Utley, Thompson talk Cup, snot bubbles, more

FIVE YEARS OF HARD work under two great coaches. Consensus All-America honors. The centerpiece of the most formidable offensive line in school history. A victory over the No. 1 team in the nation. But what burns brightest for Mike Utley was coming out of the tunnel at Martin Stadium for the last time. It was a chilly November day in 1988. The stands were packed and the Huskies were on the field.

"The fraternity and sorority kids are yelling, all the fans are cheering. It gave me goose bumps," Utley recalled last night at Cougfan.com's Apple Cup Rally at The Village Pub in Seattle.

"That's the one moment, my best memory, of being a Coug -– my last time running through the tunnel, to have the privilege to play for the crimson and gray," Utley told a throng of Cougar faithful who battled heavy rains and traffic snarls to hoist one with him. "Giving guys snot bubbles was pretty cool, too," joked the man whose dominating play brought out the best in his opponents.

The ending that November day was storybook. The Cougars came from behind to beat the Dawgs, 32-31. They would go on to defeat Houston in the Aloha Bowl, capping WSU's best season since the days of Mel Hein and Turk Edwards.

Utley, who made the trip to Seattle on Wednesday with his wife Danni from their home near Wenatchee, also talked briefly about his journey outside of football.

Fifteen years ago tomorrow, in a game between his Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Rams, Utley went down in the middle of a pass play. He lay on the turf motionless. When he was wheeled off the field, he gave the crowd a thumbs up.

His spirit was undaunted. But his body was paralyzed.

"I was devastated," he said. "This is something that affects your family, your loved ones and your community, but I wasn't going to allow myself to be a weak link. If you're not productive, you're a burden."

The road back to self-sufficiency meant grueling hours of rehabilitation and therapy. His path, he says, wasn't unlike that of a ballplayer or, frankly, anyone in any pursuit or career.

"It's easy to work hard when a coach or boss is watching you," he said. "The sign you're giving 100 percent is when nobody is watching you. Do you have the integrity to do what's right when the only boss is you? Champions are never made during the season, but in the off-season when personal integrity is the only driver."

Utley, clearly, wasn't going to be defeated by his injury.

The fact his legs won't work is a hindrance to him, not a sentence. He skydives, skis, kayaks, scuba dives, boats and handcycles. More than anything, though, he's devoting his life to helping find a cure for spinal cord injuries through The Mike Utley Foundation . The heart of his fundraising work is the Dam2Dam bike tour along the Columbia River between the Rocky Reach and Wells dams in Central Washington. In 2007, the ride will be on Sept. 29 -– a Saturday strategically picked so as not to conflict with a Cougar home game.

"You can do a 25-mile segment, 50 miles or the entire 100 miles," Utley said. "Get a group of friends and ride together. If you don't want to ride, do the 1st-and-10 -– set aside $10 on the first of every month and contribute."

Last year, three-time Tour de France champion Greg Lemond was the event's featured guest.

UTLEY WASN'T THE ONLY Cougar legend at Wednesday's Cougfan.com Apple Cup Rally at The Village Pub. The Throwin' Samoan, record-setting quarterback Jack Thompson, also was there. Asked what it was like this season to watch his freshman son, starting long snapper and back up tight end Tony Thompson, step onto the field for the Cougars, he said he almost cried.

"I was so proud," Jack said. "That first game, though, against Auburn, I was so worried. It takes a long time to get used to it, but he's doing great and contributing to the success of the Cougars."

"You know, all these years I've never paid attention to the long snapping," Thompson said. "You could ask me who's long snapping and I'd say ‘I don't know, who cares.' But you know what? I discovered this season that long snapping is the most important position on the field!"

Thompson shared a funny story about being recruited in 1975. On letter-of-intent signing day, an assistant coach from Oregon and one from WSU -– a guy by the name of Mike Price -– were parked outside the family home at 7 am. Jack told them he couldn't give an answer until having a final talk with his dad, who worked the graveyard shift and wouldn't be home for another 30 minutes.

When his dad arrived, Jack asked him what he thought he should do. "You need to make your own decision," Jack recalls his father saying, "You can be a COUGAR," his father said, putting a deep and commanding emphasis on the word cougar, "or you can be a duck," he said, saying the word duck very meekly. "It's your decision."

Not surprisingly, Thompson said, his son Tony reports that workouts in Pullman this week have been very spirited. "You don't need any extra motivation to get up for the Apple Cup," he said.

And finally, when asked about J.T. Diederichs, the star running back who signed with the Cougars out of high school and again last winter coming out of junior college. Thompson called the lad "scary good." Thompson knows first-hand what he's talking about. He was on the sidelines as a Ballard High assistant during Diederichs' 4,000-yard prep career.

"If he can get his academics in order and get in uniform, the Cougars will have an unbelievable running back -– he's 6-3, 230 pounds and has 4.3 speed," Thompson said. "He reminds me of Eric Dickerson –- only stronger."

AMONG THE OTHER luminaries at Wednesday's gathering were John Bley, son of 1930s Cougar star lineman Johnny Bley and treasurer of the booster club that keeps the Ol' Crimson flag waving behind Lee Corso's head every Saturday morning on ESPN's Gameday. In addition, two retired Ol' Crimson flags –- from 2004 and 2005 -– were on display.

Eric Johnson, a one-time Cougar baseball player better known as the sports director at KOMO-TV in Seattle, also was on hand -- and brought a camera crew with him. After interviewing Utley, he turned the mic toward the crimson faithful, who gave him an earful about what they think of the Huskies.

Pat Mitchell, a CF.C editor who also operates BannerFan.com, brought an eight-foot-long "Go Cougs" banner to the rally and had all the Coug fans write notes of encouragement on it for the team. He's FedExing it to Bill Doba today.

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The Village Pub in Magnolia, a well known great place to spend Saturdays watching Cougar football, isn't the only crimson-friendly bar and grill that will be airing the Apple Cup this weekend. 88 Keys, located in Pioneer Square at 315 2nd Ave. S., will be broadcasting the Cougs and Dawgs on 15 42-inch Plasma TVs and one 110-inch projector screen. Both of these hotspots will open at 9 am on Saturday. The owner, Matt Baker, is a devout Coug who knows how to treat customers right with delicious food and tasty beverages.

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