Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Here's hoping the Rose Bowl makes it
UCLA and USC defection threatens history.
My Italian grandfather was an epic story teller. One of his favorite tales began in a Pennsylvania steel mill, where he worked for 18 cents an hour as a teenager.
His older brother worked there, too. So did his father. The three of them crossed the Kiskiminetas River each morning with their lunch boxes on the way to the Apollo Iron & Steel Works. By the time he was 19, my grandad was promoted to foreman in the foundry, where he poured molten steel into castings.
“That” — he used to tell me — “was making it.”
The town doctor, who was visiting the mill and foundry to check the lungs of workers, pulled my grandfather aside one day and told him, “Son, you need to get out of here.” His lungs were still healthy. A swath of his co-workers weren’t as fortunate. They were diagnosed with a variety of terminal illnesses from working around metal dust. The worst of them, a disease called Silicosis, left the mill workers with scarred lungs, unable to breathe in their final days.
My grandfather was a big Pitt football fan. Jock Sutherland’s team in 1929 went undefeated in the regular season, including wins over Nebraska, Penn State and Ohio State. Pitt, competing as an independent that season, was awarded a berth to the 1930 Rose Bowl, where it would play USC on Jan. 1.
Grandpa decided he had to get to Pasadena.
I thought about that when USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 in 2024. I wondered what might become of the Rose Bowl and its tradition. I thought, too, about the countless others who might also have rich stories involving that wonderful bowl game. Because college football has dumped tradition and nostalgia on its head in pursuit of new revenue streams.
The Rose Bowl has traditionally matched the Big Ten champion vs. the Pac-12 champion. It’s been played for more than 100 years. The bowl has occasionally deviated from its tradition to be used in the national championship invitationals, first with the BCS, and later, the College Football Playoff. But the bowl game has traditionally mattered and the hope here is that it continues to do so.
I reached out to Rose Bowl officials after the UCLA and USC defection went public a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t return messages seeking comment. If they do, I’ll update here. But while we wait, let me finish Grandpa’s story.
My grandfather and his best friend hopped a train out of Pennsylvania in late November of 1929. They hitched rides, took odd jobs, and slept where they could. The goal was to be at the Rose Bowl to watch Pitt run on the field and play that game. Their cross-country journey would take nearly a month and have some wild twists.
They ate around campfires, and got work where they could find it. Grandpa and his friend walked onto a farm along the way where workers were harvesting grain. The farmer asked, “You’ve done this before?”
They hadn’t, but nodded anyway, and went to work.
At sundown, the farmer came back, to check their progress. He shook his head, laughed, and paid them a couple of bucks. Then, the farmer told my grandad and his friend not to bother coming back the following day. They’d made a mess of the crop and stacked it upside down.
During the trip west, they also unknowingly hopped on a train that happened to be carrying then-President Herbert Hoover. Secret Service agents stopped the train, detained my grandfather and his friend, and interrogated them.
“They thought we were in the mafia,” grandad said.
They were released a couple of days later when it was determined that they were just a couple of Italian teenagers on the adventure of a lifetime.
I looked up the box score today from that 1930 Rose Bowl game. Turns out that 71,000 fans made kickoff. It was a sunny day with mild temperatures and a slight breeze. Pitt got beat 47-14 by USC. I’d love to tell you that my grandfather and his friend were among those present that day, but they didn’t make it. They arrived in Pasadena one day later — Jan. 2 — disappointed.
That attendance figure should have been 71,002.
It wasn’t a total loss, though. My grandfather looked around during his visit, saw blossoms on the trees in January, and decided that he wanted to live on the west coast one day. His mother sent him a non-refundable bus ticket home. A few years later, after he married my grandmother back east, they packed up their children and moved their little family to California.
My dad was born there not long after. He grew up and met my mother in high school. And so in some weird twist, I probably have the Rose Bowl to thank for my existence.
Is that game now dead?
Or will an expanded playoff decide to include it?
My grandfather died in 2004. He was 94. I’ve covered more than a dozen Rose Bowl games over the years. I’ve been in the stadium for a number of regular-season match-ups vs. UCLA, too. Every time I arrive, I look up at the unforgettable “Rose Bowl” sign that hangs over the end of the stadium and whisper to myself, “I made it, Gramps.”
I hope the bowl game makes it, too.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate all who have supported, subscribed and shared my new independent endeavor with friends and family in recent months. If you haven’t already — please consider subscribing.