A lifetime of Cougar memories

IT MIGHT BE inconceivable to a student staring at the new press box or the football operations building under construction at the west end of Martin Stadium that the facility would go dark for a season -- or two. But the latter was reality for Ray Schaaf, one of the last known living members of Washington State College's football program when it went dormant in 1943-44 because of World War II.

The war was among several disruptions Schaaf, now 88, experienced during his collegiate career that derailed any prospects for success on the gridiron. But Schaaf, an offensive guard who had several relatives play for the Cougars, including Fritz Kramer, who went on to become an NFL o-lineman, still regales in stories from his time on the Palouse.

Several Cougars in recent times have played significant roles as freshmen. But in 1942, Schaaf and his classmates were relegated to a freshman-only team -- a practice that did not end for decades. That limited Schaaf's interaction with famous WSU coach Orin E. "Babe" Hollingbery, who won a school-record 93 games in 17 seasons.

In Jeff McQuarrie's "Legends of the Palouse" documentary, Hollingbery is shown giving a passionate speech before a game against Oregon State. Schaaf said moments such as those were not quite as seamless as they appeared on film.

"He really had a speech impediment and went to classes to try and correct it," Schaaf said.

He was closer with another legendary WSU coach. While many remember Buck Bailey as the man who brought the Cougars' baseball program to national prominence, he also mentored WSC linemen.

Along with his work on the offensive line, Schaaf also served as the defensive line's "Blood End." He said the position earned that distinction because teams usually ran right during that era. While working on that unit, Schaaf received regular critiques from Bailey.

"Buck would come in and say, ‘Schaaf, you should've done this and that.' I would say, ‘But I thought …' Then he would say, ‘Schaaf, every time you think, the other team scores a touchdown.'"

BUT SOON THERE WOULD be no more touchdowns as World War II brought football to a halt out on the Palouse. Schaaf worked on a gasoline tanker in the Navy before becoming a marine engineer in the Army in order to earn benefits under the GI Bill. After the war, he returned to WSC in 1946 and played on the school's junior-varsity program. He earned a varsity position the following year, but maintains his contributions under new coach Phil Sarboe were modest.

"I need to preface all of this by saying I'm no hero," Schaaf said. "My only claim to fame was playing on a team with some guys who went on to play pro ball.

"Tell Bobby Ratliff, No. 82, to do so well and become so famous they will retire his jersey. Then I can look down, hopefully, nudge my wife with my elbow and say, "Look honey, they have retired my number!"

A pinched nerve in Schaaf's neck that caused him to "black out every time I got hit" during spring practices the following year ended his football career, but he remains grateful for the opportunity to play. Schaaf is not sure that would have been possible without his family legacy, which extended from Kramer to his older brother, Oscar, who lettered during the 1938 season.

"I'm not really sure if (Hollingbery) recruited me, or if I recruited him," Schaaf said. "I wanted to play ball at Washington State because of the lineage that had gone through before. I saw my Uncle Fritz's picture hanging up on the wall. He said, ‘Sure, we'll give you a try.'"

After all, Schaaf played just one season at Chewelah High after following his sister, who took a job up there. He had one regret about the move.

"My parents bought a wheat farm by Starbuck, which is out by Dayton," he said, referring to the small community about 30 miles northeast of Walla Walla. "I could have been the valedictorian, salutatorian and president of the class because I would've been the only one."

SCHAAF INSTEAD PLAYED a prominent role in campus politics, working to fend off a group of parents who sought a deferred recruitment for WSC's fraternities. Similar to the changes on the gridiron, where athletes now enjoy many amenities that were not available to their predecessors, Schaaf notes that hazing is not allowed in the Greek system.

"We all thought that was part of the deal," he said, laughing. "Misery loves company, and that's how we all stayed glued together."

Schaaf again left WSC as an Army Reserve when he was called into service during the Korean War, which delayed his graduation to 1953. He also worked at a lumber and hardware store.

"I'm longtime retired," he said. "It's the best full-time job I think I've had."

Schaaf and his wife, Beth, whom he met at WSC and has been married for 64 years and had 11 children.

"I had to have my own football team," he said of his six sons and five daughters.

A couple even were athletes for the Cougars with one daughter playing volleyball, while another was a rower. One grandson, Steve Schaaf, was a walk-on linebacker for Mike Price's 1997 Pac-10 championship team. Schaaf compared his grandson's role on that team to that of Daniel Ruettiger at Notre Dame, whose obstacles toward playing time were depicted in the 1993 movie, "Rudy."

"He loved the game, but he was kind of cannon-fodder," Schaaf said. "I told him if the game's being broadcast, you have to stand next to the coach. That's the only way you're going to be on TV. But he never would."

Another grandchild, Dustin Cho, never attended WSU but had such a great affinity for the Cougars that he wore crimson-and-gray clothing to school daily until high school. Cho, who now works for a law firm near Washington, D.C., graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School. Back in 1998, he was the 12-year old whiz kid who built the original infrastructure for CF.C's first website.

Schaaf, who might be the university's oldest living letterman, said he has not visited Pullman in recent years other than attending his 60th graduation anniversary. During that event, he had an opportunity to catch up with former teammate and legendary baseball coach Chuck "Bobo" Brayton.

"Bobo is kind of a miniature Buck Bailey," Schaaf says with a smile.

THAT CAME BEFORE the hiring of Mike Leach, a development that excited Schaaf. He said he likes the discipline Leach is "instilling" in the team.

Schaaf also feels it is beneficial that Leach, who grew up in Cody, Wyo., was raised in a community with a similar feel to Eastern Washington.

"I think he's there to stay for a while," Schaaf said. "I don't think he's using Wazzu as a stepping stone to go someplace else."

And come this fall, Schaaf will transition from working on the garden at his Bothell home into his La-Z-Boy to watch the Cougars each Saturday in hopes of seeing them reach the postseason for the first time in a decade.

"I'm pretty excited about what I see and read about," he said. "It looks very hopeful for Wazzu. I feel very comfortable with what's going on over there.

I expect them to go to some kind of bowl game this year, but they're young and have got to learn."

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