Paul Arnold: A twist of fate

Paul Arnold could have sulked when things went wrong. As a true freshman, he showed glimpses of the game breaker that he was at both O'Dea and Kennedy High Schools. Then he suffered a sophomore slump and questions began to pop up about his speed, his toughness, his hair . . . you name it.

It was difficult to pinpoint, but it did appear that Arnold had lost a gear somewhere between his freshman and sophomore seasons. His trademark burst of speed that left defenders grasping for air was missing, and he was not able to get into the open field.

What would-be armchair quarterbacks didn't know was the amount of pain Arnold endured while toughing it out toting the rock between the tackles.

After an impressive game on the road at Colorado, Arnold's health finally reached a point where he could no longer answer the bell. His back was so sore he couldn't carry his bags to the team bus in Boulder.

After enduring a great deal of physical pain and mental frustration, a medical exam revealed a spinal condition called Sponylosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can pinch the nerves running through the lower back. Arnold's future, although he wouldn't admit it, was at risk.

"I'm fine. There is nothing wrong with my back. The only time it hurts is when you bring it up," Arnold said, stubbornly.

With Rich Alexis, Braxton Cleman, and Willie Hurst taking over the load at tailback, Arnold was in a difficult spot.

As Washington prepared for the 2001 Rose Bowl, Arnold worked as a scout team receiver and opened some eyes. The following spring, Coach Neuheisel asked him if he would be willing to try the position on a full-time basis, as it could be a way to get him back onto the field and might not require him to absorb as many hits to his back.

Ever the team player, Arnold agreed to the switch.

After a spring game where Arnold caught three long bombs and totaled 109 receiving yards, Washington suddenly had their first true deep threat since Jerome Pathon graduated.

Number 20 is now a full-time receiver and going into his senior year. He'll most likely be the starter opposite Reggie Williams on the other side of the field.

"I miss it a little bit, but I'm having fun at receiver and I've never thought about going back, except for cracking jokes about it," said Arnold of the switch from tailback.

One area he really misses is on the kickoff return team. "I definitely miss that. I like getting my hands on the ball but we have some good guys back there now, so I understand why I'm not back there."

Arnold relinquished his return-man role to freshman Charles Frederick and sophomore Roc Alexander.

Although he no longer stands in line to accept handoffs, he still is helpful to the younger running backs because of his experience. "I understand the things that they are going through because I was there. I might say something like ‘you should have done this ….'"

Arnold will approach 2002 with a veteran attitude. He knows it's his final season of college football. "I'm getting old. When you look back on things, they always seem (to go) really fast. When you are going through it, it seems like a long time. But time is flying right now. I'm going to be a leader on the team next year."

Arnold is a well-kept secret on the UW football team. He rarely lets his guard down when giving interviews. "I try to slide out the back door, try to get out of the crowd, follow the linemen . . . anything to get away from an interview," he said with a smile.

"I would rather just play instead of talk about myself."

What outsiders might not know is that Arnold is one of the funniest kids on the team. He never shows it in public, but his teammates all respect his wit and ability to deliver a well-aimed barb every bit as much as his 4.4 speed and 41.5-inch vertical leap.

Right on time, reserve defensive end Houdini Jackson walks by and Arnold uncharacteristically lights up. "This is my side-kick right here, Houdini Jackson. I show him the ropes and everything. I take care of him. Without me, he'd be lost."

Jackson just smiles and shakes his head as he walks away.

Earlier this year after the victory over Stanford, Arnold walked up the tunnel next to our own staff reporter, Dawn Van Diest. Arnold's mind was on a play that he didn't make that afternoon. He had his man beat deep by five yards over the middle and the sure touchdown play ended with the ball bouncing off of his helmet and falling to the turf. In the tunnel after the game, he deadpanned, "I sure hope that one's on SportsCenter. That WOULD be the play that everybody will see me make (or not make)."

Van Diest burst out laughing, as did several teammates and other reporters in the tunnel who caught that rare glimpse into this young man's wit. Arnold just shook his head, never changing expression, as he continued to the Husky locker room.

When he reflects on the season he just enjoyed, he smiles. "I am definitely having a lot of fun. I had a good year this year and am just enjoying it like all of the guys. I am just having a ball."

He is very smooth in running his routes and has always had good hands. His natural gifts perhaps covered up what was, in reality, a very difficult transition.

"It was rough. It looked smoother than probably what it really was," admits Arnold.

He suffered a few drops but also had some electrifying catches. He and Cody Pickett hooked up for three long touchdown bombs, two against California that were the difference in the Huskies' come-from-behind win in Berkeley. Another long touchdown against Arizona at home helped cement his status as a very legitimate deep threat. It will give him confidence next season, as he will play a bigger role in the offense with the departure of Todd Elstrom and the potential loss of Justin Robbins due to injury.

"I had a real good year and I'm excited with the progress I've made over the years. I feel like this was my year to improve, and I am getting to where I need to be so my senior year can be a good one."

He'll spend the off-season working on running routes and catching balls. "You have to catch balls every day, so I am going to catch all the balls I can," said Arnold of his spring and summer plans.

Starting quarterback Cody Pickett underwent successful shoulder surgery and should be available for spring football. Arnold won't have to go far to play some sandlot pigskin. "I live next door to Cody, so I spend most of the time giving him a hard time about him throwing me ducks and not throwing me rocks," said Arnold with a laugh.

Arnold has it all rolling now. He's made a successful switch to wide receiver, he's proven to be a reliable deep threat that his quarterback can rely on to find space in the secondary, and he's doing well in his classes.

"(School is going) really well, I finished up the quarter well. I know why I'm there and I'm handling my school business."

Sometimes when you get a bad break, you have to keep your head up and make the best of it. Paul Arnold is a perfect example. He fought through injury and found his way back to the football field.

Through a twist of fate, both he and the University of Washington football team have discovered a deep threat that has been missing from the offense for quite some time. Hopefully, his senior season will be full of SportsCenter highlights.
Dawn Van Diest and Kim Grinolds contributed to this article.

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