Rose Bowl: A perfect stage for the biggest moments in sports

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — I am painting the rose on the field of the Rose Bowl.

For some reason, the maintenance crew has deemed me worthy enough to hold the paintbrush, dip it in vermillion paint, and fill in the stencil that they’ve already outlined on the legendary field. I feel like one of the playing cards in Alice in Wonderland as they paint the white roses red. An event this magical should only take place through the looking glass.

But it isn’t. It’s taking place in real life, as a part of our Ultimate College Football Road Trip, and I am but a mere mortal who has come to pay respects to the beating heart of college football.

That’s what the Rose Bowl is. There is no greater sight in the sport than the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, when the sun sets and turns the San Gabriel Mountains and surrounding landscape into varying shades of pink and purple. Players take the field in what might as well be one of those old Microsoft screensavers.

I saw it in person for the first time on Thursday night, two days before UCLA and USC meet on the field (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). Saturday’s game will be UCLA’s senior day, and for this year’s graduating class, it will be the first time they’ve faced USC in front of fans, because of the pandemic.

Standing in the Rose Bowl’s beauty feels as significant as its history. This is one of the oldest stadiums in America. It was built between February and October of 1922 with such speed that it won engineering awards. The stadium — which was constructed on land that was once the town dump — celebrated its hundredth birthday this year. In the in-house museum, I saw a wagon wheel and license plates from 1914 that the contractors dug up when they broke ground (in other news, I was a full-grown adult when I learned that they had license plates back in 1914).

The stadium gets its name from the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade. It was an event first organized in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club (which, as far as I can tell, was just a club for people who wanted to do outdoorsy stuff). According to legend, club member Charles F. Holder said, “in New York, people are buried in snow, while here our flowers are blooming and our oranges are about to bear — let’s hold a festival to tell the world about our paradise.”

As someone who lives in New York City, I feel targeted. But it’s a hard point to argue with. 

This place has become an integral part of the American and international sports landscape since it was built. Aside from its vaunted place in college football, it has hosted five Super Bowls, the Olympic men’s soccer gold-medal game in 1984, and the men’s and women’s World Cup.

And not just any women’s world cup, but the 1999 final between the U.S. Women’s National Team and China. I remember it vividly. I watched on TV at 10 years old as I sat in one of my best friend’s living room with our entire youth soccer team. The game had come down to penalty kicks, and we all bit our nails and watched through our fingers as Brandi Chastain stared down China’s goalie. Chastain made the kick, ripped off her shirt, and we all lost our minds.

Brandi Chastain’s legendary World Cup moment

Twenty years after her iconic World Cup moment, Brandi Chastain relived her incredible moment, from what was going through her head as she stepped to the spot, to her legendary reaction.

To stand in the hallowed ground where my first experience of sports euphoria actually took place was the stuff of bucket lists. Because I grew up watching that team, I never thought women’s sports were less than men’s, even when the world I lived in tried to condition me to think so. Brandi’s moment of glory in her sports bra imprinted on me. It showed me what strength, pure emotion, and a complete disregard for arcane societal expectations looked like. It felt fitting that it took place at the Rose Bowl, a name so elegant and traditionally feminine for a place so tough and enduring.

But I’ve wanted to come here for other reasons. The setting takes my breath away on television whenever I watch the Rose Bowl each year. Not to quote myself, but here’s what I once wrote about watching Georgia and Oklahoma play in 2018:

“I’m stress-eating at this point. I’m sweating. I’m laughing. I’m tweeting. I’m short-circuiting. I’m obsessed with the Rose Bowl. I want to move into the Rose Bowl. I am a rose. I’m made of bowls. My hands are footballs. I’m laughing again, uncontrollably now, as we go to overtime for the first time in Rose Bowl history.” 

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm celebrates after the Bulldogs beat Oklahoma in a 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2018 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

I’m happy to report that it’s just as majestic in person. The Rose Bowl is the kind of place that you think might only exist in your imagination until you actually go there. It’s nestled in a valley, surrounded by palm trees and the idyllic neighborhoods of Pasadena. There is a calmness here when the stadium is empty. Most of the time, empty stadiums echo with the ghosts of crowd noise and helmet clashes.   

But the Rose Bowl feels like it’s a stately older aunt in a silk robe welcoming you into her house with a cup of tea. “What took you so long?” The place seems to ask. The best I could do was say that I will try to come back.  

Because, despite its calm, there is a kind of exhilaration this stadium inspires — Brandi ripped off her shirt here for a reason. And now, having seen it for myself, I fully understand how this place provides the perfect stage — painted roses and all — for the sports world’s biggest moments. 

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Charlotte Wilder is a general columnist for FOX Sports. She’s honored to represent the constantly neglected Boston area in sports media, loves talking to sports fans about their feelings and is happiest eating a hotdog in a ballpark or nachos in a stadium. Follow her on Twitter @TheWilderThings.

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