LEAF: Out of tragedy came unity, then triumph

"I AM SOMETIMES disappointed, but I love my life ... and I must believe that those disappointments contribute something to what I love." I wrote that in a journal entry about 19 months ago and continue to read it every morning when I wake to remind myself of how many special things inhabit my life as a result of some of those disappointments and where I'm now headed.

Those words bring me back to a story about a young man – a fellow Cougar -- who had to grow up very quickly in a summer of tragedy that ultimately gave way to triumph.

I'll get into the story in a moment, but believe some perspective is needed to help frame it all. Last November, I took a friend of mine to the Apple Cup in Seattle. My friend was a Canadian who I had met at the recovery center near Vancouver where I tackled my addiction to prescription painkillers. I told him we would be hanging out with some of my fellow Cougars and he understood that to mean we would be spending time with some of my old Cougar football teammates.


He was surprised to find out that when I said fellow Cougars that meant anyone who graduated from or attended Washington State. See, in Canada "going to university" doesn't have the same meaning as we know it, and he made a statement to me that really made me think. "That sure is a big decision to make for a 17 or 18 year-old."

I asked what he meant, and he said, "deciding who you would be for the rest of your life." Very true. Who knew when I walked into my parents' bedroom on New Year's Day in 1994 and told them that I was going to Washington State, that I was making a decision that would help define me for the long term as it has defined many, many others. When I made that decision I had no idea of what it truly meant to be a Cougar. Of course, I know now very clearly. It's about family, and being a part of something that transcends who you are and what you stand for.

I forgot that for a short time in my life when things started to unravel for me during my time in the NFL and those years following retirement. I forgot that we are all here for one another, in tough times, as well as good. Being a Cougar is something special. There is a bond that is almost remarkable in its scope. No matter what has happened, or will happen, in our lives we will always have each other to lean on when you need it the most.

This leads me to this weekend when WSU takes on Montana State. When the Cougars walk onto the field Saturday afternoon to face the Bobcats a familiar face and former Cougar will have preceded them out of the tunnel, but as a member of the Bobcat coaching staff. Jason McEndoo, a standout offensive guard for the Cougs from 1993-97, is the MSU offensive line coach. He was a part of the famous "Fat 5" who protected me during our run to the 1998 Rose Bowl and my entire career at Washington State.

I first met Jason on my recruiting trip, in December 1993, when he was a redshirting freshman and I was a cocky kid from Great Falls. I made quite an impression on him. We were sitting in my hotel room on the last night of the trip, and of course in my most humble way, I explained to him how great I was and how great I was going to be. Hearing him tell me the story years later I can't help but laugh at how full of myself I must have come across.

This false bravado surely didn't endear me to him. The thought of me serving as the quarterback leader of a team he was on seems, in retrospect, farfetched. But things have a way of working out.


I tell this story because when you talk about being a Cougar, Jason McEndoo was, and will always be, exactly that.

Let's go back to the summer of 1996. Jason had just married his Aberdeen High sweetheart and fellow WSU student, Michelle, a month earlier. There must have been something in the air, because weddings were coming down like rain in Forks. We all had ventured over to the west side of Washington for fellow teammate Cory Withrow's wedding. It was a great day. Michelle sang. Jason and fellow Cougar lineman Ryan McShane were groomsmen. We had an amazing celebration.

THEN: Jason McEndoo as a WSU senior in 1997.

Just one day later, however, life as we knew it would change forever. Jason, Michelle, and Ryan -- Jason's best friend and fellow starter on the Cougar offensive line -- were driving back to Pullman from the wedding. The McEndoos' truck was on the fritz so they had carpooled with Ryan.

Just before Ellensburg, tragedy struck. It was a hot day, the air conditioner wasn't working, and Ryan fell asleep at the wheel. His Ford Explorer swerved, he woke up and overcorrected, and the Explorer flipped several times. Jason came out of the accident mostly unhurt and Ryan was bruised and battered but OK. Michelle -- Jason's wife of just one month -- died at the scene.

I remember getting back to Pullman and hearing the message on my answering machine about what happened. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Why does tragedy always attack the innocent? I spent the next few weeks trying to find a way to put things in perspective, how do we deal with this as a team, how do I comfort Jason and Ryan as well? Will the season be lost, because all of us now realize so starkly that football doesn't mean as much as it did before?

NOW: Jason McEndoo as offensive line coach at Montana State.

There were so many issues to deal with. For the next few weeks, teammates and I would visit Jason at the doublewide trailer home he and Michelle had outside of Pullman. None of use knew what to say or what to really do in this situation. Back then and to this day, I've been very lucky in that death hasn't been a real part of my life. And it wasn't just Jason who was hurting, either. Ryan, as the driver, was devastated. The "what ifs," he would say, just ate at him.

We all tried to come together for Jason and Ryan that fall camp and attempt to put the pieces back together. As we prepared for the first game at Colorado, Jason came to about 10 of us and asked us to wear an "M" on our jersey in remembrance of Michelle. I was so honored that he would ask me to do that. I wore that jersey with so much pride I don't think he really truly understands how much it meant to me that he asked me to do that.

We had to travel all the way to Philadelphia the week after our loss to Colorado to play the Temple Owls and we all played as hard as we could. It was a back-and-forth battle until the last minute. With beautiful protection from the offensive line, I hit Chad Carpenter for the game-winning touchdown in the corner of the end zone. We came to the sideline and everyone was going crazy over the victory, jumping up and down in celebration, and I looked down the bench and saw Jason and Ryan sitting next to one another with their heads in their hands.

I walked down and saw that they both were crying uncontrollably and I knelt down between them both and witnessed the raw emotion of being part of a family, being there for one another in the face of everything and being able to lean on your fellow Cougar when he needed it the most. While everyone around us was in joyous celebration we hugged one another and let our true emotions explode in each others' arms. I remember that game like no other. Jason let us in and made us a part of his family and allowed us to help him, like he had time and time again helped us. Being a teammate and a Cougar had allowed him to heal in a little way that hot, humid night in the City of Brotherly Love, and brought all of us even closer than we could have ever imagined.

Jason has become a well-respected coach and recruiter throughout the country and continues to bring that integrity and sense of family to his job everyday at Montana State. We have stayed in touch through the years but not as much as I've liked, largely due to my shortcomings, but he has always been there for me no matter what. When Jason walks onto the turf at Martin Stadium on Saturday he will do it as a Bobcat, but deep in his heart where it truly matters, he remains a Cougar.

Jason is remarried to another fellow Cougar. Her name is Ruth and she is someone who entered his life when he truly needed her to. They have four kids and have built a wonderful family and life together in Bozeman. They continue to be an inspiration to me. I believe in my heart that through the tragedy Jason endured in 1996 he embraced what took me such a long time to figure out. He allowed us in and allowed us to help him heal in a way family only can. When I think of Jason these days I see a tremendously courageous and heroic human being. I look up to him and what he has accomplished in his life. I know what great joy can come from coaching young men and I can only imagine that amazing feeling Jason has each time he steps onto the field.

The truths that I had once forgotten about what it means to be a member of the Cougar family are on vivid display when I think of Jason. If the world is getting you down, Cougar Nation is always there. I know that time won't ever steal our souls, we are never broken and you can always come home. So today I believe the saying "Once a Coug, always a Coug" couldn't be more true!

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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