Dec. 26, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN DIEGO - Jake Locker couldn't hide his smile. He was howling at a pair of Alaskan wolves from the other side of a cage.
Seconds later one imitated him, delighting the Huskies quarterback as Jermaine Kearse eagerly snapped photos.
Minutes earlier, at the back of a rollicking double-decker bus, Greg Christine bellowed at a pack of zebras.
"Are they white with black stripes? Are they black with white stripes? What are they?!!!" the lineman demanded.
Cort Dennison got startled by a bounding camel, who himself was spooked by all the roaring the Dawgs were doing on their zoo bus tour.
"I thought that was jumping the fence!" Dennison said.
The Huskies just didn't enjoy their Sunday afternoon at the San Diego Zoo four days before the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska. They practically turned into zoo keepers.
And that was following what coach Steve Sarkisian said was perhaps the most spirited practice Washington (6-6) has had all season.
Yes, you could say the Huskies are enjoying their first bowl week since 2002.
"Man, I love it," Quinton Richardson said of his first bowl experience.
The starting cornerback then flashed a big smile and said he was especially excited about the zoo trip.
"Oh, yeah, I am," Richardson said, joking about his speed. "I can't wait to pet the cheetahs."
Locker, the senior quarterback and co-captain fulfilling his collegiate goal of finally reaching a bowl game, joined wide receiver Kearse, running back Chris Polk and left tackle Senio Kelemete in howling with the snow-white wolves.
"Would you want them as a pet?" the wolves' handler asked the players.
The players all nodded yes. Locker, the owner of a chocolate Labrador named Ten back in Seattle, offered a hearty "Yeah."
"Yeah? Oh, bad idea," the handler said. "They take everything. Phones. Keys. Everything."
Then it was on to the Caribbean flamingos. Locker, Kearse, Polk and Kelemete were escorted into the pink birds' exhibit and received red plastic cups full of water and ... dog food - who knew? The players sat on a bench as the flamingos eagerly bobbed their beaks into the cups to gobble the treats, splashing water all over Locker's team warm-up jacket.
The quarterback cackled.
"Any way we can get copies of these pictures?" Locker, wearing his blue-and-white Holiday Bowl cap, asked zoo and bowl representatives who were clicking away.
Locker turned down the mega millions of a likely first-round selection in last spring's NFL draft for this very experience. And both on and off the field here in San Diego, he is diving in as if the event was the game plan for Thursday night's rematch with the Cornhuskers (10-3).
Saturday night brought a team Christmas dinner at the fancy downtown hotel. Tackle Cody Habben, Locker's roommate off campus back in Seattle, turned that into a bad holiday sweater contest with a particularly garish and tight selection. Sunday's visit to one of America's premier zoos included a stream of questions from Locker, who seemed genuinely interested and entertained.
He chattered throughout the feeding of the flamingos. He asked handlers if the birds were all the same age. He asked which animals in the zoo were surprisingly territorial and lash out. (The answer: Chinchillas.)
Monday brings a team trip to Sea World. Later this week, there's a luncheon aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier put on by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
"Oh, it's a great experience," Locker said after Sunday's practice at the University of San Diego. "It's been a lot of fun."
Sarkisian moved the Huskies off of the soft sod recently soaked by rains at USD's stadium and chewed up by the Huskies practicing there the previous two days. He had the Dawgs down a hill on a turf practice field Sunday, for about two of the best practice hours this season.
LL Cool J was rapping about "Goin' Back to Cali" as the Huskies, about half of whom are from California, continued repeating the game-planning week they had in Seattle last week.
Defensive end Talia Crichton, who hoped to return in the Holiday Bowl from arthroscopic knee surgery that has had him out since the Oct. 16 win over Oregon State, had what Sarkisian called "a setback" with the knee on the softer field Saturday. He may not play Thursday. That leaves senior De'Shon Matthews, who started Oct. 9 against Arizona State, a likely starter at end opposite Hau'oli Jamora along a defensive line that will be the key to slowing down Nebraska.
"They've been great," Sarkisian said of his players when asked how they've handled balancing all the bowl-week fun with the work of preparing for the game since arriving on Thursday. "In my opinion, that was as spirited a practice as we've had all year."
They sure seemed to have a blast at the zoo after practice.
All players got about 2½ hours to roam the place among the paying customers. Most people smiled, laughed and flashed thumbs up at the Huskies. Before the double-decker took off around the zoo's perimeter, the players warned "No rockin' the bus!" - a nod to the players' habit of getting their buses moving from side to side upon arriving at stadiums before games.
About three dozen Huskies hooted and hollered at the animals throughout the ride. The hippos and monkeys drew especially loud cheers. The players all stood to get better views of the 17-foot-tall giraffes. A small antelope looked stunned at the sight of a bus full of loud, happy college guys.
At one point, the bus driver had to tell the players: "No roaring at the lions."
Finally she felt compelled to say: "OK, guys. If we could quiet down just a little bit - just a little bit - so we can enjoy the animals without them running away from us."