Aug. 11, 2011
By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing
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And Gertrude Peoples is its soul.
After all I've learned about this amazing woman this summer, I say she may be the most influential Husky of the last half century.
She's certainly the most beloved. The list of former players gushing over what Peoples did for them reads like the Huskies' Hall of Fame roster.
"She is just a total U-Dub treasure," former UW defensive lineman and 9-year-NFL veteran Stafford Mays told me.
When I mentioned to former Huskies basketball player and current hoops coach Lorenzo Romar on Wednesday I was writing a column about Peoples, Romar beamed and said, "That's a GOOD one!
"She's a pioneer."
Peoples started the country's first academic-support office for college student athletes, and Mays was just one of hundreds - heck, thousands -- she got on track to graduate. Mays wondered which end was up after transferring to UW from junior college in 1978. Now he's a senior manager in corporate public relations at Microsoft. Peoples was the first woman recruiter for athletics at a major U.S. university. Countless Huskies, especially African-Americans in the 1970s, say Peoples was the reason they came to Washington.
She almost single-handedly ended the racial unrest that splintered Husky football in 1969 and '70. Today, we can't even fathom how difficult a task that was. But that was exactly what Washington's athletic department tasked her to do when she arrived as an academic counselor/savior 42 years ago.
"She's a woman who gets people to move, but she is soft-spoken about it," says Rod Jones, a tight end on the 1984-86 Huskies.
He credits Peoples for getting him out of a dead-end job at Seattle's old Bon Marche and back to finish his degree- and then to not just slide by, but to end up on UW's dean's list.
For almost 50 years, from that racial turmoil in the late 1960s through being with the Huskies at December's Holiday Bowl, Peoples has been the beacon for advice, support and - when needed - a swift kick in the rear for players, and ex-players.
Sarkisian. James. Warren Moon. Robert "Spider" Gaines. Beno Bryant. Jacques Robinson. All those Dawgs and countless more share a unique respect and love for one of the most successful Huskies of them all.
"No, don't tell her I said, `Hi,'" Bryant, the leading rusher on UW's 1991 national championship team directed me Monday from Los Angeles.
"Tell her I said, `I love you.'"
"No, don't tell her I said, `Hi,' Tell her I said, `I love you.'"
Gaines credits Peoples for helping turn around his life. Moon's favorite, deep-strike passing target on Washington's 1978 Rose Bowl-champion team had spent years abusing drugs and alcohol. Then he decided to attempt a change, following his daughter Breianna's graduation from Seattle's Roosevelt High School. He eventually got sober and returned to UW to earn a bachelor's of science degree in sociology in 2006, inside the same Husky Stadium where he had last starred 28 years earlier.
Peoples helped get him straight.
"She was one of the reasons I came back to get my degree," Gaines told me Tuesday over the phone from California's Bay Area. "Players come and go, and she seems to endure there.
"Oh, man, I owe her a lot."
Yet now, when she needs it most, Huskies are supporting Peoples, for a change.
`THEY HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN ME'
Peoples was diagnosed with breast cancer in May. She had surgery in early June.
Since then she has been flooded by nonstop love from the UW athletic community.
"The outpouring from people, it just humbles me," Peoples, a mother to John, Carol and Sheryl, said last month by phone from her home in the Columbia City section of Seattle, her birthplace. "I've heard from student athletes I haven't talked to in 30 years.
"That was the first time I felt I had an impact on people's lives."
Through the diagnosis, the surgery and all her follow-up treatments and exams, she's never gone to a doctor's appointment alone.
"People have been so supportive of me in this ordeal. I still get choked up talking about the support," she said, her voice catching.
"They haven't forgotten me."
They never will.
Former players, tough guys who've banged through major college and NFL football, often break down talking about Peoples and what she has done for their lives.
"She is so, so genuine. So sincere," said Mays, who played nine seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings as a defensive lineman before joining Microsoft.
"I played football for nine years in the league, yet I called her to get advice before I went out in the real world."
Mays' mother died of cancer a few years ago.
"Gertrude was standing right next to me at the funeral," he said. "She's always there for me."
Now, he is there for Peoples, checking in every couple weeks by phone.
