The day a bug cracked the windshield

WASHINGTON STATE linebacking great and New Orleans Saints legend Steve Gleason will be inducted into the WSU Hall of Fame this weekend in Pullman, rekindling memories of his fantastic work as an undersized linebacker on the 1998 Rose Bowl team. One of the most lasting of his feats was so stirring that Ryan Leaf devoted a whole page to its significance in his book 596 Switch.

Husky Stadium was alive that late November day in 1997, packed to the rafters for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable games in the history of the Cougar-Husky rivalry. The Huskies, the crowd, hell, even the waterboys were determined to keep the Cougs from reaching their first Rose Bowl in 67 years.

Midway through the second quarter, it happened. No, not a long TD run or a game-altering interception. It was a collision that altered the very fabric of the game. And Steve Gleason was at the point of impact.

While being recruited out of high school in Spokane, Gleason was told he "wasn't intense enough" by then-Stanford coach Ty Willingham, who retracted the scholarship previous Stanford coach Bill Walsh had offered Gleason.

But the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator at WSU at the time, Bill Doba, knew better.

"He was the reason I went to Washington State," the New Orleans Saints special teams standout and backup safety told CF.C.

"It would have been fine if (Willingham) would have looked at film and told me I was too slow or whatever, but I didn't agree with his assessment," said Gleason.

The undersized linebacker, a sophomore at the time, led the team in tackles in 1997, finishing with 100 stops.  Gleason was listed at 215 pounds that season, light for a linebacker, even back in those days.  And 215?  Even that was a stretch.

"I was actually a bit lighter than that," laughed Gleason

Over at Montlake, Cam Cleland was having one heck of a year.  The massive 275-pound tight end was a fine blocker, had soft hands - and for a big man, he could flat out run after the catch.  He would be named First Team All-Pac-10 that '97 season. 

With Washington State leading 14-7 in the second quarter, the Huskies ran a misdirection screen back to the tight end.  It was perfectly set up.

Cleeland caught the ball and accelerated upfield; a huge swath of turf and blockers lay in front of him.

"I was covering a running back way down field. Deep in the down, I knew he wasn't getting the pass.  I turned around and saw Cam with the ball.  We were about 15-20 yards apart," said Gleason.

The Spokane product closed the gap at full speed, all the while Cleeland accelerating towards him.  The collision was enormous.  Gleason decided to hit him high.  The Huskies tight end was lifted about a foot and a half off the ground.

"I'm not going to go low, he doesn't look like he's going to juke, guess we're going to hammer each other.  Alright!" recalled Gleason.

Still, early indications were Cleeland and his extra 60 pounds won the battle.  He absorbed the hit, coming back down to earth with his feet still beneath him.  He reset, and then plowed forward another few steps before falling to the ground.  And Gleason remained on the turf a moment, clearly hurt.

"I had gotten a little stinger from the hit.  I'd been getting them all year, ever since the UCLA game.." Gleason said.

But Gleason was soon over on the sideline talking to teammates - while Cleeland remained on the field, face up on the turf, surrounded by trainers.

"I was on the sidelines and (didn't know if I was ok or not), and one of my teammates came running up to me saying, ‘He's not getting up!' which as a player kinda re-energizes you. So all of a sudden I'm telling everyone, ‘Oh, I'm fine!'

"I didn't miss a play.  He was out for a series or two, I think." said Gleason.

The announcing team on the telecast said it looked to them that Cleeland fell on the ball and got the wind knocked out of him. 

That very well might be true.

But it also could have been something else -- more like one of those ‘delayed reaction hits' where a moment after a huge hit, the hit-ee suddenly feels the full effect.  And Gleason hit him high, right where Cleeland motioned to while on the ground as trainers attended to him.

Gleason isn't so sure.

"I don't know.  Cam and I talked about that hit, when we were teammates later, (on the Saints), and we didn't really talk about how he got hurt," he said. 

Gleason's conversation with Cam was more along the lines of teammates having pride in their play, smiling, and saying, ‘Hey do you remember that hit?  That was big-time.'

"And it was a much better hit in my minds-eye.  I've seen the replay too, and I use the metaphor of the bug hitting a windshield.  But I was a big enough bug that I cracked the windshield.. and it had to be taken to a service station for repairs," Gleason said. 

WHEN I RELIVE the 1997 Apple Cup in my mind's eye, I remember wide receiver Chris Jackson.  He of the eight receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns - one of which was the amazing catch and run, ripping his leg away from S Tony Parrish's death grip on his way to the house.

And I remember running back Michael Black, shredding a Washington defense for 170 yards on 37 carries.

I also remember QB Ryan Leaf.  He and the offense converted an impressive 13 of 18 third downs as Leaf went up-top for 358-yards.  Washington State rolled up 500-plus total yards on the UW defense that day; one that entered the game having given up the fewest yards in the Pac-10.

And I remember the defense with all those damn off-sides penalties -- although they were ultimately rendered far less painful by the 5 picks they turned in against QB Brock Huard. The Cougs harassed the senior into doubling the total number of INTs he had on the entire season.

But perhaps most of all, I remember the hit by Steve Gleason.

Giving away 60 pounds, he absolutely hurled himself into his opponent with, (listen up, Ty), intense abandon, allowing the Cougar D to recover downfield and stop the great Huskies tight end one second and a few yards later. Otherwise, Cleeland may have taken it all the way. He had picked up blockers, and a path had emerged.

Gleason's stick doesn't appear in most game accounts, nor will it be found in the stats page.  The ledger reveals he had 6 tackles that day.  But it is this moment in time that I remember.  It altered the landscape of the game. 

Cleeland had but 32-yards receiving the rest of the afternoon.  But more important perhaps was the pressure the Cougs applied to Huard, in part leading to the five interceptions, one coming in the very same drive after Gleason's hit.

The UW had methodically driven to the Washington State 23-yard line.  Cleeland had just returned to the field, and SE Shane Doyle was matched on the tight end, who stayed in to protect the quarterback.  Doyle blew right through him. 

The defensive end hit Huard just as he threw, with the Husky tight end trailing in his wake; desperately clutching after Doyle. 

The football moon-shot up into the air, eventually coming down in the firm grasp of larcenous freshman Lamont Thompson. The safety still holds the Cougar record for career interceptions with 24. 

The Huskies scoring threat was extinguished.  Leaf promptly drove the Cougs down for a field goal, converting a third-and-27 along the way just before halftime for a 17-7 lead. 

Much later that afternoon when the skies had turned a darker shade of gray, the Huskies completed the scoring on a meaningless Hail Mary touchdown with eight seconds remaining.  The final tally that day:  Washington State 41, Washington 35.

And on that day, a bug took on the windshield.

And won. 

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on the pages of CF.C in 2003

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