When UW graduate and long-time Husky supporter Kim Jackson called from Atlanta hoping to surprise her dying father, Coach Sark and his staff delivered. Big time. “It will always make me smile.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Steve Sarkisian was in Connecticut Wednesday wearing Husky-chic, black loafers trimmed in purple and gold.
He was touring ESPN’s empire with the other Pac-12 coaches. Thursday he will meet up with Keith Price and Sean Parker in Los Angeles as the Huskies’ contingent for the conference’s annual media day Friday. Just over a week later, Aug. 5, UW starts fall practice on the East Field and inside new Husky Stadium.
What Sarkisian, his staff and players did before this week’s media whirlwind was even cooler than the coach’s stylin’ shoes at ESPN.
It’s an example of what often goes unknown or at least unnoticed: how far the impact of Sarkisian’s transformation of Husky football has stretched beyond the field.
Even into SEC Country.
George Jackson and Kim Below Jackson, UW graduates, season-ticket holders since the 1990s and long-time supporters of the Huskies, live in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, Ga. Last month their three kids wanted to surprise their grandfather Charles “Chuck” Below for his 85th birthday. Grandpa has been a huge Huskies football fan since before he graduated in the UW Class of 1953, attending games before Husky Stadium had decks and cantilever roofs.
June 22 was likely his last birthday. Mr. Below has stage-IV cancer, the most-advanced form, in his head and neck. He is receiving constant care in an adult family home in the Seattle suburb of Federal Way.
Kim Jackson’s son Brett was home last month on summer break from the University of Alabama, which he attends as a huge, not-so-closeted Huskies fan. How huge? Brett watches UW games on his smart phone and follows UW’s Twitter accounts -- while he is inside Bryant-Denny Stadium at all Crimson Tide home games.
In June he wondered aloud if Sarkisian could meet with Brett’s grandfather for his birthday.
“I don’t know,” Kim Jackson told her youngest of three sons; the other two went to Alabama and Georgia. “I guess they can only say ‘No.’”
She called UW’s Tyee Club and the Husky football offices. Sarkisian’s staff said more than the opposite of no.
Director of Football Operations Jared Blank called back asking if Jackson could get her father to Husky Stadium on June 22.
“I was like, ‘Whaaaat?!’” Jackson said Tuesday over the phone from Georgia.
She, her husband George, the chief executive of a diaper manufacturer, their three grown children and a girlfriend couldn’t get on a flight to Seattle quickly enough.
BETTER THAN BBQ
Once they landed here Kim asked the caregiver of her father, who is limited by a stroke he had eight months ago, to outfit him all in Huskies gear. That wasn’t hard to find. He has Huskies helmets, Don James-era autographed pictures and all things purple and gold throughout his residence.
Mr. Below didn’t think anything of being in Husky clothes for his birthday, either. He’s always wearing them. So is his family, from Atlanta to relatives in Normandy Park and even Great Britain. When they all get together for holidays, they sing “Bow Down to Washington.” Heck, the family dog is named Roy, after Kim and George’s youngest son met Husky basketball 2006 Pac-10 player of the year Brandon Roy a few years ago.
So, yes, Mr. Below was wearing socks with purple, block W’s on them when his family members – including all four of his sons and their spouses -- picked him up for what they told him was going to be a birthday barbeque. Once they loaded his wheelchair and began to drive into Seattle they coyly suggested a swing past Husky Stadium, to see how the final weeks of renovation were going.
The family wheeled Mr. Below into Sarkisian’s second-floor office. There he posed around the Huskies’ helmets – including the popular white one with the red-white-and-blue W that the Dawgs wore for a game to recognize the 10th anniversary of 9-11 -- plus framed photographs and bowl mementos.
“My dad was just floored,” Jackson said of him getting to go behind the curtain of a team he’s followed for most of a century, through hundreds of afternoons spent at Husky Stadium. “He wanted to know, ‘What’s going on?’”
When the family arrived in the parking lot on that gloriously sunny Saturday morning, Blank welcomed them. He started his surprise tour in the UW football offices in the Graves Annex.
They wheeled him downstairs to the Huskies’ weight room. A big, sleek-looking guy greeted them there with a warm grin.
“You are No. 22, aren’t you? Josh Shirley!” Mr. Below said excitedly to the Huskies’ pass-rush specialist. “You are really good!”
Shirley laughed bashfully then posed for pictures with his new, biggest fan.
“He was adorable,” Jackson said of Shirley. “So sweet.”
From there the tour moved to the Dempsey Indoor practice facility for Mr. Below’s next surprise: meeting Sarkisian. The coach laughed and joked with him, and posed for countless pictures.
Then defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox came over to say hi.
