LEAF: I see parallels in Tuel's test at OSU

IT'S FUNNY SOMETIMES how the mind works. One recent evening, while riding on a combine through a sea of winter wheat on a family friend's ranch, my thoughts drifted to college football. More specifically, to the final, sun-drenched day of August in 1997 when a Rose Bowl run was launched in a nail-biting win over UCLA.

For those of you who don't know much about modern-day combines, there isn't a ton of action involved and you can be driving for hours on end with only your thoughts and the rolling hills of grain leading to the horizon here in the north-central part of Montana. I've been helping harvest a bumper crop this summer. It's been an education for me, but also a chance to recharge the batteries in a scenic setting.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

That's undoubtedly why my mind drifted back to August 1997. The scenery, the weather and the time of year were so similar.

From 1997 and our memorable three-point win over UCLA in the season opener, my mind then raced further back, to 1996, when we opened the season on the road at Colorado in front of a ridiculously rowdy crowd and a national TV audience.

And then, faster than you can say harvest time in God's country, my mind catapulted me to the wilds of British Columbia and a salmon fishing trip earlier this summer with a great group of Cougars that included Jeff Tuel's dad, Jeff Sr.

So where, you might be asking, is this episode of Quantum Leap heading?

To Stillwater, Oklahoma, that's where.

My various flashbacks, I think, are driven by the similarities I'm seeing between this season opener and the one we had in 1996 at Colorado.

Big-name opponent from the Big 12 Conference. Season opener. On the road. Underdog.

And a youngster playing quarterback for the Cougs.


TUEL MEETS LEAF THIS PAST MARCH AT WESTSIDE FOOTBALL DINNER.

Jeff Tuel is a true sophomore who has thrown just 121 college passes and 6 TDs. In 1996 I was a third-year sophomore with 97 career passes and 4 TDs under my belt.

I was a brash, but very insecure 20-year-old entering my first full season as the starting quarterback for Washington State. I had started just one game up to that point – the 1995 Apple Cup – and was beyond nervous heading into fall camp. There were so many upper-classman that I wanted respect from and I didn't feel that I had earned it. I was around for the summer off-season conditioning program, but I never felt my leadership defined itself in a way that made them respect me to the point they would bleed for me week in and week out.

Our first opponent that year, which is where I am drawing these comparisons, was Colorado in Boulder. The fans there were nuts. Maybe not as nuts as the ones the Cougs will find this weekend at Oklahoma State, but still right up there.

And smack in the middle of it, just like 14 years ago, will be a young, modestly experienced sophomore quarterback. Also like the 1996 team, this year's Cougars are coming off a tough season so no one expects anything from them.

On the leadership front, though, I think Jeff Tuel is way ahead of where I was. From everyone I've talked with and everything I've heard, he is a kid of uncommon maturity who has tremendous leadership skills. He's had a very good fall camp and this team is truly his.

Saturday will be a huge test for Jeff because he doesn't have the luxury of either opening the season at home or against a no-name opponent. This is the state of Oklahoma, where people genuflect at the altar of the football gods before they even think about going to church. This is also summer. It's going to be hot and probably humid. When he gets to the line for that first snap, he's going to scan the defense looking for clues. Not just where guys are lined up, but whether a shoulder is shaded this way or that, whether it's really cover-3 he's seeing or just a disguise ...

Think about that for just a second. He has thousands of data points running through his head, key decisions to make on the fly, 10 other guys relying on him to do it all right, and 60,200 people hollering at him. And he's basically still a kid.

If he's anything like I was, he'll be crawling out of his skin before he gets to the field and his heart will be pounding out of his chest before that first snap.

This is college football. This is why it's such a great game and, in my opinion, a better game than the professional version. This is still the kid down the street suiting up, not someone who does it as a full-time job.

Win, lose or draw, Saturday's game will make Jeff a better quarterback. He may not even realize it, but it will. And the lessons he learns, the experience he gains, will turn up in lots of little ways that help win a lot of games down the road.

I REMEMBER THE 1996 COLORADO game like it was yesterday. My folks had just purchased a new minivan and my entire extended family made the journey from throughout Montana south to Boulder. And for those of you who have ever had the experience of meeting any of my family members – or cousin Matt Kegel's – you know they make an impression! This was a beginning for me and that '96 team. It was time to reinvent ourselves, time to make ourselves standout in a way where we would be remembered.

This isn't a story of how we overcame the obstacles of playing on the road in hostile territory and walked away victorious. We lost that game 37-19 to Colorado and didn't play particularly well, but we played hard and we played to the final whistle. We set a tone. We went on to win five games that year and lost two others at the wire.

For me personally, what happened after the game was as important as what happened during it.

My entire family was waiting outside the locker room by the team buses. Hugs and consolation came from all around. Except my father, John, hung back. We always had this kind of relationship where he would know exactly what I was thinking about my performance and what I could have done differently. It wasn't usually verbalized, but communicated with a certain look that told me he knew everything I was thinking at that moment.

He knew the loss that day was killing even more than usual – and that's saying something because I'm almost pathologically competitive. He knew I was desperate to earn the respect of the upper-classmen. And then in his most understated way he came over, gave me hug and whispered in my ear "proud of you" just before I got on the bus.

My dad understood how competitive I was and how much losing bothered me. I wanted to win that game so badly I could taste it. I wanted to make an impression on my upper–classman and teammates, and I felt I had let them down.

As I walked up the stairs of the bus, most of the seats were already taken and it was customary for underclassman, regardless if you were the starting QB or not, to double up. I looked for a seat, hoping for an empty row so I could stretch out after getting beat up a bit. Four of my offensive linemen jumped to their feet and then almost physically relocated another teammate – an underclassman who hadn't played much – so I could have two seats to myself. The memory almost brings a tear to my eye. We had lost, but we had lost as team, and now I knew the veterans accepted me as one of their own -- that ultimately, week in and week out, we would bleed together and fight as hard as we could together.

One year later, we defeated UCLA and USC to open the season and ultimately earned a trip to the Rose Bowl where I'm still waiting for those last two seconds to be put back on the clock. The journey to that Rose Bowl, however, began a year earlier on that hot day in Boulder.

Jeff Tuel and the 2010 Cougars are now the ones traveling to a hostile, Big 12 environment to open the season. Win or lose, they will start something new and special. They are young and athletic, much like our 1996 team. Who knows where it ultimately will take them, but I do know they will do it as a team, as Cougars always do.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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