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The Battle To Be Top Gun
Bruce Newman
November 14, 1988
When UCLA and USC meet on Nov. 19, the teams' fortunes will be riding on the arms of their quarterbacks, the Bruins' Troy Aikman (8) and the Trojans' Rodney Peete (16), whose personal shoot-out will be for the Heisman Trophy
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November 14, 1988

The Battle To Be Top Gun

When UCLA and USC meet on Nov. 19, the teams' fortunes will be riding on the arms of their quarterbacks, the Bruins' Troy Aikman (8) and the Trojans' Rodney Peete (16), whose personal shoot-out will be for the Heisman Trophy

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Nearly 40 years ago Raymond Chandler described California as having "the most of everything and the best of nothing." The state has come a long way since then, as has Los Angeles, the city that Chandler depicted so unflatteringly. Indeed, L.A. now has twice as many superb college quarterbacks as any other town, and undefeated USC and once-beaten UCLA, schools that will renew their crosstown rivalry in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19, could finish the season with the most victories, the most Heisman Trophy candidates, the most of everything two teams sharing the same area code could want—except a national championship.

What is immediately at stake in the game next week in Pasadena is the Pac-10 race and the obligatory trip to the Rose Bowl for the conference champion. USC's hopes for a national championship depend on a victory over UCLA, followed by an impressive win on Nov. 26 over what is expected to be an undefeated and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. In this scenario, the second-ranked Trojans can do no better than hold their ground in the polls with a victory in the Rose Bowl over a pretender from the feeble Big Ten. A defeat would be unthinkable. UCLA, with a loss two weeks ago to Washington State, has virtually no chance for the national title and will be out to claim the role of spoiler.

The outcome of the game may also determine the winner of the Heisman Trophy, which is likely to go to either UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, 21, or USC quarterback Rodney Peete, 22, who will lead their respective schools into battle. Aikman, the 6'3�", 217-pound senior with the sloe eyes and quick release, came into this season as the favorite, and he isn't terribly enchanted with the idea of sharing the glory with Peete or anybody else. "Rodney's a great player, but I think it's unfortunate that the two of us always have to be talked about together," he says.

The 6'2", 195-pound Peete is cordial to Aikman, but he, too, is not ecstatic about having to share a stage that might well have been his alone. "You do get tired of hearing it sometimes," Peete, also a senior, says, "but it's not a rivalry between him and me. I'm going to do what I do and not put a lot of pressure on myself trying to live up to somebody else's standards for me."

Aikman was more worried that the people back home in Oklahoma might think he was putting on airs, going Hollywood. "Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody," Chandler wrote in his 1949 novel The Little Sister. "Out of a Texas carhop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blas� and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt." Aikman, though hardly a nobody when he arrived in L.A., is concerned. "Most people assume you change with success," he says. But he has not changed since he left Oklahoma two years ago.

Aikman's family actually did The Grapes of Wrath migration in reverse, abandoning the suburbs of Southern California when Troy was 12 for a farm in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. Aikman spent his childhood in Cerritos, a part of L.A.'s great eastward sprawl. Cerritos is the kind of town where children are encouraged to believe that anything is possible as long as they don't expect too much, and there are no such things as dead-end streets, only culs-desac named after various species of ferns. Aikman's father, Ken, who was laying pipe in the oil fields of California, put his family on a truck one day and moved them to a farm five miles outside Henryetta, Okla., a town of 6,000 in the heart of what was once the Dust Bowl.

"I hated it," Aikman says. "I just couldn't understand why we moved there. My friends were in California, and I was already doing well in sports there." But the kid quickly adapted. "Within a couple of months it felt like I had lived there my whole life," he says.

It had always been a source of considerable civic embarrassment that the Henryetta High Fighting Hens fielded such mediocre football teams. There was a suspicion among Aikman's teammates that the name wasn't helping. "We held a school board meeting to try to get it changed," he says. "But all the old codgers in town said, 'Hell no, if we had to put up with it, so do they.' "

Actually, if it hadn't been for the big turnaround in the Fighting Hens' fortunes during Aikman's junior year, he probably wouldn't even have considered playing college football. Henryetta High got off to an 0-8 start that season with Aikman at quarterback, but by winning their final two games in a conference that had only four teams in it, the Hens succeeded in qualifying for the state playoffs with a 2-8 record (though they lost in the first round). "The whole town was ecstatic," Aikman says. "They had never had that kind of success, and they didn't know what to do."

It didn't take them long to figure it out. Expectations were raised so high that after the team went 6-4 the next season. Aikman's senior year, the town fired the coach.

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