Dec. 28, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN DIEGO - The final full practice before the Holiday Bowl turned into Senior Night II for the Huskies.
Mason Foster was the first player to jog through the cordon of teammates. Austin Sylvester was the last. Between them, 15 other UW seniors were honored by their teammates following Tuesday night's practice at Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego.
Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and coaches formed two lines between the field and the steps that led to the locker room. As each senior went through, the younger Dawgs pummeled him with poundings on to the helmet and torso.
"I like that tradition," coach Steve Sarkisian said of the ceremony he began after Washington's final practice last December, at the end of his first year at UW. "It's their last, real practice as a Husky. It's just a way to say thanks for our seniors and give them hopefully one last life lesson before they leave, and a chance for the rest of the coaches and football team to thank them."
The immediate life lesson from Tuesday night: When running through a gauntlet of friends, protect yourself.
Jake Locker and his classmates had already been honored publically before their final game at Husky Stadium on Nov. 18 against UCLA. But this more private honoring was more of a thank you for the seniors persevering through an 0-12 season, a coaching change and a complete program overhaul over just two seasons to lead Washington (6-6) to its first bowl game since 2002, Thursday night against Nebraska (10-3) at Qualcomm Stadium here.
"I'm thankful for our senior class," Sarkisian said. "I've said this numerous times: For everything they've been through -- the adversity on the field, off the field, the ups, the downs, the coaching change and four and five years of it, and to what we went through this year -- I'm appreciative of the fact they came to work every day with a great mindset and set a real tone for this football program as we move forward.
"This is a great reward for them to be able to play in a bowl game before their career was over, and they'll always be part of this family. We're always here for them."
Before the seniors ran through their appreciative teammates, Sarkisian gathered them at the center of USD's grass field - Washington was back on the real stuff after two days on turf down the hill, to simulate Qualcomm's surface. The coach then gave the seniors a heartfelt talk.
"Hopefully some of the experiences and lessons that they learned over their time here, they can carry with them throughout life and use as motivators," he said a few minutes later. "It's not always how things start --adversity is going to strike -- it's how you deal with that adversity and what you do with it that can shape where you're headed."
Washington is trying to finish off a remarkable uprising after being 3-6 last month. Three consecutive must-wins over UCLA, at California and at Washington State have the Huskies in their first bowl since the Sun, on Dec. 31, 2002, the final game for then-coach Rick Neuheisel.
It's been 24 days, 13 practices and a set of final exams back in Seattle since the Huskies won the Apple Cup in the final minute on a pass from Locker to leaping Jermaine Kearse. So, yes, they more than a tad anxious to kickoff against the Cornhuskers at 7:06 p.m. Thursday, in a rematch of Nebraska's win at UW in September.
"I think we're a little antsy, and we're ready to go," Sarkisian said. "You could probably feel that in tonight's practice. It was very spirited, and guys are excited."
They were also thrilled with how their sunny Tuesday began - with a luncheon aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier hosted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The sheer size of the massive ship - it's four football fields long, hosting an operations crew of 5,000 - wowed the Huskies.
Linebacker Cort Dennison, riding the massive flight deck elevator back down to the hangar level, called his two hours aboard the Nimitz-class super carrier in port at Naval Air Station North Island here "the highlight of the trip so far." The Huskies went to the San Diego Zoo on Sunday and Sea World Monday.
After the Husky Marching Band serenaded them as they boarded the carrier, the Dawgs had lunch with the Cornhuskers. The Huskies were particularly impressed by sitting with crew members of the Reagan.
"You look in their eyes and you realize they are 18, 19, 20-year old kids, the same (as) kids we work with every day, and they are out in the Middle East defending our country," Sarkisian said. "So it humbles you."
The ship's skipper, Capt. Thom Burke spoke - and gave up his chair in the carrier's command center so a thrilled Sarkisian could sit in it. Vice Admiral Allen Myers and Marine Corps Major General Ronald Bailey also spoke. Sarkisian and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini each made brief comments and introduced a member of the Reagan crew who would serve as each team's honorary Holiday Bowl game captain.
The luncheon included the presentation of the Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Trophy to a representative from each team. The trophy is awarded to a player, staff member or coach from each team who exemplifies "unselfish commitment, motivation and teamwork that result in little acclaim but help contribute to the team's overall success."
Huskies senior linebacker Victor Aiyewa displayed sincere surprise as it became clear that the person that was being described, without being named, was him. And he's not exactly anonymous in the Pac-10: Aiyewa, a former safety who didn't play football until late in high school in the Houston area, led the conference this season with 18 tackles for loss.
"I wasn't expecting that at all," Aiyewa said of the Navy's trophy. "But getting an award like that, I'm really proud. It's a great experience."
The same goes for this first bowl week for the Huskies in eight years. "It's been a great 3 1/2 weeks," he said. "I'm really proud of our kids with the way they've approached this thing and done everything we've asked. They've really prepared well mentally and physically -- and then taken the time to enjoy the experiences along the way of this thing.
"But at the same time, they've done a really nice job at focusing at the task at hand, and that's coming down here to play a football game."