A visit with UW team Chaplain Mike Rohrbach

It's not often that a chaplain is referred to as a trainer of killers. Former Husky linebacker Dave Hoffmann loves to tell that tale of his good friend Mike Rohrbach. While it's true that Rohrbach is currently Washington's team chaplain, it was three decades ago that he was raising hell on special teams for former Husky coaches Jim Owens and Don James.

"Mike was a linebacker and a captain on the '78 Rose Bowl team, despite not being a starter," says Hoffmann.  "I still remind him about RTK-- which stood for `Rohrbach's Trained Killers.'  Mike was the leader of the special teams and was a real kamikaze.  One of the coaches gave the special teams the nickname of RTK because the others followed Mike's lead and kicked ass like him."

Upon graduating from the University of Washington in 1978, Rohrbach went to work for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In 1986 he became co-chaplain of the Seattle SuperSonics. Those years of preparation set the stage for one of the exhilarating days of his life, of which Rohrbach recently reminisced.

"In 1989, I had been around the UW through Fellowship of Christian Athletes, leading Bible studies and that kind of thing," he said. "One day my former coach Don James called me into his office and said he'd like for me to be the team chaplain. I told him that I was honored, but I needed to talk to my wife about it and pray on it. But it was something that had been my heart's desire for a lot of years. I really thought it would be an area where I hopefully could make a difference in the lives of the players and the coaches. It was an amazing day, a dream come true."

Rohrbach was asked how his experiences as a Husky enable him to relate to the players of today.

"The beauty of that is that I came out of Ingraham High School with some honors," he said. "And yet at Washington I was literally a sixth-string linebacker. Going out there every day to practice was tough. It wasn't what I was led to believe during the recruiting process. You don't think that is going to happen to you, and yet there you are. So I have been able to relate to the players. I have held 300-pound linemen in my arms while they are crying in the tunnel, like they were my own little kid. There are always struggles with girlfriends, parents, homesickness and injuries for them to deal with.

"I'm out there to speak encouragement into the hearts of the players," he said. "I was not a great Husky football player. I had some success, but I had a lot of setbacks from injuries. But I did end up being elected captain in my senior year, and then captain for the 1978 Rose Bowl, for which I will always be grateful. But I spent a lot of my playing career running down breaking up wedges and setting up walls for punt returns. I wasn't a starter, but I was a contributor to the team's success."

In general, what has been Rohrbach's greatest challenge?

"The biggest thing that I have had to deal with as chaplain is the disappointment that the guys go through," he said. "Virtually every guy that comes in there has been all-league, all-state or all-american. They have been the big fish in the small pond. Then he may come to Washington and be sixth-string at his position. Well, I have been there. I can relate to them."

Rohrbach was asked what player he most deeply regrets not being able to reach.

"I think of Anthony Vontoure (1979-2002)," he said. "He was a very gifted athlete from California and a kid who had a tough upbringing. There were some tragedies in his family, some discontent in his life, and issues with authority. I talked to him a lot, spent a lot of time with him out in the stadium, up in the stands one-on-one. Or we would talk at the hotel, after team meetings.

"At times I felt like I was getting to him, at other times I felt like it was falling on deaf ears. We all know that his life ended tragically. I sometimes wish I could have had a bigger impact, but you just do the best you can."

Rohrbach also described his unique perspective on the tragic death of Curtis Williams (1978-2002). Williams was the starting safety when the Huskies were playing at Stanford in October, 2000. It was when Williams went in for a tackle that he broke his neck and was instantly paralyzed.

"Interestingly enough, I was keying on Curtis Williams on that play," said Rohrbach with a quiet voice. "I was standing on the sideline with one of the trainers. I saw Curtis go down, and I knew instantly that it wasn't good. Our medical staff went out there. I stayed back and watched for awhile. Then I felt led to go out there, and as the doctors administered to him, I knelt down and put my hand on his leg and prayed for him. Then I got up, stood above his head, and interestingly (then-Stanford coach) Tyrone Willingham was standing close to me. I began to say, `We love you Curtis, we believe in you, and we're praying for you.' I repeated it over and over again. Curtis was taken off the field. It was an amazing game. Marques Tuiasosopo willed us to win."

There was less than a minute remaining, with Husky players in shock and some crying, when Tuiasosopo led Washington on an 80-yard drive in three plays for the winning touchdown.

"Then the whole team went over the hospital," Rohrbach said. "Panic was running through the team, the emotions were (raw). Curtis was a key leader, a fierce competitor. When he went down, it was unbelievable. The coaching staff did a great job of holding the team together. Marques really stepped up his leadership. Without a doubt, Marques is the best leader that the Huskies have ever had - or at least since 1973, when I began my involvement with Husky football.

"I remember we were riding in the buses down to the Rose Bowl, and coach (Rick) Neuheisel got a call on his phone as the bus began moving. He stood up and said, `Guys, Curtis Williams is going to meet us in the locker room.' To go in the locker room and see him in his wheelchair, I cried pretty uncontrollably for quite some time, I was so inspired and moved by him being there. As was our whole team. On that year's Rose Bowl ring, the initials CW are inscribed upon it."

