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You never know. Perhaps the $1.75 million that Dr. Charles Elerding gave his alma mater to endow its punter and head coach until the end of time had nothing to do with death. Maybe death is overrated.
Nothing is certain. Perhaps it bore no relation to all the weight Elerding had lost, to all the hours he had lain awake on his pillow, staring into the darkness, envisioning cancer at work inside his body, trying not to be afraid.
After all, there were 175 other reasons why he might have done such a thing....
My god, was that how many times in his life he had watched his USC Trojans gather at the end of the Coliseum tunnel just before a game, slapping each other's helmets, banging shoulder pads, throwing sparks of red and gold into the air? Was it a quarter of a century now that he had been packing his family into a car or motor home early on Saturday mornings, beating the traffic up the freeway, setting up the folding picnic table and the blanket on the grass outside the stadium, sharing chips and cheese and wine with old fraternity brothers, smelling the steaks on the grill and snatching glimpses of the coeds when the wives looked the other way? My god, where did the time go, how did it pass so quickly?
You never know. Maybe it didn't have any connection with his mother's passing away in her sleep six months before. Who could think of Mom without seeing her head tilted toward the radio on fall Saturday afternoons, letting out a very ladylike whoop each time the Trojans scored, even up to the end when, at 93, the candle flickered out? Ninety-three years, gone like that. What happens to a life?
Perhaps it would be foolish to link Elerding's gesture to the silence he heard sometimes in the middle of the day, now that he had retired from his practice after 27 years, now that all the bedrooms had emptied and his three sons lived on their own. You see, Elerding is not the type to talk about such things. Hell, the whole thing could have been a tax write-off. You never know.
Fourth down, two feet to go. Southern Cal up 14-7, ball on the Washington 49. Third quarter, midseason, Trojans' undefeated season and No. 3 ranking at stake. Near the bench the Dr. Charles E. and Janet R. Elerding punter limbers his leg. On the sideline the Dr. Charles E. and Janet R. Elerding head football coach squints at the yard markers and ponders. In the press box Dr. Charles E. Elerding himself makes up his mind.
"I'd go for it," he says.
The doctor feels good. Cold beer and fresh peanuts at his fingertips. Glorious autumn sun aglow in the sky. Regular reports coming in: Notre Dame is busy upsetting No. 1 Miami. What a day! At a pregame brunch that very morning, he and his wife had been presented Trojan jerseys symbolizing the two positions they have endowed in perpetuity. Earthquakes may come, ozone layers may disintegrate, the earth may turn into a sweltering steambath, but one thing is sure: As long as life—and USC football—exists on this planet, there will be a Trojan punter to Umber his leg on fourth-and-two feet and a Trojan head coach to squint and decide.
"Well, maybe we should punt," the doctor hedges. "We do have the lead."