God bless Woody McHale

RICKY TURNER'S Holiday Bowl heroics are as vivid to me today as they were 20 years ago. I can still spy <b>Drew Bledsoe</b> smashing records at the Copper Bowl in '92 and <b>Ron Childs</b> cracking heads left and right at the Alamo Bowl in '94. And yes, that truck-and-trailer with <b>Love Jefferson</b> in the waning moments of the '98 Rose Bowl still brings a smile.

WSU's first visit to El Paso was full of equally indelible crimson memories. Like freshman linebacker Pat Bennett forcing Kyle Orton into an ill-advised toss that Jason David turned into a 45-yards sprint to paydirt. And lithe receiver Jerome Riley punishing tacklers like a fullback. And Billy Newman turning Orton into a personal punching bag.

But through it all, one scene will shine brightest --- and not just as a Sun Bowl or Cougar football memory.

It was the unbridled spirit of Woody McHale.

The honorary Cougar co-captain for the Sun Bowl, his actions on the sidelines before, during and after the game were a life-affirming anthem of the human spirit.

I know little about Woody McHale other than fact he's big enough to take on Rien Long and that he's a firefighter from New York. Verne Lundquist said that 21 of his colleagues were killed trying to save others at the World Trade Center on September 11.

If memory serves, that means he's part of the legendary Engine Company 53/Ladder Company 43 in East Harlem. He was on the front lines of the horrifying start of the war between freedom and terrorism.

With patriotism as the theme of the Sun Bowl, McHale and police officer Kenneth Pepe were picked to represent New York's bravest at the coin toss.

My hunch is that prior to this week Mr. McHale's familiarity with Washington State football probably started and ended with the fact such esteemed Cougars as Erik Howard, Dan Doornink, Joe Danelo and Mel Hein happened to play for the New York Giants at one time or another.

But on Monday, Woody McHale looked liked a man who'd been bleeding crimson for a lifetime. East Harlem? He seemed to have come straight from Eastern Washington. This kind of loyalty is of a strain typically found in those born, bred and baptized in the Church of the Holy Cougar.

Woody was genuinely excited to be on the field --- and even more enthused to be representing Washington State. He was as engaged in the Cougars' fortunes as Mike Price and Bill Doba. All day long he was slappin' guys on the back and hollering words of encouragement.

His spirit was contagious. McHale appeared to be the first stop for the players every time the Cougar D came off the field following a Purdue punt or turnover. If the game itself wasn't enough to stoke a kid with fight and fury, McHale clearly was.

He served up zest by the gallon. Support oozed from his pores. The confidence flowed. He was the picture of what a teammate should be.

There's a reason his FDNY t-shirts are the real McCoy.

This was a man you'd want next to you in a war --- a real war.

On this day, though, it was simply a grid battle. And the Cougars were fortunate  to have him on their side. It's a memory all Cougars should cherish.

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