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‘Who runs the city?’ John Humphrey and Calen Bullock of Pasadena prepare for UCLA-USC rivalry reunion

They shared the same sideline at the Rose Bowl and celebrated rivalry wins together as teammates for Pasadena Muir High, but when UCLA’s John Humphrey and USC’s Calen Bullock return to their hometown’s cherished stadium Saturday, only one Pasadena native gets to claim bragging rights.

“In the back of our heads, it’s going to be like, ‘Who runs the city?’ ” Humphrey said with a grin.

Competition between UCLA and USC stands out for numerous local ties that cover the 12 miles between the two campuses and beyond. Part rivalry, part reunion, Saturday’s game at the Rose Bowl pits former high school teammates against each other in a matchup worth more than just local supremacy.

No. 7 USC can clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game with a win. Getting to eliminate No. 16 UCLA from contention in the process would be an extra rivalry bonus.

While Trinity League powers Santa Ana Mater Dei and Bellflower St. John Bosco lead the way with nine and 12 players, respectively, playing for the teams, only three local high schools — Muir, Gardena Serra and Simi Valley Grace Brethren — boast starters on each side of the rivalry this year. Earning the distinction and playing in their hometown makes this weekend’s high-stakes game even more special for Bullock and Humphrey.

“Us coming from the same high school, we’re trying to motivate everybody from our high school really,” Bullock said. “That’s a big deal for us.”

Serra alumni Max Williams and Devin Kirkwood, of USC and UCLA, respectively, were stalwarts in the defensive backfield before recent injuries. After leading Grace Brethren to back-to-back CIF Southern Section championships, Jay Toia and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou are now anchoring defensive lines at UCLA and USC, respectively.

Hearing that his former players made the short list of high school teammates-turned-rivalry starters, Josh Henderson let out a deep exhale.

UCLA defensive lineman Jay Toia reacts on the bench after a game against Washington on Oct. 16, 2021, in Seattle.

(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

“Honestly, it is surreal,” said Henderson, who coached at Grace Brethren for 10 years. “It’s glorious.”

With Toia and Ta’ufo’ou on both lines, the Lancers won CIF-SS titles in 2017 and 2018 and the CIF State 2AA title in 2018.

Toia was “always a force of nature,” said Henderson, who now coaches at Immanuel Schools in Reedley. The 6-foot-3, 325-pound defensive tackle who transferred to UCLA after participating in USC’s spring practices in 2021 played in all 12 games last season before stepping into a starting role as a sophomore this year.

Ta’ufo’ou, a redshirt junior, is in his second season as a starter for the Trojans and has 19 tackles with 4 1/2 tackles for loss.

USC defensive lineman Stanley Ta'ufo'ou in the first half against Arizona.

USC defensive lineman Stanley Ta’ufo’ou in the first half against Arizona on Oct. 29 in Tucson.

(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

With his former players on opposing sidelines this weekend, Henderson is staying loyal by rooting for a defensive battle. He doesn’t care who wins.

The same can’t be said for Serra coach Scott Altenberg. The UCLA season-ticket holder is unabashedly rooting for his Bruins, even if Kirkwood is out.

Kirkwood, a sophomore, started the first nine games of the season before a recent wrist injury. After a knee injury cost Williams his junior year in 2021, the former Serra star started eight games at safety this season. Williams’ 55 tackles ranks second for the Trojans despite suffering an injury against Colorado.

The injuries will put even more responsibility on the Pasadena products. Bullock leads USC’s ball-hawking secondary with four interceptions.

USC defensive back Calen Bullock reacts after making a tackle during the first half against Washington State.

USC defensive back Calen Bullock reacts after making a tackle during the first half against Washington State on Oct. 8 at the Coliseum.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The rangy 6-foot-3, 180-pound safety made an immediate impact at USC last year, starting at three positions and earning freshman All-American honors. The fast start was reminiscent of his career at Muir, where he quickly lived up to his pop warner nickname “Super Glue” for the way he could play the ball and stick to receivers in coverage despite his relatively thin frame.

“I don’t know what it is, but he got something,” said Humphrey, a junior.

With Bullock at safety and Humphrey at corner, the Mustangs reached the Southern Section Division 11 title game in 2019. After coming off the bench for his first two years at UCLA, Humphrey grabbed the starting cornerback job during Pac-12 play and enters Saturday’s rivalry game with seven consecutive starts and 32 tackles.

The former high school teammates still talk to each other, especially during the offseason. Although their busy schedules this season have left little time for chitchat anyway, Bullock said he isn’t leaving the door open during rivalry week.

“I’ll probably block him,” he said with a chuckle.

Humphrey said he might have to return the sentiment, although he admitted he will still be rooting for Bullock to do well Saturday. Their hometown supersedes the crosstown rivalry.

“We gotta get it out the mud,” Humphrey said. “That’s what makes us special. Coming from Pasadena, we have a lot of pride.”

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