God bless Woody McHale

THE MEMORIES FROM 32 years of loyal Cougar watching are legion and indelible. But right near the top is one that has nothing to do with a perfect pass or timely interception.

As much as they warm my heart, Bernard Jackson running wild against Oregon in '71 and Jack Thompson orchestrating back-to-back road wins over Nebraska and Michigan State in '77 and Artie Holmes snuffing out two UCLA drives in the final quarter to upset Troy Aikman and the No. 1-ranked Bruins in 1988 pale compared with what I saw in El Paso last December.

It's the picture of Woody McHale roaming the WSU sidelines at the Sun Bowl against Purdue.

He was the honorary Cougar co-captain in El Paso. And 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 one year ago today. The day that has burned 9/11into our collective conscience.

Woody is part of Engine Company 53/Ladder Company 43 in East Harlem. They were 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 the game, 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 when the Cougars and Boilermakers squared off, 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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