Fourth and long

<i>Our Memorial weekend tributes continue with a look back at a Cougar great who inspired us with his courage in the face of family tragedy.</i>

This article originally appeared here on CF.C and in the Apple Cup edition of Crimson & Gray magazine in 1998.

At most schools, he would be considered the marquee alum. Fans would fondly recall his legendary arm-strength, his poise in the pocket, his precision touchdown strikes. And like proud parents, they would boast of his lengthy NFL tenure, highlighted by a Super Bowl MVP award.

But at Washington State, Mark Rypien -- though far from being an afterthought -- is not the first name that comes to mind when great signal-callers are remembered.

After all, it's a crowded huddle of big-name passers here at Quarterback U. In the last 25 years, WSU has amassed a tradition of quarterback excellence perhaps unequaled in college football. And while the "Fantastic Five" of Jack Thompson, Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe, and Ryan Leaf is usually thought of as a lump sum, Ryp's name rarely, if ever, surfaces when the question of the single greatest is posed.

It's understandable why. The other four were first-round NFL draft picks; Rypien was a sixth rounder. Three -- Rosenbach, Bledsoe, and Leaf -- led their teams to the promised land: A bowl game; Rypien, as a junior, came about seven points short of a bowl invitation.

And although his name still appears near the top of a club record or two, Rypien's career numbers -- handicapped by a run-first offense featuring Rueben Mayes and Kerry Porter -- fall short of Thompson's and Leaf's. Even his Super Bowl MVP award and championship ring, earned at the helm of the Washington Redskins, are mere asterisks to Rypien the Cougar.

But in recent months, family tragedy has offered us greater perspective on Mark Rypien -- insights not found in bowl games or passing records. Life has placed him in a terrifying series of "fourth and longs," and somehow he has stood tall in the pocket, like a champion.

Wouldn't it be fantastic if life offered us the same options as a football game? If only we could call a time-out when faced with adversity or elect to punt when a critical illness pinned us deep. Sadly, for Mark and his family, real life has a harsher set of rules.

The Rypiens have faced a degree of suffering and loss that most of us, God willing, will never experience. Yet amazingly, through the tragedy of relentless brain tumors that eventually claimed the life of his three-year-old son Andrew, to the simultaneous nightmare of his wife Annette's own battle with cancer, Mark has managed to inspire us. His strength, his devotion to his family, and his survival of the worst single event that could befall a parent: These are the true yard-markers of greatness.

Mark Rypien has given us the gift of empathy -- a trait that seems in short supply in this day and age. Because of him we've reevaluated our own lives and asked ourselves a question too often ignored or left unanswered: Would we have the strength to survive such heartache? And most of all, he has reminded us that what truly is important, what really matters, is only a hug away.

So the next time I cast my ballot for the "All-Time Greatest" Cougar quarterback, I'll write in the name of Ryan Leaf or some future Wazzu superstar. But I'll pause a moment before passing over the name of Mark Rypien. And I'll remember.

I'll remember how, as a Spokane high school senior, he said no to football juggernauts Notre Dame, USC, and others, so he could play for the "hometown" team. And I'll remember 1984, his finest year as a Cougar, when he was named first-team all-Pac-10. And in my mind's eye, I'll see his final touchdown pass as a Cougar, to Kitrick Taylor in ice-covered Husky Stadium, to win the 1985 Apple Cup, 21-20.

And I'll remember his son Andrew. Because that would mean the most to Mark Rypien



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