Oct. 11, 2011
NOTE: The 520 bridge will close in both directions at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday (after the UW-Colorado game).
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - This - as in, right now, starring in this surging Huskies season - is exactly where David Kearse would have wanted his two sons to be.
Wearing purple and gold. Amassing 1,000-yard seasons. Climbing to the top of Washington's career receiving lists. Becoming a Huskies co-captain as a senior.
And that's just Jermaine.
Stepping into a new position at outside linebacker. Saving a win as a redshirt freshman. Scoring touchdowns with his older brother in the same game.
"It's just knowing that he's watching over us and he's proud of us, of everything my brother and I have done," Jermaine Kearse told me following one of Washington's recent practices inside Husky Stadium. "I know he'd be proud today.
"He always wanted me to be a Husky."
David Kearse felt light-headed one summer day in 2007. As Jermaine, weeks away from beginning his senior year at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., packed for a passing camp for prospects at UW, his dad went to Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia.
Dad stayed overnight for tests, just to make sure all was OK.
The next morning, as Jermaine was leaving for the camp in Seattle, his father died.
He was 46 years old.
"It was definitely hard," Jermaine says softly.
More than four years have passed. The memories, the lessons, the motivations have not.
Jamaal was entering his freshman year at Lakes at the time and took the loss particularly hard. Because of that, he provided more motivation for Jermaine to excel.
And not just on the football field.
Slowly, eventually, the devastating blow matured Jermaine, turned the teen into a man who became strong for Jamaal. He stayed that way even after he left a few months later for UW on a scholarship from former coach Tyrone Willingham.
Their bond endured. So much so that when time came for Jamaal to make his college choice, there really was no decision to make.
Instead of carving out his own, independent path away from his older brother, Jamaal came 45 minutes up Interstate 5 to be with him.
"My dad was always a fan of the Huskies," Jamaal told me following another practice, standing in almost the same spot in the west end of the stadium that Jermaine would stand and talk about his dad a day later.
"He would have wanted me to play here with Jermaine."
Now, the Kearses aren't just playing for the Huskies (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12). They are making plays -- huge ones. Ones that have won each of Washington's last two games, sending UW to its best start since 2006 entering Saturday's 12:30 p.m. home game against Colorado (1-5, 0-2).
The Kearse brothers know their father has been watching over them. And that he's been smiling.
Jamaal, number 58, scooped up a Utah fumble on the opening kickoff in Salt Lake City on Oct. 1 and returned it for a stunning touchdown. Later that night Jermaine, number 15 in white, caught his fifth touchdown pass of the season. He ended up with seven catches in Washington's 31-14 win.
The Kearses are believed to be the first brothers in the history of Husky football to score a touchdown each on offense and defense in the same game. That covers 120 seasons.
A week before that, Sept. 24 against California, Jamaal stepped in for injured starting outside linebacker John Timu, who left that game in an ambulance while strapped to a board following a scary, head-on hit. With the Huskies clinging to a 31-23 in the final minute and the Golden Bears at the UW 2, Jamaal Kearse wasn't fooled by a fake-block by a tight end and a delayed pass route into the end zone. His blanket coverage forced an incomplete pass on first and goal.
On second and goal, Kearse and end Andrew Hudson crunched slithery Cal running back Isi Sofele 1 yard short of the goal line.
Two stops later, Washington had won for the seventh time in eight games.
"It's been real cool to see him get out there and make some plays - some key plays, too," Jermaine said of Jamaal, a former free safety and wide receiver at Lakes who is the same height (6-feet-2) and 16 pounds heavier (at 224 pounds) than his older brother.
"I'm excited for him."
Jamaal has been such a revelation in the clutch that he is likely to start again Saturday against Colorado, even though Timu is back practicing again following the whiplash-like neck injury.
Jermaine? Yeah, he'll start, too, for the 29th time in his UW career. He's been starting - and starring -- since his freshman season of 2008 against Oklahoma.
