April 9, 2005
by Jim Daves
There was a bevy of activity in Husky Stadium Saturday afternoon. Most of it had nothing to do with the current edition of Washington football going through its seventh practice session of the spring, including the team's longest scrimmage of the year.
Watching from the sidelines were approximately 150 former Washington players, invited by the Big W Club and UW head coach Tyrone Willingham to watch the action up close and then dine with the team during a private luncheon.
Cell phone numbers were traded, business cards exchanged and plenty of stories were swapped as players from as far back as the 1930s watched the Huskies run through their paces.
It was a Who's Who of former Huskies. Lincoln Kennedy flew in from Southern California while Marques Tuiasosopo returned home from his preparation for the Oakland Raiders' mini camps. Spider Gaines wore a Warren Moon jersey while standing next to Warren Moon. Damon and Brock Huard returned as did players such as Jacque Robinson, Dennis Brown, Sonny Sixkiller, Bob Schloredt, George Fleming and Rick Redman. Lawyer Milloy was sporting a huge New England Patriots Super Bowl ring. Even Joe Jarzynka was on hand with a much shorter hair cut than the one he sported during his playing days.
Willingham invited the former players to reconnect with the program and to pass along their experiences of being a Husky
"In the past, we've tried this at the spring game," said Greg Lewis, the director of the Big W Club and a former Husky All-America running back. "At the spring game the parents are here, the girlfriends are here and the players want to get out of here as fast as possible to spend time with them. On this day, we have a captive audience. After practice the players go to lunch and it is just them and the former players. Those guys are not bringing any family either, so we can have some heart-to-heart talks with these guys. There are three aspects to what is going on . Let's meet this year's team, let's meet coach Willingham and let's catch up with our teammates."
Following the two-hour practice the former Huskies walked up the tunnel and piled into the team meeting room. First-year athletic director Todd Turner provided an account of the process used to select UW's new coach last December and how Willingham was contacted for the position. He also told the players what he had heard in meetings with former Huskies in terms of their expectations for the program.
Willingham addressed the assembly for 30 minutes, spending time to answer a variety of questions. He also explained his desire to have former players embrace the program through the highs and lows and serve as mentors for this year's team and future generations of Huskies. His audience was attentive and very enthusiastic in their support.
"We have a great program because of the former players," Willingham said. "The things they've done, the championships they've won and the games they've played in. Our strength is our past and you can't build a future in my opinion unless you have a great past. We've got one. We should take advantage of one by having our former players come back.
"When they walk through that tunnel and they walk on that field, there is a different feeling. They can convey that to our current players. Only they can pass on that history and tradition of what took place in this corner of the field on this date. And those vivid memories they have, they spring forward like it was yesterday. Our players need to associate with that. They need to hear it and be a part of it. So you want them back, not only to just pass on that tradition but to be mentors to our young guys so they can have a connection and start to embrace what husky football is all about and to build on it."
The former Huskies certainly welcomed the opportunity.
"This is a lot of fun," said former UW quarterback Damon Huard, who currently plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. "It's the first time I've been able to come back for something like this. It's the perfect time of the year to do these sorts of events. It's fun to see old familiar faces and guys you haven't talked to in several years. This program has so much tradition, we can build something from this. With the alumni and support and history that we have, hopefully this will be the starting point for many more events like this in the future."
Former Rose Bowl MVP Marques Tuiasosopo knew exactly what he wanted to tell the current players during the luncheon.
"I will tell them, 'Hey, look around. Look at all the great players who wore the same helmet and the same uniform as you do,'" Tuiasosopo said. "You tell them that they're playing in a place were they can be successful. You tell them to believe like we all did and go out and work your tails off and they can make it happen.
"I'll tell them to ask every question they want. There are a lot of guys here with a lot of experience and a lot of guys who have won a lot of football games. We all want to see you succeed. Hopefully the players will take advantage of it and get excited about being a Husky football player. I know it has been a little rocky, but this is a great opportunity to start the off-season program with all of these people out here supporting them."
George Fleming, who starred for UW's back-to-back Rose Bowl championship teams in the early '60s shared a similar perspective.
"One of the most difficult things to do is to try and compare Washington in this era from other eras," Fleming said. "What they've got to do is take what they've got and make the best of it. They need to use whatever they can from past experiences to enhance their own experience while they are here."
Luther Carr, a standout during the late 1950s was impressed with Willingham and his message to the team.
"The guy comes in with very good credentials and he's talking the right stuff to the players," Carr said. "Study hard, stay in school, be a good football player so you can stay eligible and graduate."
"The message is right on," Fleming added.
Bud Ericksen, who played for Washington from 1935 to 1937 was the reunion's oldest returning player. He was pleased with Willingham's talk to the alumni.
"I was very impressed with the fact he really has discipline on his squad and that he is someone totally interested in the program and I feel we're going to have some immediate success," Ericksen said. "I know he will not be content with a 50 percent win season. He'll go after it and we'll get the material to win."
Ericksen said his favorite part of the experience was watching the team scrimmage.
"They have an esprit de corps down there and a willingness to work," he said. "It was very impressive."
Moon knows first hand the type of ship Willingham will run. He was a quarterback at the Minnesota Vikings when Willingham was the team's running backs coach.
"I've known him for about 11 years and I know how structured he is and how organized he is," Moon said. "When I was at the Minnesota Vikings his running backs were the most well-prepared and well-conditioned group on our football team."
Moon said he was not surprised the reunion took place.
"He (Willingham) has a reason for everything that he is trying to do," Moon said. "He has a plan for everything he his trying to do and he knows how these guys can benefit this program. He also wants to embrace these guys and make sure they know they are welcome back in the program."
Moon, along with several other former UW signalcallers ate with this year's crop of Husky quarterbacks.
"I just want to tell them mainly what Husky football has been about and this is what Ty and we as former players want this program to get back to," Moon said. "Hopefully we can get that message across as to what our tradition is all about. It's about winning. It's about being tough and hard-nosed. It's about doing things the right way on the football field. You might not win every game but you are always going to have a chance in every game if you do those three things. That's the message I want to get across."
As the luncheon progressed Willingham watched from the sidelines, taking it all in. He hoped that his players realized the appreciated the affair.
"My favorite part of this event will be the difference that it will make in our players," Willingham said. "It really should just excite them to no end about Husky football. It should provide them a new source of energy and a new source of strength about this program. Today they see that somebody else cares. You don't come back unless you care. There are over 150 guys here who are saying in volume, "We care.'"