Dec. 29, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN DIEGO - I don't know if Jake Locker will have his best game to end his Huskies career, as the Holiday Bowl president has predicted to me he would.
But if Thursday night's game here against heavily favored Nebraska goes the way the first 29 days of December has for Washington's refreshingly real captain and senior quarterback, the Dawgs are primed for an upset.
Heck, Locker's month has been better than Santa's. And more eventful.
Dec. 4: Locker finishes three gritty, must-win games of relentless running and passing with a touchdown throw to Jermaine Kearse with 44 seconds left at Washington State to win the Apple Cup. The three consecutive victories to end the regular season send UW to its first bowl game since 2002. And Locker does it all with a broken rib.
The dream he had while bypassing the first round of the NFL draft last spring comes true, he is in tears afterward in the locker room in Pullman.
Dec. 5: Locker learns he and the Huskies are going to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which just happens to be where Locker spends a lot of down time. The parents of his girlfriend, former UW softball player Lauren Greer, live there. That is notable because ...
Mid-December: During a few days off from practice and school, Locker travels to San Diego to ask Brian Greer, Lauren's dad, if he could marry his daughter.
Because this was an issue with my wife a dozen-plus years ago, I asked Locker if he indeed asked his soon-to-be father-in-law for permission. Or did he tell him?
"Oh, I asked," he said following practice at the University of San Diego on Sunday. "I made sure I asked. I put myself in that situation, and that's how I thought I'd respect a guy, who did that."
I mean, c'mon, who thinks like that anymore - especially at 22?
Dec. 17: Locker finishes the last exam week at UW. All of his academic work is now complete. He took only a few credit hours this fall. He could have graduated last spring but returned as a fifth-year senior to get Washington to a bowl game.
Dec. 18: He takes Lauren to Palisade's, the fancy restaurant on the north end of Elliott Bay that has sweeping views of Seattle's skyline. At the peak of his life - newly graduating, on his way to his first bowl game and now being projected among the top 15 picks again in April's NFL draft -the object of an entire state's admiration proposes to Greer.
"Couldn't be happier. She's the kind of girl I always wanted to be with, so I'm really happy," Jake says.
"I'd been thinking about it for a while. It just worked out I was able to get down and talk to her parents during the time we had off and was able to get the ring and make it work for that Saturday. So it was great.''
By the way, she said yes - as if there was any doubt. Guys like this don't grow on trees.
"I was hoping she would, because I didn't know what I was going to do if she didn't," Locker said, laughing. "My sister was going to get a real nice Christmas present, I guess."
He and Lauren met at UW 2½ years ago.
"Obviously, going to the same school, we ran into each other in the training room and stuff but nothing more than that," he said. "But (we) got introduced by a couple of mutual friends and started spending time together. And now we are here."
He said there's no date yet for wedding. Then he showed he's already learning the one-word secret to being a good - that is, long-lasting -- husband: Yield.
"I'll let her kind of figure that out and go from there," he said.
Dec. 26: A day after Christmas dinner with his team inside the luxurious Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel on San Diego Bay, Locker leads another spirited and sharp practice. His workouts here and the game-planning ones last week in Seattle suggest he's going to dramatically improve on the 4-for-20 passing game he had against Nebraska in a loss in September, the day most of the country wrote off Locker.
Then again, most of the country doesn't know the real Jake Locker. They don't realize if he was consumed by stats, by only himself, he'd be in the NFL by now.
After practice, Locker doesn't just go with the Huskies on their trip to the San Diego Zoo on this chilly Sunday. He goes Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on the place. The owner of a chocolate Labrador named Ten -- his jersey number -- smiles like a young kid while visiting Alaskan wolves. He snaps dozens of pictures on his digital camera through the fence that separates him from the wolves.
He howls, and is thrilled when one wolf imitates him. He asks the trainer how long it took her to train the normally wild animal. He and a few teammates tell her he'd love to have one as a pet.
"Oh, bad idea," she tells them, explaining that the wolf would take everything he owns and hide it.
Minutes later at the Caribbean flamingos exhibit, Locker is asking zoo personnel what their most unexpectedly ornery animal was (Chinchillas, by the way). He laughs with a handler who is having her hair chewed on by a flamingo and tells her, "She's grooming you." He asks the birds' ages. He excitedly asks me to make sure he gets copies of the pictures people are taking, while he and Chris Polk, Jermaine Kearse and Senio Kelemete feed the pink birds water and dog food out of red plastic cups.
Dec. 27: Locker is having a blast at Sea World. He, Kearse and other Huskies are in the front row, middle section, dead-red inside the splash zone at Shamu Stadium minutes after the team gets to the park. Locker joins almost all the front-row players in buying black plastic ponchos to prepare for the soaking.
He stands to take pictures as the killer whales splash. He pumps his fist as they jump. When Shamu slides across the front stage a few feet to his right, Locker's mouth drops in wonder. When the whale swings his back fin to wave to the crowd, the quarterback yells "Whoo!"
He's so delighted, he looks like he should be featured on Sea World's next TV ad. Hours later, he leads the Huskies through another crisp workout at USD.
He's loved everything about this bowl week. Everywhere I've seen him around San Diego, he's either had on his gold helmet or his blue-and-white Holiday Bowl cap each Husky received upon arrival last weekend.
That, and a smile.
"He's a good kid," coach Steve Sarkisian said here Wednesday - for the umpteenth time. "He's a great young man.
"Jake's really trying to be that lead guy of really embracing this experience."
Embracing it? He's got a choke hold on it that I'm guessing will last until, oh, about 10:30 Thursday night.
Maybe that's why I keep thinking about the Twitter message Eric Graves, the Holiday Bowl president I met at the Apple Cup when he was scouting the Huskies, sent me a few weeks ago: "Locker will rise to the occasion at the Holiday Bowl and have his best game ever to end his college career."
He just might.
"It's awesome. It's a great experience. It's been a lot of fun," Locker said. "And it's all a buildup to the best part of the trip: When you get to go out and play in the game.''
Locker knows he must be more aggressive running this time, as he has the last couple of games while the rib has healed, to challenge Nebraska's physical, swarming defense. He knows he can't force the throws in coverage as he did against the Cornhuskers in Husky Stadium in September. His wide receivers can't get manhandled at the line by Nebraska's brash defensive backs again.
But Locker also knows this is a different Huskies team than the one that lost 56-21 in Week 3. Its offensive line finally has some continuity and success. Polk has emerged as a dominant, 1,000-yard rusher to take the burden off Locker to carry the offense by himself. Nebraska just can't focus on stopping the quarterback any more.
"We just across the board didn't play as well as we needed to on offense," Locker said of round one versus the `Huskers. "We know it's a great defense and we know what we are going to get out of them this time around, and it's up to us to go out and compete a little bit harder and make things happen.''
Something tells me Locker is going to make things happen in this Holiday Bowl. Something tells me Jake Locker's best month ever has one more thrill left in it. "It's awesome. It's a great way to end a career, and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to do it in this fashion with this football team," Locker said. "It will be a memorable one.
"It's an exciting time, a great month for me. I'm hoping to end it the right way."
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.
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