`IT'S BEEN INCREDIBLE'
Jermaine's 151 career receptions is 10 behind Paul Skansi (1979-82) for second-most in Huskies history. The all-time leader is Reggie Williams with 243 from 2001-03. Kearse has passed Mario Bailey for second all-time at Washington in yards receiving. He now has 2,374. And the older Kearse needs three more scoring catches to tie Bailey's school record of 30 for a career, set from 1988-91.
Not bad for a young man who has endured the loss of his father, the rock-bottom winless season in `08 -- when he was one of nine freshman to start a game - plus a coaching change and a completely new offensive system to become one of the most accomplished and versatile receivers in Huskies history.
Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier realized what they had in Kearse three games into their jobs here. In September 2008 against No. 3 USC at Husky Stadium, Kearse got open on third and 13 and absorbed a big hit to complete a 21-yard pass from Jake Locker. That play keyed the drive that ended with Erik Folk's field goal that gave Sarkisian his first signature victory at Washington.
The Huskies, from Locker to Keith Price, have been going to Kearse ever since.
"It's been incredible. Incredible," Kearse says. "I mean, coming from my freshman year, going 0-12. Then sophomore year getting some wins. Then last year we go to a bowl game.
"And the start of this year has been a great time. It's probably been one of the best moments of my life."
Sarkisian calls Kearse one of the smartest receivers he's ever been around. And that's saying something.
Sarkisian was a star quarterback at Brigham Young in that pass-happy, record-setting offense in the 1990s. Since then he's coached mega-star receivers at USC such as Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett -- and even, gulp, Jerry Rice, when Sarkisian was an assistant with the NFL's Oakland Raiders.
"He's one of the smarter players I've ever been around at that position, (one) that can line up just about anywhere on the field and embrace that type of role," Sarkisian said. "I think that the other guys ... they kind of want to follow suit with him because they understand the versatility he can bring."
How versatile? Kearse has picked up the playbook for at least four positions: Flanker, split end, slot receiver, and, um ... running back?
Yep, that's where Kearse lined up for a key fourth-and-1 play against a stunned Cal defense late last month. With Washington down 23-21 in the fourth quarter, Sarkisian put Kearse, the 1,000-yard receiver, at tailback and Chris Polk, the 1,400-yard rusher, at fullback in an unprecedented I formation.
Price faked a handoff up the middle to Polk, who got engulfed by fooled Bears. The quarterback quickly pitched to Kearse, who ran around left end for seven yards and a first down that set up a field goal by Folk. The Huskies took the lead for good, then Jamaal helped preserve the win with his goal-line tackle.
Jermaine Kearse is still laughing over his tailback cameo.
"Yeah, it was actually kind of cool," he said. "I was talking to Chris throughout the practice (that week). I was saying, `Man, I hope I get a carry.' It's a totally different perspective in the backfield than it is at wide receiver. You can see EVERYTHING.
"It was a lot of fun."
"Honestly, I didn't think he would call it. So when he called it I was pretty pumped."
Sarkisian put that play in the week of the Cal game, knowing Kearse would execute it flawlessly and that he would attack it.
That's how he treats every assignment.
"What I appreciate about Jermaine is the energy he brings to practice," Sarkisian said. "I think that the younger players in the group really respond to him because of the energy he brings, his ability to embrace a game plan and understand a game plan."
HOME, CLOSE TO HOME
Away from practice and games, the Kearses' bond stays strong. Jermaine lives one floor above Jamaal in an apartment complex near the UW campus.
Asked if he feels compelled to keep tabs on his younger brother, Jermaine laughed.
He'd rather be more like his best friend.
"I mean, I hang out with him. I either go down there or he comes up," Jermaine said. "It's cool to have my brother live a floor below me, just to chill, just to hang out."
And just to fulfill what Dad always wanted: His boys thriving, in purple and gold.
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.