By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - It's a question I've gotten the most this season, ever since the first kickoff of the first game two months ago.
It's not "How's Keith Price doing?" Not "What's made the Huskies' defense better?"
It's been, by a landslide: "Who IS that guy on the sideline jumping up and down and waving that towel - ALL THE TIME?"
He's assistant strength coach Keith "Thump" Belton, the relentlessly positive dynamo beneath a constantly twirling white towel.
Before kickoffs. Before third-down plays for the Huskies' defense. Up by three at home late last week against Oregon State. Down by 35 late the week before at Arizona. During practices. During meetings. Heck, during team meals.
Doesn't matter. Belton is the same way. All energy. All positivity. Yes, all the time.
Five-hour Energy's got nothing on "Thump."
"Hustle off the field! Hustle off the field!" Belton bellowed to Kasen Williams on Tuesday, 10 minutes after the morning's practice had ended.
UW's leading receiver was walking along the edge of the sideline after he had done extra receiver drills with most of his teammates already gone to the locker room.
"He's a great man. A GREAT man. He is our hype man," linebacker and co-captain John Timu said.
"He's our passion guy."
This "passion guy" is a former Syracuse captain and NFL fullback who estimates most of his childhood friends from Charlotte, N.C., are now in prison.
He got his "Thump" nickname as a baby. It became the perfect one for a fullback -- and for the Huskies' motivator in games, in practices, and in something far more important.
"I'm just passionate about the game. And most of all, I want to see these kids be successful," he said with a tone of - what else? - passion inside the Dempsey Indoor practice facility. "I love to see kids push through adversity, because these are men at the end of the day and they aren't going to play football all their lives. They are going to be fathers.
"I am a father, first and foremost. I've got a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old. There's a lot of adversity that goes into that - and in being married at the same time."
And you thought he was just a sideline rabble rouser featured on the video board at CenturyLink Field during home games.
"I'd like to think this game correlates so much into life," he said. "If you can push through the hard times, then in the easy times it's a breeze.
"So that's where the passion comes from. I want to see these guys be successful. Not only as football players, but I want to see them grow up and be great dads and mentors and people in society."
Now that's more useful fortitude than the average assistant college strength coach provides, eh?
TO UW - THROUGH THE ALAMO
The short, easy story on how this 31-year-old assistant to an assistant became the most noticeable and perhaps most invaluable Huskies game-day staffer not wearing a headset: He played at Syracuse with UW defensive assistant Donte Williams.
"Golly," Belton said when asked about his road to UW. "I always say God uses people, obviously. I went to school at Syracuse with Donte Williams. But I'd like to think it's deeper than that, too.
"I really think it's divine."
In 2010 Belton accepted a position within the department of athletic performance at Baylor. He worked there with soccer, men's tennis and football.
Williams introduced Belton to Huskies strength coach Ivan Lewis last December 26, when Washington's and Baylor's staffs had dinner together at Ruth Chris steakhouse in San Antonio three days before the teams played in the Alamo Bowl.
"We probably had a 3-minute conversation," Belton said.
Then on game night inside the Alamodome, Belton looked like a human pogo stick. He was waving a towel about the size of Texas to fire up his before kickoffs and big plays.
He and his Dawgs couldn't help but notice Belton from the opposite sideline that night. Baylor kicked off 11 times in the game. There were so many big plays it's a wonder "Thump" didn't collapse during a zany, 67-56 win for his Bears.
I told him I'm always pretty much high energy on the field, and that I want to see the guys succeed. That was my commitment to him. And I'm going to keep that commitment.
"It's crazy. We kept looking over to the Baylor sideline and saying, `Who IS that guy?'" Timu said. "He was everywhere, jumping up and down and waving that big towel."
Lewis remembered Belton all the way into May. That's when he hosted Belton for interviews at UW.
Belton had never been to Seattle before meeting with Lewis and the strength staff, plus with Sarkisian.