Thanks to Peoples, Jones returned to UW to get his degree 13 years after his final Husky game. Within a week of graduating, Jones was working inside Washington's innovative Student Athletic Academic Services office -- the one that Peoples started, solo.
Peoples was behind that hire.
"And here I am, been in this job 10 years," Jones said proudly this week from inside his campus office.
"That's what Gertrude means to me."
Gaines has gone from drugs to working for the City of Berkeley, Calif., and as a track coach at Pinole Valley High School in the Bay Area, near his hometown of Richmond. He credits Peoples for it - and for him even staying for four years at Washington. The high school star wanted to leave after initially being on the Huskies' bench and far from home as a freshman.
"I did a lot of crying to Gertrude, telling her, `I'm going home,'" Gaines said. "She'd say, `You are not. You are staying right here, staying in school. It will all work out.'"
"I played football for nine years in the league, yet I called her to get advice before I went out in the real world."
He stayed - and still holds the Huskies career record for average yards per reception (23.6).
Bryant, the tailback from Los Angeles who led the Huskies in rushing in that dominant, championship season in '91, always peeked into Peoples' office after practice.
"When you were in there, she was getting you ready for life," said Bryant, who recently stopped coaching and is running a non-profit enterprise in Los Angeles. "We were all having fun, playing football, living the college life, not worrying about school. We all thought we were going to play in the pros.
"She was the one saying, `What's going to happen when the dream is deterred?"
When Peoples wasn't in her office for whatever reason, Bryant said "it felt like a hole was in the wall."
"She had a style that most men would never have," he said. "She knew how to push your buttons to get you better, instead of bitter."
As Gaines notes, Peoples was attractive, smiling and engaging, especially easy for a teenager far from his home to fall for. But she wasn't a softy.
"She would kind of lure you in. She would draw you in with her motherly ways," Mays said. "Then she'd point the finger at you to get better."
Jones says in his decade-plus working in UW's academic support office, he's been in meetings with Peoples, coaches and campus administrators about players that were risks academically.
"They would say, `We can't use him.' And Gertrude would step in and say, `No, that's my job. Trust me,'" Jones said. "Those are her favorite words - `Trust me, Rod, you'll be fine.'"
With Peoples around, they almost always are.
How much does Sarkisian revere her?
"Her office is right next door to mine," he said, smiling.
Today, in semi-retirement, Peoples is so revered and respected around the football offices staffers there half or even one-third her age refer to her as "Ms. Gertrude."
"Our staff attempts to live up to her example every day," said Kim Durand, UW's associate athletic director for student development who has followed Peoples in running the academic services office.
"Her legacy speaks to the role she believes the University of Washington should play nationally in the field: To be a leader in care and support for student-athletes.
"It sounds dorky but I (often) ask myself, `What would Gertrude do?'"
Peoples sounded shy about all this praise.
"She would kind of lure you in. She would draw you in with her motherly ways. Then she'd point the finger at you to get better."
"I was their voice, because some of them could not really articulate their needs to professors," she says, modestly.
"I can't describe the satisfaction I got from seeing players succeed when so many people thought they would fail."
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, COMPLETED
Peoples came to the Huskies' athletic department from an academic counseling office on upper campus in 1969, a year of ugly unrest on the football team. African-American players protested what they saw as discriminatory treatment, and coach Jim Owens eventually suspended four of them for a November game at UCLA. Nine others did not make that trip to Los Angeles, and Washington got blown out. The team finished 1-9 amid the turmoil.
Peoples understood the reason for the uprising.
"There was no excuse for some athletes to not have the academic opportunities other students were receiving," she said.
Sam Kelly, who a year later would become the university's first vice president for minority affairs in the black student affairs division, asked Peoples to come work for UW athletics in academic advising during that troubled '69 season. Then newly hired assistant football coach Ray Jackson started sending African-American student athletes directly to her.
Peoples calmed the players' tempest and essentially became their surrogate mother. It remains as compassionate and successful a job as the Huskies have ever had.
"Black students' complaints at the time were that when they were in Tubby Graves (Hall, the athletics administration building), they felt unwelcomed and out of place. That was something we had to change," Peoples said. "On a team, you can't separate by color."
