Last week Bishop Sankey was taking final exams in COM 340 and COM 440 and Brian Wolfe was in the Huskies’ academic-support offices during UW’s final week. Days later they were on their professional sports fields living a completely new life – with wildly varied amounts of money on hand. As Wolfe says: “It’s weird.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Bishop Sankey just had a finals week unlike most college juniors.
Last Tuesday, Sankey took his final exam at UW. By Thursday, the second-round pick was fully in the NFL. He was at Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tenn., on the field for his first day as a full participant in the Tennessee Titans’ offseason practices.
In a span of 48 hours the Huskies’ No. 2 all-time leading rusher went from college kid taking exams worth 35 percent of his grade in COM 340 History of Mass Communication and COM 440 Mass Media Law -- courses worth a total of 10 credits in the communications major’s Washington Spring 2014 term -- to beginning his rookie year as the Titans’ hand-picked replacement for former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson.
How strange was it to be an expected starting running back in the NFL about to agree to a $2 million contract, with another million or so in a guaranteed signing bonus, while still a junior in college taking final exams?
“It was a little … a little strange,” Sankey characteristically understated. “That was one of the (NFL) rules: you’ve got to stay there and knock out your classes until your school gets out for that year.”
Sankey missed the first nine “organized team activities” (OTAs) with the Titans before joining them in time for their final one last week. NFL rules prohibit rookies from joining full team activities until after they complete their college commitments for their current academic term.
It wasn’t like Sankey was playing Xbox back at UW while the Titans trained in Nashville without him. He said he was studying as much for his final courses at Washington as inside the Titans’ playbook over the last month.
His last two courses at UW were mostly online, with only the final exams on campus, so Sankey spent most of the last month training in Los Angeles and doing the Titans’ lifting program solo from afar while studying. That is why he wasn’t far behind the rest of the Titans on Tuesday, when he was on the field in Nashville for the start of the Titans’ mandatory, three-day minicamp. By now he is as well versed in the laws of mass communication as in Tennessee’s playbook.
“Oh, I spent a lot of time in both,” he said. “That was kind of the challenge, just balancing both out. You know, the majority of my time was taken up with classes.”
Also on Tuesday, Sankey signed a four-year contract with the Titans. The Tennessean newspaper reported it includes a signing bonus of about $1.18 million. His deal as the 54th overall pick in last month’s NFL draft calls for Sankey to receive $420,000 in base pay this season, $510,000 in 2015, $600,000 in 2016 and $690,000 in 2017.
Those base pays are not guaranteed, but that signing bonus is. That $1 million-plus cash the Titans are paying Sankey up front.
Once the season begins and as long as Sankey stays on Tennessee’s roster, he will earn $24,705.88 per week in base pay – 1/17th of his total salary (for a 16-game regular season and one bye week).
“It was just a blessing,” Sankey said of his unique last few weeks, “at the same time to get to be able to knock those classes out and still get to be a part of the NFL, chasing your dream.”
Brian Wolfe is chasing his, too, also days after finishing his commitments at UW. But his pursuit is a tad more challenging than Sankey’s sudden transformation from college student to pro athlete.
Wolfe was drafted in the 30th round of baseball’s amateur draft this month by the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the rookie-league, Class-A salary on the contract Wolfe just signed, the Huskies’ leading hitter in 2014 is earning $275 per week – or about 1/90th of what Sankey will make in the NFL this season.
“It’s a different challenge,” Wolfe said over the phone from Ogden, Utah., Tuesday night.
HE’D PLAY FOR 50 CENTS
Last Wednesday I ran into Wolfe in the Huskies’ academic-services offices on the top floor of Conibear Shellhouse, about halfway between Sankey’s former home field of Husky Stadium and Wolfe’s now-former home, Husky Ballpark. One of the Huskies’ leaders during their recent run to their first NCAA tournament in a decade – while playing the last half of the season with a broken thumb -- graduated in winter quarter with a degree in communications. Last week he was tying up academic loose ends on his post-bachelor’s-degree courses he took this spring quarter, and he was working out at UW’s training rooms.
Last Wednesday evening he went to the Ram restaurant in University Village with the Dodgers’ Northwest area scout. That’s the man who watched Wolfe lead the Huskies to their best season in 11 years with a .352 batting average, then advised L.A. to draft him on June 7.
