Dec. 26, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Jermaine Kearse was wearing a wetsuit, twirling like a ballerina. In the pool two feet away, Luna the 1,700-pound beluga imitated the wide receiver's aquatic moves.
A whale trainer then asked Cort Dennison to perform barrel rolls for Luna.
"Barrel rolls? In the water?" the middle linebacker asked.
He knew the pool was 58 degrees, and the crisp morning air was maybe 45.
Luna, Oliver, Imaq, and Martha, beluga whales from SeaWorld San Antonio, capped the fun morning for these visitors from Washington by giving each Husky kisses. And, yes, the whales got some back in return.
"That kiss was top notch," Dennison joked next to the whale's tank, his black, double-XL, SeaWorld wetsuit glistening in the sun.
Early Monday, 18 Huskies seniors trudged through a back entrance of SeaWorld, about a half hour from where Washington (7-5) will play Baylor (9-3) at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Alamo Bowl.
It was 7 a.m. on the players' normal body clocks, Pacific time, the morning after Christmas. But the Dawgs perked up quickly during their hour of frolicking with white whales, doing sit ups with a 700-pound walrus and riding a roller coaster alongside a sampling of Baylor players.
"We don't have a SeaWorld in Seattle," Dennison said, "so this is something we will remember the rest of our lives."
The players were genuinely excited by the rare opportunity to "train" with the whales and walruses. They laughed and joked and marveled at them, and asked earnest questions to trainers of their sizes, ages and habits.
Kearse, Dennison, Devin Aguilar and UW's "Special Ops" kicking team of punters Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan plus snapper Brendan Lopez were fully into it once they got into the cool pool - and got splashed by the belugas' back fins. Then one playfully spat water into the players' faces.
"That," Rasp said on the players' bus ride back to the team hotel, "was a cool experience."
It was the start of Washington's packed Monday. The afternoon included a fast-paced, two-hour practice at Alamo Heights High School down the freeway, then a press conference for defensive players and coordinator Nick Holt just off downtown's famed Riverwalk. The players spent the evening attending the NBA opener for Tim Duncan and his San Antonio Spurs.
Back at the whale tank, the Huskies had an easier time interacting with the belugas than they did getting into their tight wetsuits - even though there were sizes on hand up to 8XL.
"For Tim Duncan," trainer Tiffany explained about a frequent, local visitor who is 6-feet-11. "He comes here all the time.
"You really are cracking me up," the trainer told the Huskies of various heights in the clingy suits. "Y'all look like `The Incredibles.'"
The Huskies hopes that's what much of America will be calling them after Thursday's game against Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and favored Baylor.
The affectionate whales warmed up immediately to the Huskies. The belugas ranged from the big Luna to "little" Oliver - "he's only 800 pounds," his trainer told the players.
The sampling of Washington's seniors - veterans that have gone from an abyss to just the eighth program since 1960 to appear in two bowl games within three seasons of going winless - embraced this cool opportunity. By the end of the hour, Aguilar, Kearse and Dennison were posing for pictures with beluga Martha while flashing Ws. And 330-plus-pound Alameda Ta'mu was doing sit ups with a walrus while marveling about SeaWorld's generously sized coasters.
"I actually fit on the roller coaster rides for the first time in a long time," the senior defensive tackle said with a huge grin. "I think everything in Texas is big."
The behind-the-scenes experience was unlike the more-public ones they had Saturday as a team in the rain at this SeaWorld, and last December in the marine park's San Diego location during Washington's Holiday Bowl trip.
"Our program just keeps building and keeps going up and up. Me, Everrette (Thompson) and Alameda have been here when some times were tough, when we were 0-12," Dennison said later at the downtown press conference. "You only appreciate success when you've been at the bottom. And we've been at the bottom. We realize how that feels.
"Now we realize what success feels like -- and how hard you have to work to get there."
The spoils of that hard work included the seniors feeding the whales fresh fish, leading them in applause and rubbing their soft bellies that the outdoorsman Mahan thought felt like a catfish. Aguilar especially loved following a trainer's request to "hop like a bunny" across the ledge for Oliver. The whale dutifully imitated the wide receiver in the water.
"Hey, you all GOTTA do the hop like a bunny," Aguilar told Baylor players as the teams passed each other to switch ends of the pool and two of the four whales.
"The bunny hop?" some of the Baylor guys asked back to the grinning Aguilar.
Kearse was almost sublime with his pirouettes, his arms extended over his head for Oliver.
"It was fun. I've never done anything like that before," said the Huskies' co-captain from Lakewood, Wash., who had never been to a SeaWorld until last year in San Diego.
"We fed them. We danced with them. Even got a kiss from them," Kearse marveled. "It's an amazing thing to see all that they train them to do.
"And I didn't think I was going to be IN the water."
Defensive coordinator Nick Holt led Dennison, Ta'amu, Thompson, Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker to the Marriott Riverwalk across the street from the team hotel for the defense's Alamo Bowl press conference. In it, Holt, a veteran of Rose Bowls from his time as a coordinator at USC, praised his hosts.
"So far it's been fantastic. Everybody has been nice to us. The facilities have been awesome. The high school that we're practicing at, just a beautiful facility, great weight room, great field," Holt said. "A great Texas welcome, so to speak."
Holt noted practices here Saturday, Sunday and Monday "have been going very, very well. We have a tremendous, tremendous job ahead of us of playing this fantastic Baylor offense with their Heisman Trophy winner. The quarterback is a fantastic player ... and they do a lot of really good things.
"It's a tremendous, tremendous opportunity for us, and hopefully we're up to the challenge. We're excited to be here. Our kids are going to play hard for four quarters, and I think it's going to be a very exciting football game."
QUICK HITS: A key to UW slowing Griffin and Baylor is controlling the line of scrimmage against the Bears' big, veteran offensive line. And Washington's hopes of doing that is getting healthier by the day. In addition to fitting inside roller coasters for the first time in forever - "it's nice not to be embarrassed in front of a crowd, not to have to be pulled out of line," Ta'amu joked, the big DT says he is as healthy as he's been since his dominant night in last season's Holiday Bowl. He now hardly notices the previously broken thumb that kept him from moving offensive linemen most of this season. "This is the healthiest I've been in a long time," he said. ... Monday's energetic practice mirrored what would normally be a Wednesday work day before a Saturday regular-season game. The Huskies will practice outdoors again Tuesday. They will get familiar with the Alamodome game site in a walkthrough practice Wednesday. ... Tuesday afternoon, about a half dozen players from each team will visit the Center for the Intrepid, a 65,000 square-foot, $50 million state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility for wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have suffered amputation, undergone limb salvage and been treated for burns. The $50 million center opened in January 2007 after being entirely privately funded by the donations of 600,000 Americans. ... Tuesday night, Huskies players, coaches, bands and cheerleaders will participate in an Alamo Bowl barbecue and pep rally on the Riverwalk.