LOS ANGELES — Walking the tunnel that leads from the locker rooms to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s playing surface can sometimes feel like a vortex between worlds.
Head to the east, and you’re under the brilliant illumination of the stadium’s lights, the iconic Olympic torch ablaze, treading across the same turf that forged the legends of Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau, Reggie Bush.
Trek to the west, and the same tunnel spits you out to exit gates and the parking lot designated for media (prior to this season, anyway. The ongoing construction that limited the Coliseum’s seating capacity in 2018 also moved media parking to a parking garage on the edge of campus).
Opposite ends of the same, short walkway lead to a dreamlike atmosphere — only, where the dreams are very much reality — and back to the quot-unquote Real World. The tunnel’s significance never struck me quite as profoundly as it had last Saturday, following Notre Dame’s 24-17 defeat of USC.
Because the home and visitor locker rooms at the Coliseum are adjacent, and postgame media availability’s for both winning and losing teams is held in the tunnel, the scene every week offers an insightful snapshot into the wide emotional spectrum of football. Notre Dame’s two most recent trips to the Coliseum may be the most pronounced examples in my five seasons covering both USC and college football at-large, with Brian Kelly peppered with questions about his future in 2016, and USC talking Rose Bowl.
This year, it was Clay Helton bombarded with speculation about his job status, while Kelly and the Fighting Irish downplayed Playoff chatter through unconvincing smiles.
Amid the din of juxtaposed hot-seat and national championship conversation, I talked for a few minutes with USC linebacker Cameron Smith. Smith’s otherwise illustrious college career came to an end unceremoniously in the loss.
Always exhibiting an even-keeled temperament addressing reporters, Smith didn’t act glum; rather, he offered perspective.
“It’s been fun. I talked to a bunch of guys walking off the field, and we had some really good times here,” he said. Smith added he plans to get some rest before getting an early jump on his NFL preparation; making the best of the bad situation the Trojans face with no bowl game to send off the seniors.
Talking to Smith upon completion of his final USC game, memories of interviewing the linebacker following his first game in September 2015. I formulated this column in my head in the days since Saturday’s contest, reflecting on Smith’s relatively upbeat attitude — not from some talk show, fake tough guy He’s not sadder ’cause he doesn’t want to win! perspective. Rather, I admired the youthful embrace of what’s next; any melancholy is my own projection.
I sometimes rage against the invading forces that threaten to corporatize the sport more than it already has been: the astronomic rise of coaching salaries and the omnipresence of the College Football Playoff are chief offenders. I understand that in doing so, I’m tossing buckets of the tide back into the Pacific.
There’s no stopping what qualifies as progress, just as there’s no stopping the passage of time. The past four seasons have flown by, a realization that hit me especially hard thinking how I interviewed Cameron Smith following his first and last games.
An element of covering college football that’s secondary in my love for it, but that still deserves mention, is that it’s college. I write this piece on my birthday, reaching a milestone in my 30s on which I won’t elaborate because typing the number into existence feels too much like another step toward braided belts, tucked-in polos and white Nike Monarchs. But you can probably figure out my age when I explain that I watched Drew Brees in the Rose Bowl Game my senior year of high school, and followed his first Playoff season with the San Diego Chargers during a latter semester of my time in college.
That he and Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith — both of whom I paid special attention to while an undergrad — are all still doing their thing in the NFL makes me feel somewhat less washed. Ultimately, though, the NFL is still a business.
College football embodies the exuberance of college life. Professional football is a more polished game, sure, but some of the imperfections inherent with being played by 18-to-23-year olds give college football character. The game has a quality that just feels more celebratory; like anything is possible. It’s the difference in walking the tunnel to a landscape of legends and dreams, and driving out into the mean streets.
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