A Visit with former Husky Ronnie Rowland

In the Sunday edition of the Seattle P-I, on September 12, 1976, there is a photo of Washington running back Ronnie Rowland holding a football aloft. He is standing triumphantly in the west end zone of Husky Stadium after having scored his first touchdown as a Husky. Rowland has teammates gathered around him in celebration.

It is a startling photo to see, as in the background the stands behind the end zone are virtually empty. You wouldn't realize it looking at the photo used for this article, which was shot from a different angle. In the photo accompanying this article, it appears that the stands were packed with fans that day.

During a recent interview with the former Husky, I described to Rowland the difference between the two photos. He laughed heartily, then said, "Just be sure to use the photo with lots of people in the stands!"

That game was the first in Rowland's two-year Husky career. It was against Virginia, a game won by Washington 38-17 in front of 40,412 fans in Seattle. Rowland had come to Washington as a junior college All-American. He remembers the first time he carried the football for the purple and gold.

"I was the new kid on the block," he said. "We had Robin Earl, who was a big, bruising kind of runner. And we had Greg Martin, who was so-so. I had a little different running style, and a bit more quickness than the others. I was 6'2" and 210 pounds. The first play was a sweep, and as I carried the ball for a nice gain, the crowd was just roaring. They were like, ‘Wow, we've got something different here.' They were thirsting for excitement from that position. They were thinking, ‘OK we've got this Jr. College All-American, let's see what he can do.'"

Rowland remembers with fondness the final game against Washington State that year, won by the Huskies 51-32, in Spokane.

"I was in my room the night before," he said. "There was something like 180 yards that I needed to get to 1,000 yards– to be the first and only player to get to 1,000 since Hugh McElhenny. So I was in my room, calculating and visualizing me getting it. And the next day, in the final minute, the (stadium) announcer says RONNIE ROWLAND HAS 999 YARDS FOR THE SEASON." I am standing there thinking, I can't believe this. How can it end like this? There was just a few seconds left in the game. Then suddenly (Cougar QB) Jack Thompson gets sacked in the end zone for a safety. And the Cougars have to punt. (Husky punt returner) Nesby Glasgow made a fair catch with :03 left, and I went back out there for one more carry.

"So I get the football on a dive play, and I ran as hard as I could, right up Jeff Toews' back," he said. "I picked up three yards, so I finished with 1,002 yards. It was like a storybook finish there for me. Jeff Toews (Husky guard), is just a great human being, he and I both came from San Jose. He came up to me afterward and said, ‘I never blocked so hard in my life!' And I finished 2nd (in the Pac-8) in rushing, behind USC's Ricky Bell. Of course, he had something like 1,600 or 1,700 yards!"

By November of 1977, the crowds at Husky Stadium were swelling to capacity. Washington was making a push toward its first Rose Bowl appearance in 14 years. Washington QB Warren Moon broke free for a 71 yard touchdown run in the 4th quarter as the Huskies upset heavily-favored USC 28-10.

"Yeah, I remember that play," Rowland said, laughing. "I remember the crowd being loud. And I just remember it being so cold and raining hard. The sky was so dark with clouds."

One week later, the Huskies dusted off the Cougars 35-15, then had to wait for the following weekend, when they would watch USC and UCLA battle on TV. Washington needed the Trojans to beat the Bruins. It was a last-second field goal by USC's Frank Jordan, that enabled the Huskies to go to the Rose Bowl. I asked Rowland where he was as that fateful field goal cleared the uprights.

"Oh, man!" said Rowland, laughing. "It was me, Antowaine Richardson, Michael Jackson, Warren Moon, and some other guys. We were at a house, I can't remember whose house. But when that field goal was made, we ran out of the house, and we were all running down the street, yelling, WE'RE GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL! WE'RE GOING TO THE ROSE BOWL!

"And I remember the night before that Rose Bowl, I was rooming with Spider Gaines," he said. "I was like, "Spider, get your buddies out of here, we've got to get some sleep!" The next day, we went out there, we had nothing to lose. We were a big underdog. I remember how Michigan put out a full-page ad in the Detroit Free Press, saying how they were going to kick our butts. But Coach James pulled every trick out of the book. Double reverses, fake punts, everything. Spider went out and had a great game. And we won."

In closing, I asked Rowland if he had kept in contact with his former coach, Don James.

"Oh yes, I see him, play some golf," he said. "He and Carol are such beautiful people. And he's so relaxed now. He's a different person. He doesn't have all those pressures and things to worry about anymore. He is so enjoyable to talk to, and just a beautiful person.

"I learned a lot from him," he added. "I definitely matured as a person in my two years at Washington. I learned from coach James how to be disciplined and how to plan. I take those lessons with me and apply them to my life and business to this very day."

Derek Johnson can be reached at midnightjazz@msn.com

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