Husky Hero: LT

It was in the 1999 Apple Cup where Lester Towns was playing in his final home game as a Husky. The dark, cloudy skies were filled with wind and rain and made everything in the stadium soggy.

The Astroturf cast a reflective sheen from the artificial lights. One by one the seniors were introduced, running through a human tunnel made by their teammates and onto the field. When Lester Towns' name was announced, he emerged and made his way with a happy look upon his face. He was also wearing a three-foot long, tube-shaped hat that was identical to Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat character.

"I had seen that hat—and of course it was striped purple and gold, and I knew I had to wear it for the final trip through the tunnel," said Towns recently. During a 90-minute phone conversation with from his North Carolina home. Towns' three fun-loving children were audible in the background and he sporadically paused the conversation to instruct or banter with them.

"It was a bittersweet way to finish my Husky career," he said. "On the one hand I was proud of the fact that I was the first two-year captain in Husky history. I could be wrong, but that's what they told me. Especially from the Don James years, they always had seniors for captains. It was the players—my teammates-- that did the voting. It showed that they had respect for me… I was kind of proud of that."

But why was his career bittersweet?

"I felt it was definitely time to move on," said Towns. "My senior year was a disappointment in some ways. I was dealing with an injury my entire junior year and I wasn't 100%. I was very sore all season long. In my senior season I had the screws taken out of my foot, and I was healthy. But I got off to a slow start. We had coach Neuheisel and his staff in for their first year. I felt like I was being blown off. My job was threatened. I didn't feel comfortable in the new system. And I saw other things occur that concerned me. In my opinion, Marques Hairston got screwed. It was his senior year and he had been a two-year starter. Suddenly he was the backup his last season. Derrell Daniels was put in there. Don't get me wrong-- Derrell was a great guy. But the new coaches wanted to put their young guys in and prepare for the future. They were trying to get rid of all the old Lambright guys. In a way I understand where they were coming from, to get ready for the future. But guys like Marques had paid their dues. I just didn't think it was right."

"Now don't get me wrong," added Towns. "I don't want to be misinterpreted as being too negative on this. Coach Neuheisel is a real smart guy. He knew how to talk, and lots of people loved him. In some ways he was a great coach. But I knew guys from Colorado and I had heard some stories… Neuheisel reminds me of a politician. He smiles, is good with the people, and has a plan. He was a players' coach. He was younger, open and playful. He'd sit down and play video games with his players.

"But things ended on a down note with him and I," concluded Towns. "Right before I got drafted, an article came out saying that I was a hothead and a troublemaker. I was upset, because here I am trying to get drafted as high as possible, and this is being said about me. I called the man who wrote the article, and he swore up and down that someone from the coaching staff had told him this. I went to talk to Neuheisel, and he answered, I never said that! Go talk to Hundley, maybe he said it. So I went and talked to coach Hundley, and he said he didn't say that either. Hundley got on the phone and called the writer and gave him hell. But the writer stuck to his story. In any event, it was too late. It was already out there. I didn't like the whole feeling of that situation, and it was definitely time to move on. I was ready to go. After I had been in the NFL for a year I came back to U-Dub to hang out a bit, and I saw Neuheisel in the weight room. The way we passed each other wasn't very comfortable—there was a bad vibe."

Lester Towns' fondest impressions as a Husky came from earlier in his career.

"Coach Lambright had a much different style," said Towns. "He was more of the let's kick some butt and get it done mentality. Compared to Neuheisel, Lambright was older and quieter. We heard that he had maintained a lot of the details from the way Don James ran things. And I made some good friendships with guys like Marques Hairston, Nigel Burton and Donald Watts from the basketball team.

"And then of course there was coach Baird, with whom I'm still friends to this day. We called him Pops. I'm still close to him and his wife Kim, and his whole family. Coach Baird took you in and you always felt like he was there for you. Awhile back in off-season, I went out and visited him at his cabin in Belfair. It's this real nice log cabin out in the woods, with its own little lake. That's the way I'd like to retire some day. He has a real nice and quiet place there."

When Towns made the transition to the NFL to play for the Carolina Panthers, he took note of the dramatic differences from college.

"The checks are certainly bigger that the scholarship checks we received," said Towns. And being on TV and traveling all over the country. It's like what you dream about when you grow up. I had the experience of playing the (2004) Super Bowl. That was a tremendous experience.

"But on the other hand, the atmosphere at college football games is better. Places like Husky Stadium, Nebraska and Notre Dame, are the big-time stadiums that I played at and experienced. I remember once that we were playing in Husky Stadium and Army had the ball at our 1-yard line late in the game. The crowd got so loud that the stadium was shaking! I miss that feeling of enthusiasm from the fans. I miss that part of being a college player. There is pressure in college of course, but not the tremendous pressure found in the NFL. In college it is more relaxing and fun. You don't have the extra stress of worrying if you're going to get cut and lose your job."

These days, Towns constantly attempts to convey his philosophy of work to his kids.

"I ask my kids two things — did you give 100% effort and did you have fun? If you did, then that's all that matters. I always ask them, did you have fun today?

"And like I told my wife recently about my NFL career, When I stop having fun, I'm done. I enjoy playing. Even when I was in my second year with Carolina, we were 1-15 and having a terrible year. But I was still full of college enthusiasm. Just being out there, running around hitting people. I was feeling like Hey this is fun! I'm gonna hurt somebody and have fun doing it. You had better love your job if you hope to do well at it."

After four seasons with Carolina and a Super Bowl appearance, Lester Towns had to sit out the 2004 campaign due to an injury that needed extra time to mend. He has his sights set on returning to an active roster in 2005.

"I had surgery and I didn't heal up until the season was already underway," he said. "Now I am a free agent and have been working out. I am looking forward to getting back out there. This coming week I am heading down to Miami to work out for the Dolphins. I have heard some good things about the direction they're going and feel good about that situation. Although- I wouldn't mind hearing from the Seahawks. I would love to play in Seattle again."

Towns strips Terrell Owens of the football

Towns then chuckled and added: "It's like when you mentioned earlier about when I ran out of the tunnel at Husky Stadium with the Dr. Seuss Hat. I'm at that point again in my life. It's time to move on. I had real good times at Carolina and went to a Super Bowl. I played with some real cool guys. But now I'm looking forward to joining a new team and having a great year."

And what ever happened to that crazy Dr. Seuss hat?

"Oh, I still have it," said Towns with a hearty laugh. "My 8-year old daughter took it to school to show to her classmates."
Derek Johnson is a freelance writer and can be reached at Top Stories