Peoples set out to make African-Americans feel more included in regular student life beyond the athletic buildings. Through her own will, time and effort, she intensified the amount of academic help student athletes of all races from all sports received.
"Being a person of color, it was hard being at a university that was basically white," Gaines said. "She put people on the right path -- and in those days it was the hard, right path.
"She became like a mom. She understood that as young black athletes, things were not always in your favor back then. But she showed you that you can stick with it."
At least Peoples had a huge staff to start her new support system -- oh, wait.
"It was mostly just me," she said.
In 1971 UW renamed her department Student Athlete Services and gave her a pair of assistants. The office was ultimately called Student Athlete Academic Services, and still goes by SAAS with a staff of 14 today.
By 1973 Peoples was even recruiting. Yep, she went on the road to seal deals on national letters of intent for football and basketball players, and her first UW recruiting trip was to San Francisco to sign a track star.
Today she laughs over memories of recruiting with and for James.
"That was pretty successful," she said.
Peoples helped ease Moon's transition from Los Angeles in 1975 -- and then helped keep him at UW. Well-adjusted, all he did was quarterback Washington to the Rose Bowl championship in 1978, then play 17 NFL seasons and get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I'm always hesitant to name people who I've helped the most," Peoples said. "Warren is one of those people with whom I was close.
"It's really hard to describe the link I had with the players. In many ways, I was their surrogate mother."
Sports Illustrated featured Peoples in 1974 for being the only woman recruiter for men's sports at a major university.
Even the Dawgfather feels indebted to Peoples.
James, who took over for Owens following the '74 season and coached UW through 1992, inherited this vibrant, conscientious African-American woman who fabulously interacted with teenagers and their parents of all races.
"The nice thing about Gertrude, she could echo the thing we (as coaches) said: `If you want to play, you have to take 12 credits a quarter.' But she did it in a way that related so well to kids and their parents," James said.
"She could talk to the moms and dads in a way we couldn't. They really respected her. And she was a really good liaison with upper campus. They didn't want to talk to us coaches up there. But they would talk to her."
By the mid-`70s, Husky football coaches were calling Peoples "a miracle worker."
Sports Illustrated featured Peoples in 1974 for being the only woman recruiter for men's sports at a major university. Ebony magazine wrote about her a year later, and pictured her at practice with Husky football players, with James, with recruits at their homes.
Back then she called herself "the soft sell," the one who came in after the Huskies coaches' hard push to a recruit and his family.
Later the NCAA tightened recruiting rules and limited those who could visit prospects to a finite number of official assistant coaches.
"I always thought the rule got changed because of me," she says, laughing. "But that's my ego talking."
`WE CAN'T THANK HER ENOUGH'
The last football game she has attended is the last one Washington has played. In December, Sarkisian showed what Peoples meant to his program by sending her to San Diego for a week, all expenses paid, to watch the Huskies' win over Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
"She's done so much for so many players here, we can't thank her enough. But we try to thank her every opportunity we get," Sarkisian said. "You go to any ex-player, and they rave about Gertrude. That's the first thing they ask me, about Gertrude --`Tell her I said hello. Tell her thank you.'"
Peoples loves the 37-year-old Sarkisian's youthful energy -- "I've been at the university longer than he's been in the world!" she marveled. She says it's why she stayed around after contemplating official retirement a couple years ago.
"I think with what he's doing he's going to be very successful here, I really do," she said. "He's committed to his student athletes."
She would know a thing or three about that.
Sadly, recent times have been her toughest. Three years ago her youngest son died tragically.
"Life has never been the same since," Peoples said softly.
Now, it's cancer. She says "it's going good on the treatment." But the incision from surgery hasn't healed well, complicated by her diabetes.
That's not going to deter her, though.
"Otherwise, I am so much better," she said, buoyantly. "The doctors say I that I should be OK, that it's not terminal. That's what they've told me.
"But I'm old," she added with a chuckle. "I'm probably dying of old age, anyhow."
No way, Ms. Gertrude.
Inside Husky athletics, you will live forever.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.