In my years as a student, I was lucky enough to spend two seasons working on the sidelines as a part of Cougar Athletics. One of the most vivid memories I have of those two years was the start of the 1997 season. The sun was shining and UCLA was in town, along with ABC and a national television audience. As the Cougars took the field and the crowd roared, I couldn't help but smile. As the game progressed, I don't think anyone realized what we were seeing: the Pac-10 title game was taking place in August. As WSU paraded towards the Rose Bowl, Skip Hicks could look back for the entire season, and wonder, "what if?"
The 1997 season was a strange one for me. I was on the field for all of the home games, but I never saw the two biggest away games, and still haven't, to this day. My sister got married on the day of the USC game, and though there was a guy out in the church hallway flashing us the score (the minister even interrupted the ceremony to announce the victory), the only play I've seen of that game is the block that sprung Kevin McKenzie. As for the Apple Cup, the ‘greatest job ever' forced me to miss that one, as I had to tend Martin Stadium for a high school playoff game. At least I got to sit in the press box by myself and hear Bob Robertson call the victory that sent us to the Rose Bowl.
(Ironically, the daughter of the guy who was giving us the USC score is getting married on September 6, at which time I will be in South Bend. Sorry, Trish.)
All in all, 1997 was good times, except for the whole Mitchell "Fright Night" Freedman thing. Where the heck did that guy come from? He absolutely destroyed us in Tempe and then disappeared.
But this column isn't about just the 1997 season. It's about what makes Cougar football special. It's about my father and I, sitting in the stands in 1988 when Shawn Landrum broke through Husky blocking and then watching Timm Rosenbach taking it in on fourth down. It's guys like Cory Withrow, less than a week after having the worst game of his life and still struggling to earn a scholarship, coming to my high school to say some nice things to a few kids. Or the time my Dad introduced me to my great uncle, John Bley. Dad said he was a great football player in his day, but I didn't really realize how great until Uncle John was gone.
I was in the stands for the 1992 Apple Cup as well. I was sitting with my sister and her boyfriend (now my brother-in-law), listening to Husky fans behind us berate our team and especially Mike Price. One of my great Cougar moments came when my sister turned around to Price's hecklers and said, "quit talking about him, he's my dad." And they believed her! I laughed until my sides ached. Unfortunately, I (on the advice of my sister's boyfriend) was dumb enough to go to the CUB at halftime to warm up, and got to watch Philip Bobo and C.J. Davis meet in the endzone on TV. Needless to say, that was the last time I did that, though I still let the individual responsible for the travesty marry my sister.
I saw now-NFL-superstar John Lynch accidentally set fire to his helmet as a freshman in Pullman, when he and Stanford were in town. Tom Vardell ran all over us that day, but Lynch's boner was the truly memorable moment on that cold Saturday.
Like it or not, there's a little part of Cougar football that's about losing. Losing is what makes us enjoy the victories. Games like the 1996 Apple Cup, when Ryan Leaf (who never feared the Huskies, even when he was a freshman) and Chad Carpenter were this close to keeping a great game going. Also in 1996, when USC scored a late touchdown and Leon Bender led the extra point-block team onto the field, and you just knew that he was going to block that kick (he did). Or the 2000 season, when we lost so many close games, but saw Jason Gesser blossom into a leader. It's even about guys like Steve Birnbaum, who played an entire season with a torn ACL and behind a terribly inexperienced offensive line and never got any love from us, the fans.
Something great is going to happen again this year, and while some people will be too busy ripping coaches or players to notice, many of us will see someone overcome some obstacle, finally reach his potential, or make just one unforgettable play. Memories, people, and experiences - - these are the things that make Cougar football great, and make me live for the first game of the season.