Nov. 1, 1999
by Brian Beaky
He left the locker room for the field as an unknown, but returned indispensable.
As 72,118 sat in shocked silence at Sun Devil Stadium following the Huskies' thrilling 42-38 last-second victory over Arizona State last Sept. 5, Dane Looker put the finishing touches on what was arguably the most surprising debut of any receiver in Husky history, etching his name in the record books and ensuring that the unlikely story of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver from Puyallup, Wash., who torched the Sun Devils for a school-record-tying 11 catches, 108 yards, and two touchdowns, would be on the lips of Husky fans for years to come.
"I remember walking out of the tunnel, and the grass was like a putting green," Looker says of his first game. "It was the most incredible grass I've ever seen. The field was glowing, the entire place was glowing. I looked up and found my family in the stands, and my eyes started watering a bit, because I couldn't believe that I was finally there after all I'd gone through. It was magical."
So begins our trip through the looking glass as we follow our White Rabbit, Looker, from the obscure reaches of Bellingham, Wash., through the bright lights of Tempe, Ariz., and into the national spotlight. It started strangely - as so many fairy tales do - with a dropped pass.
"The first play of the game was called to me," Looker explains. "I remember rolling out because Brock had to scramble. He threw to me on the sidelines, a catch I usually make nine times out of ten, and I dropped it. I thought to myself, 'man, you just dropped the first catch of your career.'"
It would be his only mistake of the night. Nine plays later, with Washington down by seven and driving deep into ASU territory, Huard hit Looker for an eight-yard completion, and the first words were written in a new chapter of this storybook tale.
In Puyallup, just outside of Tacoma, the sight of Looker catching a pass from Huard aroused about as much excitement as the arrival of the morning paper. Over six years from 1989-1994, the two had made the connection countless numbers of times, first as teammates in junior high, and later for perennial state power Puyallup High School. In their senior year alone, Huard found Looker 50 times for 918 yards, a remarkable 18.4 yards-per-catch average, leading to 18 touchdowns. Both were all-state selections by nearly every major publication in the Northwest, but it was to Huard that the spotlight turned again and again. At least it was, until that muggy night in Tempe, when the crowd was electric, the mercury was rising, and there was magic in the air.
Looker caught one more pass from Huard in the first quarter, nearly identical to the one he had caught before, and just like that, the ball began rolling. Two more catches on the next drive set up a Pat Conniff touchdown, knotting the score at 14-14.
As in Wonderland, however, along came the Cheshire Cat in the form of Arizona State running back J.R. Redmond, who thoroughly confused Washington defenders all night, following up a Davaren Hightower touchdown with one of his own to break the game open late in the second half. Down by 14 and needing a score, Huard reverted to instinct, reacting to the situation the way he had since junior high - he went to Looker.
Down the sideline for 31 yards, over the middle for 12 more: ASU defenders looked like Alice chasing after the White Rabbit, watching helplessly as Looker darted inside, then out, capping the drive with a three-yard touchdown reception that put the Huskies back in the game, quited the raucous ASU crowd, and brought Looker's journey full-circle - catching touchdown passes from Brock Huard.
In 1995, while Huard made his case to be the Huskies' quarterback of the future, Looker rode the bench behind an All-American wide receiver at tiny Western Washington University in Bellingham, hoping for the opportunity to play the following year. Recruited as a walk-on at Washington, Looker had opted to attend the NAIA school with the hopes of starring in both football and basketball.
Despite a successful freshman year in both sports, Looker found himself longing for the chance to be a part of the legendary Husky program. Frequent workouts in the Puyallup Gym with Huard on holiday vacations convinced Looker that he could compete at the Division I level, but the desire to play basketball, and the commitment he had made to his Western Washington coaches and teammates, weighed heavily on his mind.
"I talked to my coaches, my roommate, my family, everybody," Looker says. "I finally came to the decision one day to transfer. I knew from that day on that I could never look back, I had to go full steam ahead. The biggest key was that I didn't want to look back and regret not trying."
Thus, Looker gave up the life of a two-sport star at Western and came to fall camp in 1997 as a walk-on, by far the most unrewarding job in all of college football.
Looker ran with the scout team as a red-shirt in 1997, going up against the first-team defense while running the routes of UCLA's Danny Farmer, Oregon's Tony Hartley, or whomever the Huskies were playing each week. Word of Looker's work ethic, and his exploits against the Huskies' top defenders, spread quickly. It was during this time that defensive line coach Randy Hart noted that Looker worked so hard even before practice that his elbows and knees were already bloody while other guys were still stretching. Soon, Looker found himself on a different end of the practice field, competing against the scout-team defense as a member of the varsity.
"Working hard and doing the extra things definitely caught the attention of the coaches," Looker said. "I think that hard work will get you where you want to be. Nothing is given to you, especially as a walk-on. You have to get out there and work hard, bust your buns, and pay your dues. Then hopefully you get recognized and rewarded for your effort."
Looker was rewarded in a big way just prior to the 1998 season, when coaches showed their faith in him by awarding him a scholarship. After such a long trip, from high-school stardom in Puyallup, to relative obscurity in Bellingham, to the Husky scout team, to the varsity offense, Looker's first reaction was relief.
"Earning a scholarship was one of my main objectives," he says, "but I wasn't working just to get a scholarship, I wanted to be a great receiver. Once you find that the coaches think you deserve a scholarship, your next goal is to prove them right."
With 2:26 to go in the second quarter at Arizona State, Looker was doing just that. Trailing 28-21, Huard went right back to Looker, finding him twice on the ensuing drive, the latter a nine-yard TD pass which tied the game, energized the Huskies to a last-second 42-38 win, and sent Looker on a roller-coaster ride of a season in which he caught 64 passes and ranked 15th in the nation with 6.4 receptions per game. After being on the run for four years, the White Rabbit had finally found a home.
"I think I take a different perspective from a lot of the guys out here," Looker says. "Every practice I come in and I just love to be here. I'm cherishing every moment I have."
No good fairy tale can end without the hero walking off with his heroine, and this one is no different. Looker's girlfriend of six years, Amy, graduated from Western in three and half years and currently teaches life science to seventh graders at Enumclaw Junior High. Looker says that he and Amy are currently planning their future, a future which depends greatly on Looker's pro prospects.
"Amy is very supportive of my football career," Looker says. "She obviously loves teaching here, but she's said that if I get the chance to go play somewhere, she'll come with me. Some players look at their career as more important than those close to them. But I recognize that she has worked just as hard to get to where she is as I have to get to where I am, so for her to say that she would go with me is great."
Walking off of the field at Arizona State, Looker again found his family in the stands. At this moment, it was difficult to tell whether the story had just ended, or whether another was just beginning.