time to celebrate this adventure, a tale that exposes a neat little secret about this country's unique college sports rivalry.
For all its vitriol, Saturday's 83rd renewal of the USC-UCLA football game at the Coliseum is about two schools but one community, two visions but one destination, two heartbeats but one city's soul.
"I think we're just another example of how, at the end of the day, USC and UCLA is really all one big supportive neighborhood," Ekbatani said.
They were once highly regarded varsity athletes who couldn't wait to beat those kids down the street. Tennant, who was honored on the 2005 Pac-10 all-freshman team, remembers emotional volleyball matches. Ekbatani, who started all 12 games in 2008, was in uniform for the infamous 13-9 UCLA victory in 2006.
They constantly refer to their schools as their families. Yet they form a new crosstown kind of family. They have dated mostly nonstop since the accident, using the lessons from their alma mater not to tear each other down, but to hold each other together.
Tennant, 25, has used her Trojans-inspired resilience to help care for Ekbatani through his 11 surgeries and countless setbacks as he learned to walk again.
Ekbatani, 26, has used his Bruins-fed optimism to help inspire Tennant as she has advanced in her career as a local television sports broadcaster.
She comforts him as he adjusts to new prosthetics, fights through new surgeries on the constantly infected upper leg, and endures phantom pains. He challenges her to view the world in a more daring, selfless way.
Their relationship could be seen recently on the streets of Santa Monica outside their modest apartment. With Ekbatani running for the first time on his new blade. Tennant ran behind him, to check on his form, until they finished the block-long jog together in a tearful hug.
Said Ekbatani: "In many ways, I am blind and she is my eyes."
Said Tennant: "He is the one who has helped me see."
Their competing schools have come to support them. Ekbatani is currently working on his master's degree at USC through a Swim With Mike scholarship for physically challenged athletes. Tennant consistently finds inspiration in UCLA athletes through volleyball camps and her television jobs.
"They're always hassling each other about their schools, but I really think that's another way of flirting," said Paige Killian, a close friend of Tennant. "For them, this USC-UCLA thing is all love and laughter."
It started with an email from the UCLA kid to a USC administrator. Ekbatani was a family friend of Tim Tessalone, USC sports information director, so he asked him for advice in starting a career in broadcasting. Tessalone recommended that, among others, he should contact Tennant, who was a freelance reporter for several local networks.
"I thought it would be good to set him up with some former athletes who were broadcasters, I thought Kelli would be a good role model," said Tessalone, chuckling. "I guess she turned out to be a little more than a role model."