"I told him I wasn't going to trick him, and that I was going to be myself," Belton said when asked what he told Sark. "I told him I'm always pretty much high energy on the field, and that I want to see the guys succeed. That was my commitment to him. And I'm going to keep that commitment."
Sarkisian loved what he heard. That and a beautifully sunny Seattle day in May told Belton to become the Huskies' last hire following the offseason's staff overhaul.
Everyone focused on the arrival in January of new coordinators Justin Wilcox from Tennessee and Eric Kiesau from California - plus the coup of getting defensive-line coach and renowned recruiter Tosh Lupoi from Cal, UW's opponent Friday night in Berkeley.
No one noticed Belton coming in.
They can't help but notice him now.
"I'm just passionate about them being successful, honestly," he said of the players. "Everybody wants to win; I want to win. But I just want to see these guys count on one another. And if they've got to get their energy and enthusiasm from me, so be it. Whatever it takes.
"And it's just who I am. So it's never work to me."
As you may be able to glean, Belton even walks passionately.
"It's what keeps me alive. My passion for this game, my passion for people keeps me going," he said. "This is my life."
But not his entire life. Turns out, he apparently doesn't wave a towel at home to get his wife Shantre and their two kids going each morning.
"Outside of football it's totally different. I'm introverted," he said. "Shantre thinks it's crazy, because she knows at home that's not who I am. She knows at home I am quiet. I like to keep to myself a lot.
"But here," he said, looking around the practice field, "it's just that `Thump' comes alive."
"EVERYONE I GREW UP WITH IS PROBABLY IN PRISON"
Belton's 5 year-old is a son named Peyton - because his wife "loves" Peyton Manning. Their daughter Aubrey just turned 1.
When I asked him about her, "Thump" just about melted into the Dempsey Indoor turf.
"Oh, man, she's a princess. She's a princess. Oh, my gosh!" he gushed. "No boyfriends for her until she's 40."
He's already giving little Aubrey something he lacked growing up: direction.
"I can't say exactly where I was headed, but I will tell you this: Everyone that I grew up with is probably in prison," he said.
He attended West Charlotte High School, "which is notorious," Belton said. It's enrollment is about 2,000, with 99 percent of its students minorities. The recent federal reporting data for the school shows 70 percent of students were on a free lunch program.
West Charlotte recently received national recognition for academic achievement and turning around the school's rough environment. Belton likened West Charlotte in the late 1990s to the place depicted in Lean on Me, the 1989 biographical film about principal Joe Clark reforming an ultra-rough, inner-city high school in New Jersey.
I can't say exactly where I was headed, but I will tell you this: Everyone that I grew up with is probably in prison.
"You know that movie about Eastside High - `Take the chains off the door! Take the chains off!' It was almost like that," Belton said. "But it's a great school with a great tradition, in one of the rougher parts of Charlotte. You learn so many values going to a school like that. Instincts. You don't learn a lot out of a book but you learn a lot about life, which is important. Life skills."
"Thump" already knew how to play football. He was the Class 4A Southwestern Conference player of the year as a senior after rushing for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns.
He committed initially to Syracuse, then signed with Baylor after one recruiting visit to Waco, Texas.
"Honestly, I didn't even know where Baylor was," Belton said.
He was there for two days. He couldn't get through the NCAA's clearinghouse for grades and admission test scores.
He left Baylor and landed at Northeast Mississippi Junior College in Booneville.
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life," he says now. "I learned that you can't B.S. your way through life. Going to West Charlotte and being raised the way I was raised, you could kind of shuck and jive to get through.
"But reality hit that at some point I had to grow up and be a man, own up to my mistakes. I was able to B.S. my way through high school, but I wasn't able to get cleared by the NCAA. So in junior college I had to buckle down and realize what's really important."
Northeast Mississippi was a necessary means to a Belton's end. And that end could arrive soon enough.