Over dinner with the scout at the Ram, Wolfe signed his first professional contract – for $1,100 a month.
He signed just four days after being drafted because as a senior draftee he had next-to-no leverage. He had gone through two knee surgeries and had spent his junior season on the Huskies’ bench. He had graduated so he wasn’t returning to college. It was either sign for whatever the Dodgers offered or give up baseball to consider his idea of perhaps someday following his father Don into the business and consulting industries.
He chose to keep on playing. As I wrote last month in this profile of his trek through UW, Wolfe would have signed for 50 cents.
“It’s a dream,” he says. “All I want to do is play. It’s all I want to do, is play baseball.”
The night he signed the native of Snohomish, Wash., got with his dad, his mother Julie and his three siblings to celebrate the contract. They weren’t sure then where Brian was headed, though.
As of six days ago, he said, “I had no idea what the plan was” for where he’d play next. He just knew he was likely to leave for a Dodgers minor-league team on Saturday.
He spent all of Thursday and Friday packing and cleaning out his Seattle apartment, putting personal items in storage, shipping most of his belongings to his parents’ house and keeping only as much as he could carry on a plane. Then the Dodgers assigned him to their short-season, Class-A rookie league in Ogden, Utah. Saturday morning he was on a flight to Utah, home of the Ogden Raptors.
A whirlwind of life changes in a span of three days? More like a hurricane.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! Geez!’” Wolfe said, still sounding a tad dazed on his third full day in Ogden.
When he got in town late Saturday afternoon his new team was already done practicing. So he went straight to his new residence, to the address the Dodgers had given him. But the couple that is hosting him in their Ogden home this summer wasn’t back yet from a vacation.
The stranger in a strange land waited a few hours before his hosts came home. He moved into his room that night – graduation night back at UW. He was in bed about the time many of his senior classmates were probably heading out to celebrate commencement.
He spent almost all of Sunday at the local hospital getting a team physical and tests to satisfy the Dodgers’ curiosity over his health history.
Here’s something else Wolfe’s been doing since getting to Ogden Saturday night: Finding and buying his own baseball gear. It’s not like 30th-round draft choices have Nike or Reebok lining up endorsement offers.
“Being a senior sign I don’t have an agent. I don’t have people getting stuff for me,” Wolfe said. “And $1,100 a month, that isn’t much. I’m scrambling around getting bats, batting gloves. I ordered six custom bats. Those are $300, $400 apiece. Batting gloves, those are $30-40 each, and you go through a lot of those in a season.”
Wolfe can’t use a lot of the gear he already has because it is Husky purple. Ogden’s team colors are Dodger blue and white, of course.
Think Sankey is spending much time this week looking for bargains on gloves, pads or mouthpieces?
Until his bats arrive, Wolfe is using team-stock bats. Monday was the first day he got to use those. It was opening day for the Raptors.
“The first time I was on the field with my teammates was for pregame warm-ups for the opener,” he said.
The 23-year old was immediately struck by two things: How many of his teammates were 18 years old, and who his manager was.
Ogden’s new leader is Jack McDowell. “Black Jack” McDowell, the 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner. The Yankee starter who came as a reliever opposite the Mariners’ Randy Johnson in the epic Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division series at Seattle’s Kingdom – and off whom Edgar Martinez hit the double that scored Ken Griffey Jr. with the run that gave the Mariners their first postseason series win ever.
No, Wolfe – an about-to-turn-5-year-old kid in the Seattle suburbs at the time – wasn’t about to remind his new coach of that on Monday.
“He’s great. It’s definitely an honor to be playing for a Cy Young Award winner,” Wolfe said of McDowell. “He’s really, really passionate about the game. He takes every opportunity to teach us. You can see in his eyes how much he cares about us learning. He’s funny, sarcastic. He doesn’t scream and yell. When he says something, you listen, because he’s been there.
“He is a great teacher.”
But that teaching is different. His now-former UW coach Lindsay Meggs used each pregame infield and batting practice to motivate his players, to fine tune Wolfe and his teammates on the scouting report of the opposing pitcher -- a lot of hands-on coaching. Before games the Huskies sprinted and stretched together.
In Ogden, Wolfe has already noticed it’s on the individual player to ready himself. No team sprints. No one-on-one review of scouting reports.