A week after Williams was paralyzed, Washington hosted the Arizona Wildcats. Husky Stadium was packed. PA announcer Lou Gellerman led an emotional tribute. Curtis Williams was watching all this on a TV from his hospital room in Palo Alto, California. 72,000 fans stood up and held hands, praying together for Curtis's well-being and recovery. It was a remarkable moment for more reasons than one. In a widely secular city like Seattle, several thousand fans were demonstrating through their behavior a belief in God that logically they reject.

Rohrbach was asked his thoughts.

"Often times, tragedies, trials and tribulations bring about a dependence upon someone greater than your own self," he said. "When life throws you those tragedies, people often begin to realize and contemplate faith in God. In times like that, people want answers. It has been said there are no atheists in a foxhole. For people who don't have a faith in God, it's a case of, `God if you're there, please help, because your help is needed.' It was foremost a tremendous demonstration of respect for Curtis, and for pausing to acknowledge his situation. And maybe some people also paused and realized that they can call upon God either in a packed stadium or in a quiet closet, for that matter."

Rohrbach was asked about the 2005 football team and Casey Paus in particular. Paus came in as a heavily-recruited quarterback in 2001 but struggled terribly when given playing time. Many fans booed and scorned him, especially during the traumatic 2004 season when the Huskies went 1-10. But Paus kept his head up and quietly endured. He could have quit or transferred to another school, but he remained a Husky. At last week's season-ending team banquet, Paus hopefully found satisfaction and closure to his career; as he received expressions of love and admiration from his teammates.

"At the team banquet, Casey Paus was singled out just for his tremendous attitude through all the transition and changes during his career," said Rohrbach. "In the little video they played, it was very emotional for everyone, and he said he had no regrets. He said that he would do it all over again. Now there is an example of a guy who put the team before self. Here he was, a quarterback, and he's on special teams running down there making tackles! At the banquet, he got several standing ovations from his teammates. It was a beautiful night and unbelievable. The Apostle Paul, toward the end of his life, wrote, `I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.' In our society today there are great starters but very few finishers."

Rohrbach continued.

"It's always about the team," he said. "The great thing that coach Willingham has done is that he has come in and said that EVERYONE is going to have plenty of opportunity to contribute to the team. I try to speak to the guys that will never see the field. I tell them that going out and being a scout-teamer and giving a good picture (of the opponent) is every bit as important as Isaiah Stanback dropping back and throwing a 70-yard TD pass to Craig Chambers against Arizona. They are every bit as important. Sometimes that is a hard concept for kids to realize."

Another aspect of being on a football team is the powerful bond of camaraderie. It was over a decade ago that former All-American Hoffmann was wreaking havoc as a Husky linebacker. He and chaplain Rohrbach gravitated toward each other and were kindred spirits. Their close friendship sustains to this day. Rohrbach was asked of his favorite `Hammer Hoffmann' moment.

"My favorite was down in Autzen Stadium (in 1992) during pre-game warm-ups," he said. "I have a habit of hanging around the linebackers, because as an old ‘backer, I love those guys. So somebody in the stands threw a dog bone on the field, and Hoff grabbed it and began to chew on it. The people in the stands were going crazy. I said to myself: `This guy is a WARRIOR.'

"And there was a hit one time at Arizona State, when the running back came through the hole," he said. "And Dave struck this guy so hard and so quick, that the guy's knees just buckled and he went down on his back. Dave was just standing over him for a moment, in a Ray Nitschke-like pose. To this day I refer to that as the `Rattlesnake Hit', because Dave came out of nowhere, struck so quick, and the guy was just on his back. Hoff is one of my favorite Huskies. We both wore #54 and so we said that there must have been something magical in that number that brought us together. I love the guy. I am so proud of him, as a godly husband and father, and for his service to the United States of America through the Secret Service. It's a tribute to him, his wonderful family, his brothers, and the University of Washington - because he is one of the best to ever come through there."

The deepest emotion that Rohrbach has felt as team chaplain involves his own flesh and blood. His son Chris is a walk-on player for the Huskies. The sense of pride is heavy in Rohrbach's voice.

"Chris walked on at the U three years ago," he said. "He's been a member of the team, primarily on the scout squad. Before his first game three years ago, he was suiting up. I went up to him and said, `Son, if there is any way that you would consider running out of the tunnel with me-- that would be the coolest thing.' He said, `Absolutely, Dad.'

"To this day, it is one of the most exhilarating experiences ever," he said. "To be running out of that tunnel with the Husky Stadium crowd cheering. I did it as a player, and now as chaplain, so that is pretty special. So there we were running out of the tunnel, my son alongside me. I had tears in my eyes - big-time. A thrilling moment. Then the next home game comes along, and lo and behold, there he is again next to me. And we have done that every single game since."

Rohrbach pauses, then adds, "While Chris has never seen the field, I am as proud of him as any Dad could be."

Mike Rohrbach's website can be reached at www.runtowin.org
Derek Johnson can be reached at Derekjohnson1@verizon.net

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