Sketches from the Air Force Game

This past Saturday, I had come from Edmonds and my Dad had arrived from Belfair, by way of ferry boat - and our paths converged at our seats at Qwest Field. "Good to see you, son!" he said. We were at the 50-yard line. He was seated directly behind me. With him were his wife and a handful of his fraternity brothers, circa 1960. We were there to witness Tyrone Willingham's debut as head coach at Washington.

As kickoff approached, I heard my Dad socializing light-heartedly, talking about his golf game, and the surprisingly light crowd in the stadium. I chuckled to myself. I remembered from the years growing up, how he would arrive at a Husky game with a hunkered-down and focused mentality (almost as if he and I were going into battle ourselves.) Retirement in recent years has taken the edge off.

Down to our left, suddenly, the sight of undulating and shiny gold helmets appeared at the tunnel entrance. A moment later, they sprung forth, pouring out along the sideline below. My Dad, normally reserved and soft-spoken, got loud. "Hey!" he shouted. "Here come our Huskies!" He proceeded to alternate between clapping and barking.

After we all settled back into our seats, I turned around and looked at him.

"Do you like the new uniforms?" I asked, referring to the Huskies' new light-gold pants.

"Yes, they look good. Don't you like them?"

I shrugged. "They look nice. But isn't our main color purple? Besides, I remember back in 1989 when they switched from mustard-colored pants to the purple. I thought that looked really sharp, while you didn't like that change at all."

Now my Dad shrugged. "You've got a better memory than I do," he said.

The game commenced, and by halftime the score was knotted at 3-3. We were tentative while watching, as we kept waiting for the litany of mistakes to emerge that plagued the team (and shell-shocked fans) last season. But it was different now. It was an efficient, albeit boring, first half of football to watch. Suddenly my cell phone rang. I knew exactly who it was, and the manner in which my cell phone minutes were about to be wasted.

"Hello?" I asked.

"Hey!" shouted my infamous friend, from another Pac-10 school. "That's quite a low scoring game you've got there!"

"It's certainly a defensive struggle," I said.

"Well, the TV cameras were just panning the crowd, and I think I saw you," he said.

"Oh yeah?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Tell me, are you that one guy sitting in the end zone? Or are you amid that small cluster of people near mid-field?"

As the second half commenced, there were a handful of positives to justify feeling optimistic. But I possessed a feeling of vague dread that this game was akin to an ocean freighter on a collision course with an immense iceberg. And there was nothing I could do about it.

Meanwhile, I made mental notes of things that occurred to me. I remembered from last year, seeing quarterback Isaiah Stanback teary-eyed and sullen in the media room after a particular game. But now there he was against Air Force; standing confident in the pocket, making good decisions, throwing with accuracy, and conducting the limited-playbook offense. His walk was different. He seemed taller and projected command of the field.

I remembered interviewing linebacker Joe Lobendahn last month, hearing him describe his two devastating injuries from 2003 and 2004. There was determination in his voice that he wanted to stay healthy and help return Washington to glory in his senior season. Once again this past summer, he had trained with ferocious intensity to be ready. And there he was this past Saturday; making a hit and coming up lame, with his shoulder hanging limp as he took himself out of the game. My heart sank at the thought that he may have been cursed again. But a couple of plays later, he was jogging back out there. Soon after, he made a solid tackle on the ball carrier, and got up to return to the huddle.

And I remembered interviewing Cody Ellis before spring football, hearing him describe his trip into coach Willingham's office in January to find out what position he would be at. Willingham asked Ellis repeatedly where he wanted to play, but Ellis felt inhibited to answer. Willingham finally asked Ellis to think back to childhood and recall what he dreamed of doing on the football field. "I dreamed of catching touchdown passes," replied Ellis. "That's where we need you then," said Willingham.

So it was against Air Force - Stanback rolling to his left and throwing a magnificent tight spiral toward the left front corner of the end zone - and Ellis leaping and contorting his body in mid-air. With searing concentration, the sophomore from Puyallup secured the football and landed on his back in the end zone, the TV cameras and crowd disappearing from his consciousness.

My Dad, seated behind me, was going nuts after this touchdown. It was the fourth quarter and the Huskies now led 17-6. I turned and we high-fived each other. He was smiling brightly, and then started barking. But I still had a vague feeling that we weren't clear of danger.

For the Huskies, surrendering a subsequent 84-yard touchdown pass to Air Force was the freighter meeting the proverbial iceberg. It marked the beginning of the end to this game. From that point, the remaining time on the clock seemed to evaporate. Air Force took possession again and began driving down the field, consuming yardage in efficient mini-bites. Finally, with 34 seconds remaining, Shaun Carney plunged over from the one-yard line for the Falcons' first lead of the game. And as they say in Québec, 'C'est fini!'. Moments later, the Air Force players were pouring onto the field in celebration. The Huskies shuffled toward the locker room, having lost their seventh game in a row dating back to 2004.

The people around me gathered their things to leave. I stood up and turned around to face my Dad. I reached out and patted him on the shoulder and made some light-hearted remark. But he didn't seem to hear me. He was gazing out toward the field, like one of those carved wooden Indians sitting outside a cigar shop.

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories