Fate and the Throwin' Samoan

MORE RELIABLE than rain in Seattle or Rick Neuheisel pushing limits is this: The words "fate" or "destiny" appearing in a Sports Illustrated article. They're everywhere — quotes, headlines, columns and features.

The reliance on these two nouns is understandable: they offer an easy way to explain the inexplicable — especially in sports, where split seconds and fractions of inches can mean the difference, say, between the 1984 Cougs going 6-5 instead of 10-1.

Anytime a series of twists and turns come together in some magical — or calamitous — way, there's an innate reflex to ascribe it to the gods of human destiny. How else could various happenings, often seemingly benign, yield such profound results? Cougar football is filled with such outcome-altering stories.

Take Don Sweet, for example. He was discovered in the Field House booting the hell out of footballs during P.E. class. By 1971, he's an All-Pac-8 kicker en route to a storied career in the CFL.

Rueben Mayes, WSU's All-American running back in 1984-85, prepped in a football backwater — North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Were it not for a phone conversation between Hugh Campbell and Jim Walden, Mayes' career likely would have gone straight to intramural hockey at the University of Alberta.

For the motherlode of fate shining on Ol' Wazzu, however, you needn't look farther than legendary quarterback Jack Thompson. No less than three times did the gods change what seemed the likely course of human events to produce the fabled marriage between WSU and the record-shattering Throwin' Samoan.

"My dad loved the Huskies and I idolized Sonny Sixkiller," Thompson said recently. "I grew up in Seattle. There was no question in my mind that I'd be a Dawg."

But a funny thing happened on the way to Montlake. During Thompson's senior year at Evergreen High, Husky head coach Jim Owens phoned the Thompsons twice to schedule visits with the family. "This was a really big deal," Thompson said. "My mom made hors d' oeuvres. And my dad, who worked the graveyard shift, woke up early. He even put on a tie."

Both times, Owens failed to show — and he never called to explain. A flat tire? Family emergency? Who knows?

"This was extremely upsetting," Thompson remembers. "But my folks told me to keep an open mind, so I took my official visitation to Washington. I was talking with Owens. And I just knew I couldn't go there because of the way he had treated my family. I was distraught at the time, but I had to draw the line."

After a redshirt first year at WSU and a second season riding pine, Thompson was ready to transfer. "I remember sitting on the bench in the last game of the '75 season. Mike Levenseller, Don Schwartz and I were talking about how this was it. We were tired of sitting. And the offense — all ground — was boring. Levenseller and I were going to UPS."

But fate stepped in again. A few days after that game, a heartbreaking loss to Washington, Sweeney resigned. So transfer plans were postponed until it was known what kind of offense the new coach would install. Sure enough, Jackie Sherrill announced that the Cougs would put the ball in the air.

The next season, in a game at Minnesota, the destiny gods were in rare form. In the second quarter, with no time outs left, WSU quarterback John Hopkins comes to the sidelines — there's a problem with his helmet. Thompson, third string behind Wally Bennett, does the unthinkable when Bennett can't find where he put his helmet.

Thompson put himself into the game.

"I ran onto the field. I'm not sure what possessed me. I guess I was just desperate to see some action. The coaches were dumbfounded. They couldn't call time out, so they signaled in a play — a run, even though it was third and long. Brian Kelly dares me to pass. I do and we get the first down. Hopkins comes back in. When I get to the sidelines, Sherrill is in a rage. He yells at me, 'You'll never play another down of football here as long as you live.'"

But Thompson's walk into ignominy is sidetracked. Hopkins hurts his knee just before halftime, and offensive coordinator Bob Leahy, struck by Thompson's bravado and a fan of his strong right arm, convinces Sherrill that Thompson should start the second half.

Sherrill capitulates and a legend is soon born.

"Can you believe it?" Thompson asks.

Absolutely.

Afterall, as Sports Illustrated might explain, fate and destiny are everywhere.

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