A Storied History
The first episode of the deep-seeded rivalry played between Pasadena Community College and John Muir Junior College took place in 1947. In 1954, the game evolved into where it is today, with John Muir High School and Pasadena High School facing off on the storied green grass of the Rose Bowl.
In a place with over a century of heated rivalries, overtime thrillers and last-second heroics, lies another piece of history and the grounds are seemingly fitting to host one of the most storied rivalry games in high school football.
To the winner, the Victory Bell. Coming as a gift from the Santa Fe Railroad, it was presented in 1955 at the pep rally for the Turkey Tussle. The bell came from an old steam locomotive and is the only one given to a school, according to the Pasadena Unified School District website.
This year, it was John Muir’s turn to ring the bell, as the sound echoed through each aisle of the site where some of the greatest football games have ever been played. On Wednesday night, the conditions were no different.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
John Muir won its first game in two years to lift the Mustangs to a 45-0 Pacific Upper league victory Wednesday night over Pasadena at the Rose Bowl in front of thousands of fans in the 76th annual Turkey Tussle.
John Muir dominated both sides of the ball, holding Pasadena to no first downs in the first quarter. Senior Mustangs quarterback Brandon Valencia was outstanding, leading his team to their first Turkey Tussle win in two seasons.
“It feels unreal,” Valencia said. We’ve been working all year for it…I had to get the bell back for the city.”
The Mustangs moved to 8-3, looking to win their second straight CIF Southern Section championship enroute to the CIF State Championship game in their division. The Bulldogs fell to 0-10, notching another loss in their first losing season since 2017.
John Muir head coach Lance Mitchell knew what this game meant to his team. “We’re excited to get to play in the Rose Bowl,” Mitchell said. “It’s in our backyard. Its special for the kids and its special for a lot of us, the coaching staff – a lot of us are alumni and we know what it means. Getting the bell back is big.”
For Pasadena, this marks the end of a tough season and head coach Dilan Clark understood the challenges he faced this evening. “We knew Muir was going to bring it,” Clark said. “The good news is that we’re young. We’re ready to bounce back and have a strong offseason. We look forward to coming back and tasting this again. Hopefully, we bring the bell back to the other side.”
Tensions were high pregame. Two flags were thrown before the toss when both teams met each other at midfield – all the familiar characteristics of this storied, and heated, rivalry. By the time the game was over, two players were ejected. Muir’s first touchdown came on their first drive, as a kickoff return was negated by penalty. On the next play, Valencia carved his way into the endzone, putting the Mustangs up early in the first few minutes of action.
On their next drive, Valencia found senior wide receiver Alexander Miller for a 37-yard touchdown pass to put the Mustangs up 13-0 with 6:05 remaining in the first quarter. With seconds remaining in the first quarter, Muir went up 15-0 after Pasadena punter Isaac Najieb stepped out of the back of the endzone, ending a dominant first half by the Mustangs.
At halftime, John Muir led 15-0. From there, the Bulldogs would never reach the endzone.
Despite a rough outing, Clark was proud of the way his team showed up and continued to fight. “The majority of us are sophomores,” Clark said. “Experience. Experience. Experience. It sucks we had to lose every game to learn. They got the taste of it. Now, we can come back and do what we need to do to move forward.”
Next week, the Mustangs will be awaiting their next opponent in the CIF Southern Section playoffs. For Pasadena, their season is over, waiting for their opportunity to take the bell back next year.
An Atmosphere Like No Other
For a stadium that’s seen thousands of tailgaters, this could certainly stand toe-to-toe with the rest of them, in a celebration of a year of football and bragging rights to the winner.
Muir’s fans doubled Pasadena’s as there was even a tailgate in the parking lot, bumping smooth 90s beats. The smell of barbecue was in the air, as the Mustang-gold “M” was everywhere, even in the back of one fan’s truck as he sold hats and shirts to fans as they walked by. That’s when you heard it.
Boom. Buh. Boom.
John Muir’s Alumni Drum Corps began their song, as each beat meant a step for the band as they marched, line by line, into the stadium and were a mainstay in the seats.
At times, the thunder could be heard from sideline to sideline.
From former NFL players to the president of the Tournament of Roses, the stars were out to see the two teams duke it out on Wednesday night. Principals, superintendents and athletic directors chatted on the sidelines as the game went on. Bulldog white and red lathered the east side of the bowl. Directly across, Mustang blue and gold laced the west side.
Blue and Gold
“It’s always bragging rights,” Muir alumnus and former NFL wide receiver Anthony Miller said. “Last time they whooped us up last year, so this time was supposed to be payback.”
For 10 years, Miller played for the San Diego Chargers, now known as the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys where he was the 15th overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, after an illustrious career at Pasadena City College. Miller said growing up, he was friends with many players on both teams. When it came time for the Turkey Tussle, those relationships were severed briefly. “There’s one time out of the year for about three hours where we all hate each other,” Miller said. “But then we’re friends again. Really, it’s Pasadena and Altadena. We all love each other.”
Red and White
2024 Pasadena Tournament of Roses President Alex Aghajanian’s loyalties lie with the red and white. 50 years prior, he played in the Turkey Tussle. “We won,” he said with a smile on his face. The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Board of Directors confirmed Aghajanian in January, marking the 135th time a president has been elected. Aghajanian tossed the coin prior to kickoff, sensing the intensity brewing between the two teams. “Those kids were ready to play,” he said. “This game shows the spirit the city has for the game…It shows this game has a meaning to the community after all of these years.”
A Call for Celebration
Behind all the alumni that were in attendance, the 45-0 dominant performance by a determined Mustangs team and all the history this rivalry had to offer, there was a unified celebration of high school tradition. On homecoming night, typically we see schools celebrate their seniors and courts separately. Not in this town. Both John Muir and Pasadena’s homecoming courts were honored on the field, together. Starting with Pasadena, each member of the court walked down, standing every 10 yards.
John Muir’s court would follow suit, ending in similar fashion. At one moment, each court stood there, shoulder to shoulder in an appropriate swansong to a year that has been so formative for all of us.
Kyna Franklin, Ana Jochola, Madeleine Lees, Salma Yanez (Queen), Claire James, Emma Griffith and Megan Tse rounded out the 2023 John Muir homecoming court.
At the end of the game, two athletes were honored at the 50-yard line, including Valencia, who was awarded the Certificate of Merit in Sportsmanship award by the Rose Bowl Instituted and the city of Pasadena. Some of the committee members include CEO of the Rose Bowl Jens Weiden, Jen Welter, who was the First female coach in the NFL and has a Ph. D. in Psychology, James Washington, the incoming Rose Bowl Institute president.
When it was all finished, the students were front and center, a fitting tribute where both schools were front and center, much like what each chapter of this storied rivalry continues to write every year, now 76 times.
“Going to one of these two high schools means you get to be a part of this,” Muir head coach Mitchell said. “Whether you’re a football player, a parent, or just an alumnus or alumna, you get to be a part of it. It really brings us together. It gives us stuff to talk about. It gives us a team to root for and it’s all love at the end of the day.”