Commentary: An ode to this year’s East L.A. Classic, the best event I’ve ever covered
A fan sat grinning in the first row at the Coliseum, Roosevelt High red and yellow paint across his cheeks, holding up a small sheet of cardstock with six words scrawled in pen.
“I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT FOOTBALL!!” it read.
You really didn’t need to Friday night. You just needed to be there to soak in the grandest East L.A. Classic in its centuries-long history.
To see the stands light up with the twinkle of thousands of cellphone lights.
To hear the booming chants of “East L-A” or “Boy-le Heights” not cheering on just a team, but a group of young men representing the heart of a storied community.
To feel the bass of a Black Eyed Peas halftime performance merging with the triumphant trumpets of the school bands, thumping through your toes, rattling your ribcage and shivering your soul.
The teams, the bands, the Peas, the fans — they painted a beautiful tapestry together, elevating a timeless tradition of Chicano pride and cultural history to a never-before-seen scale in a 16-8 Garfield win over Roosevelt. It was the most incredible game I’ve covered in my young career, leaving me and plenty others awestruck.
“That was one of the greatest athletic events I’ve ever attended,” said CIF executive director Ron Nocetti, who has seen quite a few in his day.
Garfield celebrates after defeating Roosevelt 16-8 in the East L.A. Classic at the Coliseum on Friday night.
Even an hour before the varsity game kicked off, any sight of a red-and-gold or red-white-and-blue helmet was met with raucous cheers and corresponding boos. The stands bounced to Bad Bunny’s “Tití Me Preguntó” and Nio García’s “Te Boté,” a Garfield DJ urging the visiting-side crowd to get louder than Roosevelt’s.
Sure, those were sights typical of the Classic when played at East Los Angeles College. But the Coliseum brought a different atmosphere.
By Wednesday, 27,000 tickets had been sold, proceeds Coliseum president George Pla said would go in full toward the Roosevelt and Garfield athletic budgets — estimating about $250,000 for each school.
“I think here, since it’s bigger and it’s at a stadium where a lot of legends played, I think it’s going to bring out more people from the community,” Roosevelt senior Jared Andrade said.
Recording artist will.i.am pumps up fans after a performance by the Black Eyed Peas at halftime during the East L.A. Classic at the Coliseum on Friday night.
He was correct. By halftime, first levels on both sides were nearly full, a crowd Pla estimated was more than 30,000.
That’s when the Coliseum went dark and the strobes went off, the Black Eyed Peas booming from the peristyle. Over the iconic torch at the Coliseum, an assembly of floating drones flashed colored lights that sketched the faces of each member of the group high into the Los Angeles sky as they performed.
If you’ve lived anywhere besides a cave, you immediately recognize that first repeated dun-dun-dun of “I Gotta Feeling’s” electric guitar. Recognize that iconic beat. And as the lights turned back on, it struck up over Coliseum speakers, both crowds roaring as hundreds of cheerleaders and color guard members on the field shook pom-poms and waved flags in a swell of pride.
Cheerleaders perform alongside the Black Eyed Peas during halftime at the East L.A. Classic at the Coliseum on Friday night.
The Black Eyed Peas took the field, performing their biggest hit alongside the Garfield and Roosevelt school bands, leaving chills and a lasting smile on Garfield band member Freddy Serrano’s face that seemingly would never vanish.
Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am. had been promising “Grammys-level production” for the halftime show, the Boyle Heights native wanting to bring a special celebration to his hometown event. And in a worldwide group with deep ties to East L.A. — bandmate apl.de.ap grew up visiting will.i.am. in Boyle Heights every weekend while Taboo lived in housing projects in East Los Angeles — he delivered.
“It goes to show that like, what mainstream media calls ‘underserved communities,’ my neighborhoods that I grew up in, that will.i.am. grew up with,” band member Taboo said Wednesday, “that we can actually be artistic and creative and come together and create this amazing musical component. And do it in a way where we celebrate East L.A.”
After the recent scandal that’s rocked Los Angeles politics — a leaked audio recording from a 2021 closed-door meeting revealing racist comments made by former City Council president Nury Martinez — will.i.am. repeatedly referenced unity between Black and brown communities in a pregame speech, yelling “we’re the same thing” to cheers from the Coliseum audience.
“Especially in light of the recent negative news coming out of City Hall,” Pla said Saturday, “this was just such a contrast.”
After the stands emptied following Garfield‘s win, the memory was immortalized, the message clear: The Classic, and East Los Angeles pride, has never been stronger.
“I don’t think, at least coaching,” Garfield coach Lorenzo Hernandez said Saturday, “I’ll ever feel the way I felt last night.”