LEAF: Deja vu all over again

SO LAST SATURDAY my dad and I headed to Pullman for what I thought was going to be a big win for the Cougs. Instead, for the better part of three quarters, my phone is working overtime as text messages pour in from all my Bobcat friends giving me a hard time. I was standing on the sidelines and when the score hit 22-7 for the Bobcats I figured Jeff Tuel could use a quick word of wisdom.

"Nothing changes," I said to Jeff. "No matter the score, the opponent -- nothing changes. Make your reads, do your job and good things will happen."

That's not quite up there with Knute Rockne, and certainly not as high-octane as something that might come from offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, who I think is one of the highest-energy people around.

But they were heartfelt words of wisdom from a guy who has been there before and had his share of hard knocks on the field.

It was an ugly game for the better part of three quarters but I continued to think positively. It seemed like the Cougs were just a play or two away from getting their arms around it all.

If Jeff was a fifth-year senior, I wouldn't have been compelled to say anything to him. But he's a true sophomore who has all of eight starts to his name. He's still a kid.

When you're young, I think advice sometimes tends to sink in more when it's brief and simple -- and being delivered by someone you're not used to talking with.

I met Jeff last March and I had the honor of salmon fishing with his dad this past summer, so it wasn't like we were complete strangers. There was a certain familiarity at work here that, I felt, made it OK to tell Jeff to just keep pushing ahead.

There's an old saying that you dance with the one who brought you to the ball. Too often, I think, young quarterbacks -- and I was one once -- believe they need to start freelancing when things aren't going right and the clock's not on your side.

It's critical in those situations to stick with what you know, what you've practiced, what you've studied.

I really believe struggling during a game is a great thing. I believe you find out who you are, and who you really have around you when times get tough.

The caliber of the opponent? That's insignificant. The bottom line is coming up with plays that win games. The Cougs trailed 22-7 entering the fourth quarter of a home football game. That's it. That's the situation. Period. Now, let's go get after it.

I can't emphasize this enough: any team is capable of winning on any giving Saturday. Virginia Tech, ranked No. 13 in the nation, found that out very clearly last week against James Madison. But James Madison believed. And this is what was so desperately needed for this young Cougars' team and their coaching staff at this particular moment.

And I have to tell you, watching the Cougars rejoice after their come-from-behind victory over the Bobcats put a smile on my face that must have stretched to Colfax.

In fact, for a minute there, it was like deja vu. I've been here before. And the thrill never leaves you.

Ironically, my father, John, was with me. He was also with me on my first visit to Pullman, back in 1993, when I was a high school senior. Nearly 17 years after that trip, we were together again to watch my alma mater take on his. We drove into Pullman much older men this time, but it still enveloped us, producing the same wide-eyed amazement we felt oh so many years ago.

We got into town early enough Saturday for me to reminisce a bit, and I always drive by the places I stayed while I was there. We ventured over to Martin Stadium, visiting with longtime equipment director Milton Neal and his staff. As always, they were so welcoming to me, my family and guests. Walking throught the tunnel always brings back great memories, and the sea of crimson in the stands told me I was definitely home.

Earlier, we had walked across the sun-splashed campus and for the first time, I got to walk through the RV lot where tailgating Cougars were lovin' life.

Wow, what a great time I had there. Food, family, friends, and football -- what more could a person ask? Everyone was so welcoming.

The feeling was not unfamiliar. It's what I experienced my first time in Pullman so many years ago. It was December 1993 and the first of what turned out to be four recruiting trips for me. It was also the only trip that my dad would attend with me.

On the trip last Saturday, we took -- just like we 17 years ago -- from Great Falls and drove the 420 miles to Pullman. Driving through the majestic wheat fields of the Palouse was like being transported back in time. I remember thinking in 1993, 'Where is this place anyway?'

Then, as now, we took that left off the highway and headed up the little hill into the valley.

Time and expansion have changed the view a little. There are homes atop the hill now, but back in 1993 it was a completely unexpected surprise. You pulled over that hill -- and there it was: An oasis.

The visit started like any other recruiting visit -- introductions, campus tours, academic meetings, meeting your host (mine was Chad DeGrenier). He was a JC quarterback transfer who had been at WSU for almost a year. Chad was responsible for giving me an abbreviated view of what my college experience would be like at Washington State.

We had a welcome dinner at Coach (Mike) Price's home. I had the biggest rib eye steak you'll ever see. Those Friday-night dinners would become a staple of mine in the years to come, but that story, and many of the funny anecdotes it contains, is for another time.

That first night of my visit was relatively quiet, which was fine by me. But midway through Saturday evening, I finally looked over at Chad and asked him, as a naive 17-year old would, ‘Are you ever going to show me some college life?'

WHAT I THOUGHT I needed 17 years ago was to see the nightlife on that first visit to Pullman. And then something startling happened.

Chad let me know that when the WSU coaches prepped him about me, they told him that I was very religious and that I wouldn't be the one to want to be around the night life of Pullman.

Now, I didn't drink in high school, and I grew up in a very Catholic family -- I had been an altar boy, attended Sunday school, the whole bit. The fact that this coaching staff had the integrity to respect me, and my mother and father, and to not just throw me out there into the wild of a recruiting weekend, but instead to protect me ... Wow. It was the first of what would be many pieces of evidence over the following four years, ones that proved time and time again, that I made the right decision when I went crimson.

So Chad then introduced me to linemen Ryan McShane and Jason McEndoo. And to put all this into perspective, I'll just say this -- Ryan, Jason, and Chad are all still close friends of mine. And Coach Price and his staff are respected like no others in the eyes of my loving parents.

As we had our exit interview Sunday morning in the restaurant next to the Heritage Inn, my father and I sat across from Coach Price as he extended to me my first scholarship offer, to play football and attend WSU. (Recruiting is different now -- back then, offers and verbal commitments came much, much later than they do now.) I remember looking at my Dad after Coach Price made the offer. Here we were -- this was what we had set as a goal so long ago. I don't know what it's like to be a parent -- I hope that one day I get that chance -- but I'd like to think that not only was that a very special day for me, but for him as well.

As Coach Price would tell me years later, he didn't think I was feeling all that special about it. He didn't think my visit went well at all! My father is a very quiet and reserved man -- one who takes everything in and then takes all of that knowledge and makes good and correct decisions. And Coach Price had gotten the impression that we didn't enjoy the experience. He would tell his staff after we left, "Well, we didn't get Ryan."

Little did he know that Dad and I spoke for hours and hours, all the way home that day, about Pullman and our first crimson experience. I would eventually take trips to Colorado State, Miami and Colorado. I was scheduled to make one more trip, to Oregon, in January. But after a fateful phone call with Coach Price on New Year's Day, I canceled that final trip to Eugene and became a Cougar forever.

Washington State got into my blood that day. Later, we would share in some very special wins. And WSU's win over Montana State last Saturday fits into that category -- special. Winning in the manner they did -- down by more than 14 points with only a quarter to play, when they had struggled all afternoon to that point. Well, that proved two things.

1) This WSU team has bought into one another. They understand that no matter what, this is all on them, together. It may surprise you how many teams never find that, even good teams -- they have a bunch of great individual players, but who can't come together when times get tough.

2) Winning in this fashion, struggling, coming back and triumphing in front of your home crowd, that can only build confidence leading to Dallas and SMU, and then on into the near future! Montana State is a very good football team, and a win is a win is a win in my opinion.

Winning breeds confidence, something the 2010 Cougars were in dire need of against MSU. They found it. And on my dad's and mine's return to Pullman on a beautiful fall September day last week, I found that feeling again, too.

Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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