Epic battle was sidelined by tragedy

THE 1950 GRIDIRON battle between Washington State and Washington should have been the perfect end to linebacker LaVern "Torgy" Torgeson's remarkable Cougar career. Instead, a tragic accident would turn it into the saddest day of his life.

Always a heated affair, this particular showdown of cross-state cousins in Spokane officially transformed the rivalry into a full-fledged "event." In fact, this pre-moniker Apple Cup contained all of the elements — and then some — that make college football great: resurgent teams, marquee players, a brand new stadium, and a standing-room-only crowd.

Both the UW and WSC had ended long football droughts in 1950. The Cougs, coached by Forest "Evy" Evashevski, entered the game with a 4-2-2 record. It was their first winning season since 1945. Coach Howie Odell's Huskies carried a 7-2 mark to Spokane and, with just one conference loss, entertained hopes for a Rose Bowl berth. Odell had won just five games total in the previous two seasons at Montlake.

"We're going out there to win on Saturday, " Torgeson, the senior Captain, told the Spokesman-Review. "And as far as I can see we are the ones who have the say — man to man we're as good as they are."

Torgy Torgeson

Preceding the game, Governor Arthur Langlie officially dedicated Spokane's $530,000 Memorial Stadium (now Joe Albi Stadium) in front of a sell-out crowd and surrounded by a who's-who of Evergreen state dignitaries.

But it was in anticipation of the epic battle between the Pacific Coast Conference's best offensive player, Husky running back Hurryin' Hugh McElhenny, and the best defensive player, Torgeson, that had the pre-game crowd abuzz.

It was not to be.

Just a few hours before kick-off, former Senator C.C. Dill came upon a parked car near the stadium, it's engine running, heater on, and one window partially open. Inside he discovered three unconscious young men. While two of the boys were revived quickly, the exhaust fumes proved fatal to the other. It was Torgy's younger brother, Robert.

Robert, a sophomore on the Cougar basketball team, and two classmates had driven up to Spokane late Friday night. Unable to secure lodging, they decided to sleep in their car near the stadium in order to get good seats for the game.

"It was a last minute decision on their part to attend the game," Torgeson told Cougfan.com. "They had planned on spending the night at the home of one of the boys' sister, but she was out of town for the weekend."

Coach Evashevski broke the tragic news to Torgy. Attempts by authorities to reach his parents proved futile as they were in route to the game from their home in Lacrosse. Shortly before the game, they were located in the stadium after being paged, then taken to the Cougar locker room where Torgy waited outside to deliver the tragic news.

"Telling them was very difficult, I was still in shock," he recalled. "I would've played, but I wanted to take care of my folks."

His Cougar teammates took note of Torgy's absence and word quickly spread of Bob's death. With kickoff literally minutes away, the WSC football team sat stunned in the locker room.

"They all knew and liked Bob," Torgeson said. "He was very popular with the team and it was a big shock to them."

Washington State was certainly not without their share of star players. In addition to Torgy, By Bailey, Bud Roffler, Bob Gambold, Ed Barker, and Harlan Svare would go on to play professionally. But if any Crimson Soldier was irreplaceable that day, it was Torgy. Not only did he call all defensive plays for the Cougs, he anchored the offensive line at center and was the squad's emotional leader, as well.

With his absence, along with Roffler's game-ending injury three plays into the match, and the heavy emotional turmoil felt by Bob's death, WSC never had a chance. Final score: UW 52 WSU 21.

1958 Topps trading card

"King" McElhenny exploited the suddenly depleted Cougar defense, running for 296 yards and five touchdowns. In the process, he set the conference mark for single-season rushing yardage at 1,107.

It would also prove to be a banner day for his teammate, quarterback Don Heinrich. The junior entered the game with a legitimate shot at a NCAA completion record and his seventeen strikes did just that, giving him 134 on the year. Additionally, his .604 completion percentage was another NCAA milestone.

Adding insult to injury, Husky players claimed the Cougar's final touchdown was a "gift" in order to get the ball, and thus the record, back in Heinrich's hands. Not so far fetched when you hear tales of Odell's obsession with the record. The Husky coach actually ordered an outside kick with ten seconds remaining, just so he could add one more completion to Heinrich's new record. The ball was recovered by State, but the insult would not soon be forgotten.

One bright spot for the Cougars: California tied Stanford 7-7 that same day, earning the Golden Bears the coveted Rose Bowl berth and keeping Washington home for the holidays.

Torgy Torgeson would play one final collegiate football game, representing Washington State in the East-West Shrine game. Following the season, he was named first-team linebacker on both the All-Conference and All-West Coast teams.

He played eight years in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins, making the All-Pro team five of those years. A knee injury forced him to trade in his helmet for a headset in 1959. His career as an NFL assistant coach would span 36 years and earn him six Super Bowl rings — nice complements to the two championship rings he picked up as a player with Detroit.

As for the "epic battle that never was," Torgy and McElhenny would line up against each other several times throughout their pro careers. He echoes the sentiments of most defenders who faced the King: "He was a hard guy to get a hold of."

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