UCLA enjoys 'chance of a lifetime' with EagleBank Bowl trip

By Zach Berman
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

During a meeting on the night UCLA received a bid to the EagleBank Bowl, Coach Rick Neuheisel asked his players how many had been to Washington. Few hands were raised.

Neuheisel estimated that 70 percent of the players have never visited the nation's capital. Only 24 of UCLA's 120 players grew up outside California. Freshman running back Damien Thigpen, a Stonewall Jackson alum, is the lone player from the East Coast.

"It's a long way from home, but for a bowl game, that's exciting," Neuheisel said. "To be in a city as magnificent as Washington, D.C., as much as there is to do in Washington, the challenge for me is to rein them in rather than worry about are they going to be focused for the ballgame."

UCLA's six wins provided bowl eligibility, and the Bruins had a choice of bowl games. They could have gone to Boise, Idaho, for the Humanitarian Bowl, or possibly Detroit for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and Neuheisel wanted to bring the team to Washington for Tuesday's EagleBank Bowl against Temple.

There was risk involved -- UCLA needed Navy to beat Army on Dec. 12 to keep the Black Knights out of the bowl -- but Neuheisel thought the incentives in Washington were worth the insecurity.

"No disrespect to the Humanitarian Bowl, Little Caesars, or any other bowl -- we would have been excited to go anywhere," Neuheisel said. "But the opportunity to come to Washington, D.C., for our players, not only would it be educational, but really a chance of a lifetime. Especially considering how few have ever been."

The team had a scheduled tour of the Mall and the monuments on Sunday night, and there will be a team photo on the steps of the Capitol on Monday morning. The team's downtown hotel is a quick walk from the White House. Even with the tourist plans on the official itinerary, UCLA's players used their free time to explore the city.

Senior cornerback Alterraun Verner walked out of his hotel room with his roommate shortly after the Bruins arrived on Friday night and saw the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial for the first time.

"I'm kind of a big historic guy," said Verner, a first-team all-Pacific-10 performer. "Especially American history and that time. I'm excited to see as much as I can. I'm not limited to one thing."

Place kicker Kai Forbath once visited Washington on a school trip as a teenager, but the visit did not resonate with him like this week in Washington. Forbath, the Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's best place kicker, is a history major at UCLA with a focus on American history. The National Museum of American History excited him because the material from this past academic quarter remains fresh in his mind.

Other players discussed the desire to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the White House in person. But they're also college-aged males, and Thigpen joked that he received inquiries from his teammates about non-historical matters.

"They asked me where the girls are at," Thigpen said.

Neuheisel provided free time for the players to explore the city on their own, although the Bruins quickly realized they're not in Westwood anymore. They encountered snow on a trip to Washington State earlier this season, but they also had fun with the remains of last week's blizzard. At the end of Saturday's practice at Eastern High, the Bruins participated in a snowball fight -- a rewarding conclusion after shivering through two hours in freezing temperatures.

One of the few in the traveling party who is not a stranger to the area is Neuheisel. He played at RFK Stadium as a quarterback for the San Antonio Gunslingers in the now-defunct USFL in 1984 and 1985, pointing out that he threw for three touchdowns against the Washington Federals. He was also an assistant coach for the Baltimore Ravens from 2005 to 2007.

Since Neuheisel returned to his alma mater last season, he has occasionally made stops in the Washington area for recruiting. Thigpen left the region for UCLA, and the Bruins also have a verbal commitment from Woodberry Forest linebacker Aramide Olaniyan, a Bowie native.

Although it's a recruiting dead period and UCLA cannot provide tickets to prospective players, the EagleBank Bowl bid grants the program attention in a region that does not receive significant exposure to the Bruins during the regular season. More important to the coach, it has given the current players an experience most had never received.

"You just see the big look in their eyes," Neuheisel said. "This city makes you proud to be an American."

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