Matt Barkley vividly recalls the day he met Lou Zamperini. Barkley had graduated early from high school, then enrolled at USC for the spring semester. Sports journalism class, the professor brought in this little, old guy as a guest speaker.
"It was one of those classes where everyone is normally on their computers, on their phones, during class, but during that class, everyone's computers were shut, everyone was quiet, just listening so intently to the story he shared. ... It was pretty special," Barkley said this week, as the Eagles' backup QB prepared to report for his second NFL training camp, Friday. Workouts begin Saturday.
Barkley remembers that Zamperini, USC alum, 1936 U.S. Olympian and World War II hero, was eager to meet the freshman quarterback, even before Barkley had stepped on the field, let alone won the starting job.
"He knew all about me," Barkley recalled. "He was 92 years old at that point, and still sharp as a tack. We kind of struck it off from the get-go. He shared a couple of Bible verses with me, in letters -- I remember before my first game, he shared a verse with me from Timothy, saying don't let anyone doubt you because you're young. ... It was interesting, hearing that from someone who was 92 years old."
Zamperini and the QB young enough to be his great-grandson began an unlikely friendship that continued until Zamperini died July 2 from pneumonia, at age 97. After he and Barkley met, Zamperini gained renewed national fame from the Laura Hillenbrand book about him, "Unbroken," which has been made into a movie directed by Angelina Jolie, set for release later this year.
Barkley would see Zamperini at USC games. They'd also go out to lunch, he said, and they ended up watching a lot of hockey together during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"He'd lost some of his hearing," Barkley said. "His mind was still sharp, but you'd ask him a question and he'd kind of hear ya, and just start talking. Maybe not about the question you'd just asked. ... He had a lot of stories."
Zamperini, who finished eighth in the 5,000 meters at the '36 Olympics, was a bombardier on a B-24 when it crashed into the ocean, killing eight members of the 11-man crew. The survivors floated on a raft for 47 days, one of them dying along the way. Zamperini and pilot Phil Phillips made it to land, in the Marshall Islands, and were captured by the Japanese, who beat and otherwise mistreated them for two years before they were freed.
Zamperini forgave his captors. In 1998, when he came to Nagano to run a leg with the Olympic torch before the Winter Games, "60 Minutes" tried to set up a meeting between Zamperini and his most sadistic tormenter, Mutsuhiro Watanabe. Watanabe, identified as a war criminal by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but never punished, declined the meeting.
Zamperini, who worked as an inspirational speaker after the war, told Barkley that Zamperini's own written version of his story was in the movie pipeline at one point, with Marlon Brando lined up to play him, but the deal fell through.
Barkley said that when Hollywood picked up Hillenbrand's version, Zamperini "really wanted it to be an accurate story. ... He really wanted it to remain true to his life story, tell about his faith. He went through a couple of production companies until it got into the hands of Angelina Jolie. ... Angelina and him became really close, she saw what an unbelievable guy he was, his character, and really wanted to remain true to that story.
"From what I know -- I haven't seen anything but the trailer -- it's pretty spot-on with what actually happened ... I can't wait to see it, to honor him in that way. I hope it impacts as many people as it can."
Though Zamperini lived a long and full life, he did not get to see the movie come out, and he was unable to fulfill his role as grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade next January.
"It would have been interesting to have seen if he would have actually watched that movie, just because of the memories it would bring back," Barkley said. He said Zamperini told him he never watched the 1998 CBS treatment of his saga; Barkley wonders whether it was because it included an interview with Watanabe, who died in 2003.
Barkley said he hadn't spoken to Zamperini this year, that a couple of attempts to phone him failed, giving Barkley the impression Zamperini might be failing.
Barkley said Zamperini's memorial service "was such a celebration of the life he lived. How much more could he really have accomplished? ... The wisdom he imparted, about stepping out of your box and challenging yourself ... it kind of relates to what Chip (Kelly) is doing here."
Barkley understands that it's hard to compare his struggles, as a second-year quarterback fighting to unseat Mark Sanchez as Nick Foles' primary backup, a starting job not even in the conversation at this point to what Zamperini went through. But Barkley said he takes strength from Zamperini's example.
"He just continued to work hard, keep his head down, like I can do, no matter what the circumstances -- to be stronger than the circumstance," Barkley said.
(c)2014 Philadelphia Daily News
Visit the Philadelphia Daily News at www.philly.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services