Bengal assistant grew up on Cougar sidelines

THE START OF another Washington State football season is always a special time for diehard Cougars fans like myself, but Saturday's season opener with Idaho State has special meaning for the Smaha family. My son, Ryan, who spent so much of his childhood on the sidelines and in the locker room with WSU football teams, is embarking on his first season as outside linebackers coach at Idaho State.

Returning to Martin Stadium as part of the "enemy" will undoubtedly produce a flood of emotions for Ryan -- and for me. I was director of athletic medicine – the trainer, if you will – at WSU from 1978-99.

Ryan's first road trip with the Bengals reminds me of the first road trip he made with the Cougars. Ryan was 8 years old when I took him with me to Pasadena to play the top-ranked UCLA Bruins on national television in 1988.

The '88 Cougar team never spoke a word when they left Bohler Gym for any road trip. Not ONE word! During my two decades at Wazzu, this was the only team that acted in this manner. Ryan, with the "assistance" of his father, finally understood that he could not talk either. We will always remember the sound of 60 men walking down the corridor en route to the pregame meal. Nothing but the loud thunder of feet!

We like to think Ryan was the Cougars' lucky charm that day, because quarterback Timm Rosenbach led coach Dennis Erickson's team to a dramatic 34-30 victory. To this day, it is the only football victory for WSU over a team ranked No. 1.


After the game, there was pandemonium on the field and in the locker room, and I temporarily "lost" Ryan. I looked everywhere in complete panic.

I ran from the locker room to the playing field and back to the locker room. The Cougars were singing the fight song when I grabbed a player and asked if he had seen Ryan. He pointed toward the ceiling, and there was Ryan, sitting on the shoulders of giant offensive lineman Mike Utley. What a relief! We still remember the joyful plane ride back to Spokane and the police escort from Colfax to Bohler Gym.

When Ryan was little, I would sit him on the equipment trunks behind the players standing on the sidelines at Martin Stadium. He was close to the action but out of harm's way.

Ryan's tiny body would be swallowed up in a parka. He looked like Yoda.

No dummy, Ryan would hand out little Snickers bars (confiscated from my office) for free to coeds and for a buck to males. That would provide him with enough money to play video games at the CUB after the game while my wife and I attended fifth-quarter activities.

Later, Ryan became a go-fer of sorts for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who now holds that same position for the Cincinnati Bengals. Eventually, Ryan became a ball boy until he graduated from Pullman High School and went on to play NAIA football at Eastern Oregon.

Ryan would be the first to admit he wasn't the best or worst athlete. After all, he had his father's speed and soon discovered that his decision to grow dreads like Ricky Williams (then a star running back at Texas) did not make him any faster. I might add that the hair wax raised hell with our microwave.

Ryan realized coaching was his passion even before he was done playing at Eastern Oregon. He eagerly helped teammates with their assignments. Ryan eventually became a student assistant coach at Eastern Oregon. He then served as a graduate assistant at Idaho State and WSU before landing a job as tight ends coach at NCAA Division II Western Oregon last season following a quick side trip to Europe to help coach a semipro-type team in Austria.

When Mike Kramer was named head coach at Idaho State last winter after spending a year as assistant director of football operations at WSU, he was quick to hire Ryan.

After eight years of "paying his dues" and working for almost nothing, Ryan's passion, persistence and strong worth ethic is paying off. Hopefully, he learned some of those traits from his dad. He understands that success is not always about what you achieve, but what you overcome as well.

It all started in Pullman. I always admired my son for never flaunting his opportunity to hang out with Drew Bledsoe, Rueben Mayes and other Cougars stars when he was younger.

Seeing the impact the players had on Ryan helped inspire me to start the "athletic trainer of the game" program, which continues to this day at Washington State.

Each home game, a young boy or girl was invited to start their day with me in the training room. Sometimes the parents were more excited than the kids, which occasionally caused some issues, such as their desire to videotape half-dressed football players!

Ryan would escort the kids here and there, arranging for autographs and whatnot. Each youngster received a Gatorade cap, an athletic trainer shirt and a game program, and I would escort them on to the field to meet coach Mike Price during warmups.

Finally, our little guests were permitted to run through the Martin Stadium tunnel with the Cougars prior to the opening kickoff. I would hold on to their hand tightly, then lift them over the railing to reunite them with their parents.

The memories are so fresh, and so many of them involve Ryan. I'm proud of my son and his journey. He often reminds me how thankful he is to have been part of Cougar football.

NOTABLE: Ryan isn't the only member of the Idaho State team who grew up in Martin Stadium. So did Cody Sorensen, a freshman defensive back for the Bengals, whose dad Paul played for WSU and then served as part of the broadcast team for many years.


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