"Check this out," he said, "I went to the AD and said, `What's the fastest way to get out of here?' Because I had to go. There was like one WalMart and some fried-chicken place - and that was it."
Belton missed his first football season at Northeast Mississippi because of a knee injury that could have U-turned his life. It could have sent him out of school, out of football, back toward the dead ends around Charlotte and maybe even prison.
But he turned the injury into a blessing. He used the extra time while not playing to gain determination. He bulled through the school's academic load like it was linebacker standing in the center-guard gap.
Northeast Mississippi's athletic director explained to him a student needed to pass 65 credit hours to get an associate's degree from the two-year school. Belton asked the AD for the maximum number of hours he could take per term. He was told 22.
"It's a done deal," he told the AD.
Belton completed three straight semesters of 22 credits each.
No more shuck. No more jive.
"Man, it was awesome! It was AWESOME!" he says now.
Healthy again, he averaged 72.2 yards per game in his second, final year at Northeast Mississippi. Syracuse and Baylor came calling, again. He chose the Orange. After all, he'd grown up on Syracuse Drive in Charlotte.
Belton played the 2001, `02 and '03 seasons at Syracuse. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and became known as a fearless lead blocker while playing in all 37 games those three years. He was a team captain as a senior and received Syracuse's Ray Martino Award for demonstrating loyalty, enthusiasm and perseverance.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Lions in 2004. He was active for three games for Detroit and for Chicago that season. He was on the Bears' practice squad for part of 2005 season then ended that season on the Denver Broncos' practice squad. The Broncos and then the Lions again released Belton in the summer of 2007.
I asked him what he learned in the NFL.
"Accountability," he said. "Accountability. Accountability."
Belton became a coaching intern at Independence High School in Charlotte in the fall of 2007. A year later he took a job as running backs coach at Johnson C. Smith University in his hometown. He moved out of full-time position coaching in 2009 to be an intern at Wake Forest working in its athletic department's life-skills program. He joined Baylor in 2010 and stayed two years.
He doesn't want to move up to the top of the college coaching ranks.
"You know what? I'd like to be a head strength and conditioning coach," he said. "When I can't jump around and scream and wave towels any more, I want to be an AD. How funny is that?
"But that's way down the line, man. I'm 31. And I feel like I'm 21."
He looks it, too. With rounded, rising shoulders and trunk-like legs, he looks like he could clear out the "A" gap for Bishop Sankey Friday at Cal.
In fact, UW's marketing department used Belton as the player model in a full black uniform for its "Blackout of the Century" campaign prior to last month's win over eighth-ranked Stanford.
A BEAUTIFUL THING
I asked "Thump" what he's learned as a father. He sounded like all of us who have been a dad for more than a day.
"Patience," he said. "Patience, and accountability, again. And responsibility. Now, I can't run off my emotions. I have to listen now, having an understanding of when to turn that switch off of being a competitor to being a dad.
"I love `em. I love my babies."
There it is again, the passion. It's what fuels him to be relentlessly supportive on the Huskies' sideline no matter the score or situation.
"Oh, yeah, it's big time. We feed off that. Offense. Defense. We all feed off that," Timu says. "To see one of our coaches with the passion he has, it fires us up.
"He's consistent, that's what's so great about him. At LSU, Baton Rouge. Arizona. Win or lose, he's the man that we look to, even when we are down."
Down? Belton doesn't do down.
But doesn't he at least get tired constantly jumping up and down and running along the sidelines waving that towel?
"You know what? I really feel like God put me here to do it. When you are blessed to do something, you don't get tired of doing it," he says. "If I wasn't put here to do this, I'd get tired in the first quarter. I don't get tired. I think His graciousness allows me to do this for a long time.
"It's weird. But that's just honest."
Then he added with a wry smile, "Now when I get home, that's a different story. I'm sore."
Belton puts his contributions to UW football, to bettering the Huskies not only as players but as people, better than I can.
"It's beautiful, man," he says, with a big grin. "It's a beautiful thing."
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.