Sept. 26, 2008
By Matt Winter
When they came to the University of Washington in 2004, senior tight ends Michael Gottlieb and Walt Winter had no idea their football careers would turn out the way they did. One came in as a walkon without a scholarship; the other switched positions twice before finding his home.
They have dutifully done their jobs for four years, and have now become the veterans guiding young players in finding their way. In a time when Washington football was not at its most glorious, these two found glory in their own path. They found a way to exemplify the Husky spirit even when Spirit the mascot could hardly muster a bark.
While Gottlieb and Winter's role on the team has been sometimes unclear during their time on the field, their presence is invaluable. They bring experience, perspective, and a sense of that blue-collar team attitude that seems lost in sports these days.
Gottlieb was a star at Mercer Island High School. He came to Washington as a walk-on, passing up on scholarship offers from other schools to play for the team he had grown up watching. In high school, he made most of his impact on defense as a linebacker, and after amassing 113 tackles during his senior season, was named KingCo 3A Defensive Player of the Year. Upon joining the Dawgs, he was told that he would be playing tight end.
"It was definitely tough at first," Gottlieb explains, "I mean, [defense] was pretty much all I did in high school. My whole mentality about football was just, `tackle the guy with the ball,' or `chase the guy with the ball.' That was all I really knew.
"But, especially being a walk on, I wanted to do everything I could to fit in with the team, and do whatever I could to get on the field."
Winter has had to get used to adjusting. At Juanita High School, he excelled as a linebacker and tight end, earning all state honors and a spot in the U.S. Army All-America game. However, after coming to the Huskies as a tight end/linebacker recruit, within a week he was moved to defensive end, where he remained for two and a half years. After redshirting in 2004, he played special teams and added defensive line depth for another year and a half. In 2006, because of injuries at the tight end position, he was moved back to offense and joined Gottlieb.
"The transition was good, I've enjoyed it," said Winter, who served as a backup to Gottlieb and Johnie Kirton in 2006, "It's different--I always loved catching the ball. I think tight end is my favorite spot to play."
Adjusting is something Gottlieb would also have to get used to. After redshirting in 2004, he played some special teams in 2005. That very next year, due to injuries, he was thrown into the fray at tight end, starting in six games and catching four passes for 78 yards. "I still wasn't on scholarship but I got thrown into the mix," remembers Gottlieb about his early days.
Being assigned a more prominent role didn't faze Gottlieb. He showed he belonged and was deserving of consideration for a scholarship.
"Mostly everything is happening so fast that you don't really have time to sit back and think about it," he says. "I remember my first game my sophomore year, I was extremely anxious, I was breathing deeply, there was a lot of adrenaline."
"Learning a new playbook is never easy, it's a whole different language and all new material to learn," Winter explains.
However, he was able to draw from his defensive experience to help with the blocking aspect of the tight end position. "Being a defensive player for two-and-a-half years I understand defense, the way people are trying to go, and it helps at tight end knowing where they're going so I can stop them from going there."
At Washington, there is plenty of tradition at the tight end position. With guys like Mark Bruener, Ernie Conwell, Cam Cleeland, and Jerramy Stevens, there are few teams across the country that have the lore at a certain position that the Huskies have at tight end. Winter knows the program and takes great pride in this. "I've been a local guy--it's an honor."
Gottlieb finds inspiration in the situation.
"You're not automatically given anything simply because you become a tight end at the University of Washington," explains Gottlieb. "You have to earn the status to be mentioned in the same breath as those guys. But, at home, you think about the tradition. You think about where you want to be--that's extra motivation for me, holding myself to a higher standard."
Perhaps the greatest part of playing tight end for them is playing alongside each other. These two veterans are great friends; they even lived together for a year.
"Walt and I are close buddies," says Gottlieb. "So more than anything it's fun to spend a lot of time with him--playing and in meeting rooms and throughout the whole thing."
"Mike and I have been through a lot together," adds Winter, "and with the young guys, we can take Kavario [Middleton] or Chris [Izbicki] or Romeo [Savant] under our wing. We can simplify things because sometimes it's easier for a player to teach or coach another player because we speak the same language."
Now in their senior years, Gottlieb and Winter are finding their place, and that place is not what they expected. They have suffered through their share of losses, position changes and injuries. Yet, through it all, the duo has remained diligent and pillars of perseverance. So on this 2008 team that features so many young rising stars, who better to lead and offer wisdom than a couple of guys who have remained strong over the past four years?
"This experience has been very different than I thought it was going to be," admits Gottlieb, "but it's been very rewarding for me--seeing the way I've grown, how far I've come since I first walked in here -- personally, as a football player, academically, everything."
"It lets you know that, despite what I've gone through here I didn't quit, I kept working hard and kept my head up," offers Winter. "I can go through almost anything. When it's sour, it makes it sweeter, and we've had some tough times so when we have success it makes it that much better knowing where we've been."
While these two may never earn All-American status, you will surely see their impact on future Husky teams. Especially if the young stars on the team emulate their blue-collar ways and help put the bark back in the Huskies.