Husky Heroes

It was a little more than a year ago that Lincoln Kennedy spoke quietly about his long-held resentment toward the University of Washington. His ill will stemmed from the sanctions period of 1993, when the champion Husky football program began to crumble like the ancient Roman Empire-- imploding from within while simultaneously being attacked by foreign invaders.

Kennedy, the former Husky All-American and All-Pro with the Oakland Raiders, conveyed his disgust at feeling betrayed:

"I was greatly disappointed by the University of Washington for the way they turned their back on the players and Coach James… The Pac-10 investigators fabricated charges, and it really bothered me. They needed to level the playing field. But there was never a time when the UW stood by its athletes. These athletes are the people out there working hard and representing the university. There was no attempt to offer a protective shield to us.

"This situation discredited all the successes we had created. One of the proudest times for me was coming down that tunnel and looking at the bowl game plaques, knowing I had helped put them on the wall. Yet all of that was discredited by the university's actions… It left a bad taste. And I'm not close to the program because of it. I'm still bothered by it. That's why when there is a BYE week with the Raiders I don't go up there to games… I felt like the University turned its back on me, so I will turn my back on them…. Let's just say a certain someone up there has to step down before I can consider feeling close to the program again."

-- Lincoln Kennedy, November 2003

A year later it was the Friday before the Arizona game, and Lincoln Kennedy was back in Seattle. He had since retired from the Raiders and now was working for the NFL Network. In the previous twelve months an avalanche of tumult had swept through the UW athletic department. The final remnants of the past were gone, and a new university president and athletic director were in place. And a piece of Washington's storied past, Lincoln Kennedy, was back on campus to be inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame.

Recently Lincoln spoke to me about what that weekend was like for him, and he reflected on the future of Husky football.

"Well I had been back to Husky Stadium twice before," said Lincoln. "When we (Oakland Raiders) came in to play the Seahawks in Husky Stadium. Shaun Alexander ran for something like 260 yards and 5 touchdowns… It was a strange feeling- even though we were the visiting team we were standing on the Husky sideline. The scoreboard was different, the turf was different; it just wasn't the same stadium that I was used to."

Lincoln was going to be inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame Friday night- but first he had a chance to speak with then-Husky coach Keith Gilbertson.

"Gilby and I talked while they were going through practice," said Lincoln. "I told him of the problems I had with the way he was being forced to step down. Now Gilby and I always had a close relationship, like a father and son. I was pretty upset and told him so. But Gilby explained to me why it was necessary. He told me that he had a very short window to get something done. He said that this had to happen. He gave me a lot of clarity.

"It was good that I saw Gilby when I did, because I had a speech prepared for that night that was full of expletives (chuckles). I had a speech stating how the university was making the same mistakes all over again, just like they did with Don James, and allowing a great coach and great man to leave."

Lincoln changed his speech, and the ceremony was a memorable one for the former Husky lineman.

"It was touching, and it also came at an awkward time, with all the stuff happening with Gilby. In my mind I relived some of the (ugly) moments from back in the day. I used a different speech than the one I had prepared… I don't hold any weight, other than someone who has an objective opinion. But here's what I told them—In hiring the new football coach, it's important to give it to someone who understands what it is all about to be a Husky.

"When I was playing for Washington, I knew kids in junior high, and they knew they were going be a Husky. And as sure as the sun came up, each year there would be 40-50 guys walking on at fall camp, didn't care if they got beat up, just wanted to be there, just wanted to be a Husky.

"When choosing a coach, it is critical to bring in someone who knows what being a Husky means. Neuheisel was too much California. He recruited and brought in a bunch of babies who couldn't hack it. Those players don't understand what it takes to succeed. When I was watching practice on Friday, one of the kickers ran over and asked if he could get gloves for his hands because they were getting cold. I couldn't believe it! You have to be willing to tough out the elements. That is part of the deal when you sign on to come to Seattle. These kids don't have a clue. And I told Gilby, hey if they don't want to be here, if they aren't willing to do what it takes, then let them go... Just let them go. Don't kiss nobody's ass."

After Lincoln's reference to the gloves, I told him about the heated benches that Washington employed during the 2002 season. Lincoln laughed heartily then spoke emphatically.

"Go bring out those old, yellow wooden benches that we used back in the day, and those old folding chairs. And sit as a team. Actively talk about what is going on out there on the field. Be involved."

I asked Lincoln if there were any positive differences he saw with the program since he graduated a decade ago.

"Well, I saw the indoor facility, the minor improvements made to the lockers room and the nice improvements with Hec Ed Pavilion. But you know what? I see those as rewards generated from when I played there. There were privileges that players had to earn. There was an initiation process for freshmen- it wasn't hazing, but you had to pay your dues. For example, freshmen had to carry the laundry bags. Now there's a laundry shoot in the locker room, and now at most the players have to walk twenty feet. It's a small thing, but it spoils you to have everything right away.

"As an alumnus, I look at those changes and I say that's cool, that's nice. But as a former player I say, no, you haven't earned that. These are things that you have to earn. It's about paying your dues, learning and working hard."

Prior to the Arizona game, Lincoln had a chance to sit down and reminisce with two former teammates- strength coaches Steve Emtman and Pete Kaligis.

"We were talking about how on game week, starting on Thursday, everyone put on their game face. The locker room would be completely quiet. As a player you learned to have pride in yourself, pride in the program. You were getting ready to go to war. You knew your job. You were focused."

Lincoln Kennedy was alarmed at what he saw when the Huskies practiced and then lost to a mediocre Arizona team.

"I know first hand as a player, when you're on the field, even if you're playing badly, you've got to play like you're the best," he said. "At the start of a game, especially at a position like offensive tackle, you know right away if the guy across from you is better than you. If that guy is better, you will do everything you can to elevate your play to the level of the opponent. This is what you must do if you are going to be a champion. You don't miss tackles, you don't fumble, you don't cough up the rock, especially when you're not touched. You don't beat yourself with mistakes. And I don't care who you are-- you watch the game."

Lincoln also was greatly disheartened at the talent level.

"From what I've seen, it's like an Oregon State from back in the day," he said. "Or not even an Oregon State, but a Fresno State or University of Pacific-- a team that can't compete at the Pac-10 level. That is what we have. We don't have one quarterback of Pac-10 caliber. When I played, we had four of them! We had too many, and had to put ‘em at tight end (Eric Bjornson)."

Lincoln's best moment during the Arizona game came at halftime, when he (along with Napoleon Kaufman and other Huskies of various sports) was announced to the crowd as a Hall of Fame inductee. I asked him what was going through his mind as he stood in the end zone waving to the crowd.

Lincoln laughed. "Well, the first thing going through my mind was, what am I doing in a purple blazer?

"But it was a very heartfelt, loud ovation from the crowd, and I appreciated it. When I walked up the steps through the student section, it was very emotional to be loved and admired, especially when many of the cheers and people patting me on the back were students in the student section. They were around seven years old when I played here, they couldn't have all seen me play-- and that just shows you how Husky football can transcend through the generations."

I asked Lincoln if he felt more at peace with what happened a decade ago. I also asked what needed to be done to Washington's public image to get in tune with youngsters around Seattle.

"I do feel more at peace with it," he said. "Our university is in a position where they need to turn over a new leaf. The people that I had grudges against are gone. Our generation of alumni needs to step up. It is a different time, and a different attitude prevails. With the older alumni that have given money to the university for years, they don't get it when 10-12 kids on the team have dread locks. There is a gap. Likewise, this younger generation of current players doesn't understand what it means to be a Husky.

"That gap needs to be bridged. Our generation needs to speak up. Our voices need to be heard."
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories