It was such a pedestrian football play, a simple 12-yard out pattern for a first down. Easy throw, easy catch, move the chains. There are teams of 9-year olds with more elaborate routes.
But for the first play of this particular November game in 1988, that Rodney Peete throw to John Jackson was more explosive than a 90-yard flea flicker for a touchdown. It sent a message to the other sideline and to everyone who rooted for UCLA in its home stadium.
“It was like he was saying, ‘I’m here, I’m playing, I’m accurate. It’s first down and, Oh, by the way, you guys have got deal with the normal USC team,’ “ Jackson said.
It quickly became known around town as the “measles game.”
Peete, a Heisman trophy contender that year, had been hospitalized earlier in the week with Rubeola, a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory system.
Jackson remembers the team resigning itself to Peete’s absence by mid-week. The worrisome possibility seemed to grow each day. Peete wasn’t there for Sunday film study, but some people thought he had stayed home in Arizona after the Trojans’ 50-0 trouncing of Arizona State.
On Monday, coach Larry Smith told the Trojans players he’d been hospitalized. He didn’t practice Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It started to feel like a foregone conclusion.
The first jolt of hope came Friday, when he showed up for the team’s walk-through. Nobody was getting too excited yet. Jackson saw him Friday evening at the hotel and he looked like a guy who’d been seriously ill all week. The following day, on the bus ride to the Rose Bowl, Peete wasn’t trading banter with his teammates. He didn’t have the voice for it.
Most people who walked into the Rose Bowl that day assumed sophomore Pat O’Hara would be getting his first start at quarterback. The Los Angeles Times quoted a local doctor saying Peete would get “creamed” if he played.
But Peete stunned most of the 100,741 people there by jogging onto the field for that first series. He even managed to summon enough voice to bark out the signals.
The No. 2 Trojans beat Troy Aikman and the sixth-ranked Bruins 31-22. That victory clinched the Rose Bowl and kept alive the Trojans’ national championship hopes until the following week, when they couldn’t contain Tony Rice and lost to No. 1 Notre Dame, 27-10. After the emotional carnival ride of the previous week, you could have seen that one coming from a mile away.
“The thing about being a college football player is it’s tough to get up that high for two straight weeks,” Jackson said.
Peete finished as the Heisman runner-up to Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders that year, then got drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Lions and embarked on a 14-year NFL career. He’d never again draw so many accolades just by walking into a huddle.