Nov. 1, 1999
by Brian Beaky
Some people pronounce it HARI-ston. Others say HAIR-ston.
So who is right?
"It's HAIR-ston," says the 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker of his last name. "I don't know why people have a problem with it." While the pronunciation of senior Marques Hairston's last name may be a bone of contention among Husky fans, the Tacoma native's performance on the field has left little room for debate. Over the past two years - a span of 20 games - Hairston has amassed 104 tackles, second only to classmate Lester Towns, and ahead of more heralded defensive teammates Jabari Issa and Mac Tuiaea. In the meantime, Hairston has established himself as a leader on what could be the Pac-10's most improved defense.
"When I'm out on the field, I'm usually just trying to keep everybody focused. When stuff hits the fan, you have to stay focused on the goal, and that's a win," says Hairston. "To be a linebacker, you have to be a leader. I'm not the greatest athlete, but people see the work I've put in to be successful and they work hard to follow my example. People look up to me, and I understand that I have to set an example by my actions."
While part of the example Hairston sets can be measured in tackles and sacks, much of it is intangible, like his tremendous work ethic, his loyalty to the program and the defensive system, and his ability to remain calm and focused even when faced with chaos.
"I like to keep everything level," Hairston says. "Teams don't work when they are spread apart and everybody starts throwing blame around. When I see people wandering away from our goal, that's when I start bringing everyone back together. Then, by my saying something, other people start to say the same things too, and we get back to where we want to be."
It is in these small details - an encouraging word, a stern reminder, or simply a calming presence on the field - where games are won or lost. This crucial role is not one Hairston has always played, just as the senior now provides guidance and leadership to the younger players, so too did a young Hairston benefit from a similar influence, one he called simply, "Dad."
The younger Hairston recalls spending hours following his father, former Husky and Seattle Supersonic Al Hairston, observing - and absorbing - the way in which he led by example, treated others with respect, and always acted in a way honorable to himself and his family.
"He used to get mad at me," Hairston says, "but I would never leave him alone. I would just watch what he would do, his body language and his demeanor. If you look at us now, we are very comparable in the way we talk and act. He is always there for me as a coach and a father. He is my greatest role model, and my inspiration in everything I do." Both of Hairston's parents will be in the stands today, as the Huskies set their sights on Air Force, a team that sent the Dawgs home from Hawaii with their tails between their legs after a 45-25 whipping by the Falcons in the inaugural Oahu Bowl last Christmas Day. Hairston hopes that a win over the Falcons, coupled with strong performances against Colorado and Oregon the following two weeks, will act as a springboard to a successful season in the first-year under new head coach Rick Neuheisel.
"We'll definitely be ready for Air Force, because they embarassed us last year," Hairston says. "I have high expectations for this season, I think that we can have a great year. People are ready to go out and make things happen, and we have a good scheme and a good coaching staff. The table is set for us to go out and make a run at this thing."
If the Huskies are to be as successful as Hairston predicts, the defense will have to improve over its performance last season. Over a crucial three-game stretch in 1998, the Washington defenders allowed 1,229 yards passing, an average of nearly 410 yards per game. The Huskies lost two out of the three, coming away with only a 35-34 win over Oregon State, which established a new Husky opponent record with 508 yards passing, and came within a botched two-point conversion of reversing the Huskies' record from 6-5 to 5-6, thus knocking them out of the bowl picture.
Washington returns several starters on the defensive line, including Tuiaea and preseason All-American Issa, as well as Towns and junior linebacker Jeremiah Pharms. The hope is that the stellar talent among the front seven will force opposing quarterbacks to make quicker decisions, thus taking pressure off of a relatively young, untested secondary.
"With as many guys as we have coming back, it's going to be hard for us not to have success as a defense," Hairston predicts. "We as seniors have been around, fought the battles, and are tough and experienced enough so that the coaches don't have to always remind us what to do. We know what is expected of us and we can just go out there and get it done."
A starter the past two years, Hairston has seen his role modified under the new defensive system. Coaches were impressed in fall camp by the play of junior Derrell Daniels, and with only so many starting spots to go around, Hairston has found himself in a "dawgfight" for his position. However the situation works out, Hairston will continue to play a key role in the success of the Husky defense, either as a starter, or as a key player off the bench who can be counted on to come into a tight game and keep the defense calm and focused.
"If I'm not starting, I'll be a contributing factor off the bench," Hairston says pointedly. "I'm sure that I will play a lot, either rotating with Daniels, or backing up Towns. Either way, I'll definitely be a contributing factor to this defense. I've played too many downs for that not to happen."
For someone who is a leader in so many different ways, it should come as no surprise that Hairston is not concerned with his statistics. In fact, when listing his goals for the upcoming season, only one personal goal - to stay healthy - slips in. According to Hairston, the success of his career at Washington will be measured not by the numbers next to his name on the stat sheet, but by his positive contribution to the program since his arrival in 1995.
"The perfect way for me to cap my career would be to leave the program in a better situation than when I came, playing for everything in the Rose Bowl," Hairston says. "I want to help this program get to a place we haven't been since I've been here. If I do that, my statistics will take care of themselves. I'm just proud to go out and represent the name on the back of my jersey."
For those of you who need to see it again, that name is spelled H-A-I-R-S-T-O-N. HAIR-ston.
Get used to it.