“It’s weird,” he says. “I guess it’s professional.”
As for what a Class-A ballplayer eats before games, Wolfe says: “It’s a lot of peanut butter and jelly -- and some pasta.”
But it’s all worth it for Wolfe. Like Sankey, he is chasing his dream. Ogden isn’t his intended destination; it’s a mean to an end. He doesn’t plan to be eating pregame meals of PB&J forever.
“For me, I’m just trying to hit and move up,” Wolfe says. “It’s a different challenge. I know I will get my opportunity.”
FINDING HUSKIES FAR FROM HOME
Since he had fully joined the team only that afternoon, Wolfe wasn’t in Ogden’s lineup for Monday’s season opener against Grand Junction at the Raptors’ 6,700-seat Lindquist Field. It was two weeks to the day after Wolfe and the Huskies had played before 10,000 screaming Mississippians in a dramatic, 3-2 loss to host Ole Miss in the regional final of the NCAA tournament in Oxford, Miss.
“Oh, I’ll always miss U-Dub. There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for that team, especially for what we did in that program. I’ll for sure always miss my time with the Huskies.”
North and west of Wolfe, now-former Huskies teammate Robert Pehl was also having his first professional game. The Kansas City Royals drafted Washington’s co-leader with Wolfe and Trevor Mitsui in home runs this season in the 11th round and sent the junior left fielder to the Idaho Falls Chukars, their Royals’ short-season Class-A affiliate. Pehl was wearing No. 16 Monday at 3,400-seat Melaleuca Field against Orem in another Pioneer League opener – but got rained out. He went 0 for 2 with a walk Tuesday in his first game as Idaho Falls’ designated hitter.
Mitsui, the honorable-mention All-Pac-12 selection and UW’s third co-leader in homers this season, was drafted in the 30th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. His first game for the Arizona’s short-season Class-A team, the Missoula Osprey, was Monday tonight at 6 p.m. at Helena, Mont. Mitsui was a designated hitter and first baseman for UW this season. His first game for Missoula was as a DH Tuesday, and he had an RBI double plus a steal of third base.
The Huskies baseball team had a school-record eight players drafted this month.
Starting pitcher Jeff Brigham (fourth round, Dodgers) signed Friday, reportedly for his maximum slotted value of $396,300 for the 129th overall pick. The Huskies’ Friday starter this past season has yet to be assigned to one of the Dodgers’ minor-league rosters.
The other four drafted Dawgs have yet to sign: P Jared Fisher (15th round, Philadelphia Phillies); SS Erik Forgione (25th round, Pittsburgh Pirates); P Trevor Dunlap (30th round, Tampa Bay Rays); and 2B Andrew Ely (32nd round, Chicago Cubs).
Sankey has one friendly face with him in Nashville. Titans quarterback Jake Locker was finishing his Huskies career in 2010 the year Sankey was getting recruited late by Steve Sarkisian out of Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane to UW.
Locker, of course, knows Washington is on a late, quarters system for academics. But the rest of Sankey’s new Titans teammates couldn’t initially figure out why they were doing nine organized team activities while their supposed starting running back for this season was on the West Coast.
“They’ve been asking me, ‘Where’ve you been?’” Sankey joked last week in Nashville upon his arrival. “After I told them they were like, ‘It’s all good.’
“No, not too much grief.”
Wolfe hasn’t had much grief from teammates, either. They don’t know who this 23-year-old blondish redhead wearing No. 30 is. And many of them don’t speak English. Ogden’s roster includes four players from the Dominican Republic, two from Mexico and one each from Panama and Puerto Rico.
Wolfe also has a former Husky with him in his new pro home. Joe Meggs, UW coach Lindsay Meggs’ 24-year-old son, is also playing for Ogden. He had a .353 on-base percentage in his first professional season, 2013 for the independent-league Joliet Slammers.
Wolfe also noted fellow Raptors outfielders Theo Alexander and Colin Hering are from the Seattle suburbs of Kirkland and Bellevue, respectively.
Yet no matter how many Seattleites he may found in the Pioneer League and beyond, Wolfe will cherish the special bond and special season he had at UW.
“Oh, I’ll always miss U-Dub,” Wolfe said. “There’s always going to be a special place in my heart for that team, especially for what we did in that program.
“I’ll for sure always miss my time with the Huskies.”
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.
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