Napoleon Kaufman Reflects on September 1994

Despite the albatross of probation hanging from its neck, the Washington football team still forged September of 1994 into a glimmering month of glory. After an opening loss to USC, the Huskies earned consecutive triumphs over the Ohio State Buckeyes and Miami Hurricanes. The ninth month of 1994 also featured the breaking of two iconic rushing records, both by UW running back Napoleon Kaufman.

But were it not for the 1993 Apple Cup, the events that transpired the following September may have been much different. In that game, Kaufman racked up 181 yards rushing and two touchdowns in a 26-3 victory over the Washington State Cougars. He finished his junior season with a school-record 1,299 yards and the siren song of NFL riches was seducing his imagination. But something else occurred in Husky Stadium that day that greatly influenced the young man from Lompoc, California.

In a recent discussion with Dawgman.com, Kaufman was asked about that ‘93 Apple Cup, and whether he had been leaning heavily toward turning pro.

"I might have been, I might have been," he said. "It was my junior year against WSU and I rushed for about 180 yards; and to have the crowd chant ONE MORE YEAR, that was one of the deciding factors to me coming back for my senior season. That really impressed me. For them to stand up and show appreciation for my talent and ask me to come back, that meant a lot.

"Having had an opportunity to leave early for the NFL, I wasn't comfortable leaving the school at that time," he added. "I was really having just a wonderful time with the fans and my teammates. I just didn't feel the timing was right."

After kicking off the 1994 campaign with a close loss at USC, the Huskies returned to Seattle for their home opener against Eddie George and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Over 71,000 fans piled into Husky Stadium, to watch a battle royale between the Pac-10 and Big-10.

"Coming back for my senior season - and as a team and having been on probation and having lost to Ohio State the year before - we really had something to prove," said Kaufman. "We handed it to ‘em. We played really tough and had a great game."

The Huskies would open up a 19-0 lead in the first quarter. After stuffing the Buckeyes on the opening series, the Huskies took over at their own 41-yard line. Seven plays later, the Dawgs drew first blood. Husky QB Damon Huard handed off to Kaufman and the speedy senior ripped off a 38-yard touchdown run.

"It was designed to go to the left," said Kaufman. "But I cut it back to the right. I split a couple of defenders. The line did a great job of blocking, I didn't have to do much but just turn it on."

The Huskies would go on to post a 25-16 victory over Ohio State. In the third quarter, a memorable goal-line stand featured the image of Buckeye Eddie George lunging toward the end zone but being smashed down by Husky linebacker John Fiala. Kaufman rushed for 211 yards and amassed 278 all-purpose yards in the game, breaking Hugh McElhenny's career all-purpose yardage total. Kaufman was asked how he had become a better running back by his senior season, as well his late-night runs through the U-District.

"After my freshman year I recognized that I've got to put on some weight, and really devote myself to getting ready," he said. "And as I had always done, even back in high school, I would go on late-night runs. While other people were sleeping, I wanted to be working. I would get up early in the night. Most of my teammates and people that knew me knew that I lifted weights and wanted to take good care of my body. I wanted to make sure that no one was outworking me.

"By my senior season, I had gained about 10-15 pounds. I was a lot stronger. In some ways, I was a little bit more durable. I had made some big runs in my freshman year. It wasn't until my junior year that I started to put on some weight and feel more powerful. My goal in the beginning was just to outrun people. But by my senior year, I didn't mind running people over, putting a move on them, or running away, as I still had the speed."

Two weeks later (after a BYE), the Huskies made their way down to Miami to take on the fifth-ranked Hurricanes. Miami and Washington had shared the national championship in Kaufman's freshman season. The Hurricanes also were proud possessors of an NCAA record 58 game home winning streak. The game was to be nationally televised by Brent Musberger and CBS sports.

As the game began, Kaufman lined up in his usual tailback position. He looked across the line of scrimmage and saw what was the standard for him that season.

"My senior year, there wasn't a team that didn't key on me," he said in a soft voice. "Most defenses would bring an eighth person down in the box, usually the strong safety."

Against Miami, Kaufman's usually explosive rushing totals were limited to 80 yards on 28 carries. But football, of course, is a team game. And Kaufman was hailed after the game for something other than his running ability. The Huskies trailed 14-3 at halftime but blew up in the second half and crushed the Canes 38-20. It was on Richard Thomas' 75-yard touchdown reception that Kaufman came flying out of nowhere to blast a Hurricane to the turf as Thomas rambled across the goal line.

"As a smaller guy, I took a lot of pride in my blocking," said Kaufman, remembering the play. "I always blocked hard and laid it out. When I saw Richard running, at first I was running down there to celebrate with him. But then I saw this other guy and I put it on. I said to myself, `Well, I may as well hit this guy.' I didn't understand why it became a big deal but some people liked that."

While much was made of his block, not much was made of the record he had broken during the game. Napoleon Kaufman had broken Joe Steele's career rushing record at Washington. Kaufman was asked how important obtaining that had been to him.

"Oh that was big, that was big," he said. "I was really gunning for that. And what meant even more was breaking (Hugh) McElhenny's all-purpose yardage record against Ohio State. I was gunning for both of those."

At Miami, it was in the waning moments of the fourth quarter that Kaufman looked over at the soon-to-be defeated Hurricanes. What he saw is something that still lives with him to this day.

"We were in a situation where we were playing against a team that is so high-profile," he said. "To look over and see Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis taking a knee and huffing and puffing, well...we had just basically run them out of their own stadium.

"Sometimes I stop and think about that and just go, `Wow. We really did a great job.'"


Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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