Sept. 7, 2006
SEATTLE (AP) -- Like most 22-year-olds, Alex Mercier has his cell phone pressed to his head. Again.
But Mercier is not gabbing about which bar he will be meeting his buddies at later. He's not yapping about potential dates, his coolest iPod download, or how uncool his classes at the University of Washington will be this quarter.
"We are having problems getting the CDs pressed," a harried Mercier said before a recent Huskies practice. "The deadline, you know, is before the first game."
The determined Mercier got his Husky Nation compact discs packaged and ready for sale at Husky Stadium last Saturday during Washington's season-opening win over San Jose State.
Mercier's senior class project is far more than that. All proceeds from sales of the $7 album benefit Soulumination, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that provides free, professional photography of children facing life-threatening illnesses.
As Mercier and the rest of the Huskies prepared for the season -- including this Saturday's ominous test at No. 15 Oklahoma -- he also was writing much of the album containing six rap tracks by him and teammates Quintin Daniels, Marlon Wood and Chris Hemphill. Mercier mixed the sound during 11-hour days in a recording studio. And he promoted the project through fliers that he personally addressed and mailed throughout Puget Sound and beyond.
"It's pretty good," Washington coach Tyrone Willingham said of the CD, widening his eyes for emphasis. "If you didn't know they were college football players, you would think it was done by professionals."
Last week, during the Huskies' only off day since preseason camp began in early August, Mercier was at Soul Sound Audio in suburban Edmonds, a recording studio run by childhood friend David Thompson. Mercier, a guitar and piano player, has been dabbling there since he was 15.
"Football during the day. This at night," Mercier said when asked how he's done it all.
The only thing that has slowed the nonstop Mercier has been a painful hamstring strain that has hampered the receiver and kick returner's rise from unknown walk-on to Washington spring camp star.
Willingham can use all the playmakers he can find in the second year of his attempt to rebuild once-mighty Washington, which is 4-19 since the start of the 2004 season. He could especially use playmakers for Saturday's game against the angry Sooners, who barely got past Alabama-Birmingham at home in their underwhelming opener.
Willingham can also use a man like Mercier in the coach's bid to produce Husky players of character who succeed in life, not just football.
"This is a perfect example," Willingham said.
Lynette Johnson, the professional photographer who founded Soulumination, is far more effusive.
"Alex is an amazing human being," said Johnson. "He's a show-stopper."
The 52-year-old mother of two daughters began Soulumination 10 years ago, after she took pictures of her niece, who was stillborn.
It was then that Mercier met Johnson. He was attending Bishop Blanchet High School, north of downtown Seattle, with Johnson's daughters.
"He was an atypical high school student, too," Johnson said. "Sitting around the breakfast table, he was just so grounded."
In the last decade, Johnson has produced photos free of charge for families who are facing the loss of a child. Selected portraits were on display this spring at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Through her foundation, she has become a spokeswoman for the cause of critically ill children and a counselor for their parents.
"Lynette told me that of the 50-some shoots she did last year, about 30 of the kids didn't make it through the year," Mercier said.
Last year, after he and his teammates recorded a rap song, Husky Nation, Mercier began thinking how to turn his effort into an album. But NCAA rules prohibit him from profiting off any sale. So he thought of Johnson and Soulumination.
After tediously clearing the project with university and Pac-10 conference officials, Mercier went back to Johnson -- who always goes back to the children she photographs.
Last month, Mercier, Wood, Hemphill and teammate Roy Lewis visited Johnson's Seattle studio to take pictures with some of the children she has photographed.
"It really touched my heart," Hemphill said. "They were so joyful. Some got a little scared at first because they didn't know us, as you would expect. But then they were laughing and playing. It was a fun experience."
One of the kids was Andrew, who has tumors in his sinuses. He was playing football with the players at Johnson's studio when an errant toss bonked him in the head. Still, later that day, Andrew gleefully tossed a ball around in his yard. His parents reported it was the first time he had been so interested in a football.
Andrew said it was because he had just "played football with the Huskies."
"When you meet them and meet the parents, you realize this is pretty important," Mercier said. "You just kind of realize the severity of the situation."
Those are the lessons that Mercier will take away from Washington.
"Being in college, being a football player, you are using to being young, having fun, basically thinking of yourself," Mercier said. "You don't think about death, having kids, living a real life."
Being around Soulumination and that "real life" has caused Mercier's mind to drift during his football afternoons.
As he said, "To be put in that situation, real-life situations, makes you think, 'Is what I am doing really what's important?"'