“He’s adorable, by the way,” Jackson felt compelled to tell me. “He’s pretty darn cute.”
At that moment, her father was looking darn good, too.
“His eyes were so bright,” Jackson said of her previously ailing, suddenly buoyant dad. “When Sark came over, his jaw just dropped open.
“And he talked him up and laughed. My dad, he’s never had a shy bone in his body.”
Huskies doing offseason work outs in the weight room such as Travis Feeney came by throughout the two-hour visit and shook Mr. Below’s hand. The visitor talked about the importance of seizing opportunities, of always giving ultimate effort, of putting one’s heart in each chance life provides.
Mr. Below was so glib, he plowed through the effects his stroke has had on his speech to offer Sarkisian some tips on offensive strategy. Maybe something about how to best utilize even more of Keith Price throwing the ball and Bishop Sankey running it.
In their 20 minutes or so together Sarkisian told Mr. Below how bullish he is on this year’s team, which the coach says is the most talented of the five he’s led at UW.
“I agree,” Mr. Below told Sarkisian. “I see 10, 11 wins.”
Oh yes, he sees championships in the Huskies’ immediate future. One of his favorite phrases is one we would all do well to live by: “An optimist has more fun than a pessimist.”
“He’s always saying that,” Brett said with a chuckle after his mom handed him the phone in Georgia on Tuesday. “Every year it’s going to be 10, 11 wins.”
The youngest grandson is so close with his grandpa that Mr. Below flew last fall to Alabama to attend Brett’s Kappa Sigma initiation ceremony. Grandpa and all three of his SEC grandsons were or are in that fraternity.
On June 22, as her dad – in the final weeks or perhaps days of his life, wearing a huge smile that glowed off the rails of his wheelchair – chatted with Sarkisian, Jackson began to cry.
“Between all the tears, I was trying to remember what all was going on,” she said. “It was all so wonderful.”
CANCER CAN’T TAKE AWAY THIS
They all gawked into UW’s newly renovated stadium, on the same site where Mr. Below had seen Huskies in leather helmets play. That was after he had been a lifeguard growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s in Santa Monica, Calif.
He attended Colorado College for a year then enlisted into the Air Force. Stationed at McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma, he fell in love with the Puget Sound area. When his enlistment ended, he finished college at UW.
Upon graduation 60 years ago with a business degree he went into the insurance industry and lived on the south side of Seattle. He spent another 20 years as a wholesaler selling clothes to department stores in the Northwest before retiring.
Now, the cancer from his head and neck is mercilessly attacking his lungs. The stroke last Christmas Eve, just after he had gone to Georgia to visit his daughter and grandchildren for Thanksgiving, altered his speech and took away his ability to walk.
But Chuck Below still has his wit. He still has his keen mind. And he has his memories of his beloved Huskies.
That includes this latest, indelible one courtesy of Sarkisian and his staff. It came on an otherwise quiet, overlooked Saturday in late June, an afternoon on which the glow wasn’t from television cameras or stadium lights but from the beaming faces of Mr. Below and his wowed, appreciative family from SEC Country.
“Two hours, which was amazing!” Jackson said, still gushing weeks later. “It couldn’t have been better.”
To Sarkisian, it was the least he could do.
“It was an honor to meet Mr. Below and his family, to connect with another piece of the legacy of Husky football,” Sarkisian said. “I was smiling and laughing as much as they all were.
“What a great day. I’m so glad they got a hold of us.”
As Jackson spoke to me Tuesday from the Atlanta suburbs, she described the Husky memorabilia in her house. Husky caps signed by Don James, which she and her husband (UW Class of 1977) display next to an autograph from Alabama coach Nick Saban. There’s a poster from a March, 1994 event UW held at the Don James Center inside Husky Stadium, signed “To George. Go Huskies! Don James.” An autographed, No. 1 Reggie Williams jersey.
She told me about going to Husky games as a girl with her dad, a dollar in her hand and a garbage bag over her torso. She would sit in the rain in the bleachers “and have a blast.” She told me about going to school in the 1970s with Warren Moon, before graduating in 1979 with her own UW business degree.
“Yeah, we are in SEC Country,” Jackson said, “but are blood is still purple.”
I asked her if she was going to try to take her father to one final game this fall inside the glittering new stadium that is already, five weeks before re-opening, a marvel.
“I don’t know if he’s going to live that long,” Jackson said.
Yet he will always have that surprise visit with Sarkisian and the Huskies last month.
“It was one of the kindest gestures I have ever witnessed,” Jackson said. “The university went to great effort to make Dad's last birthday a memorable one. The kindness shown by the staff was nearly indescribable.”
So, still a month-plus before the opener against Boise State, Sarkisian and his staff already have earned a big win.
“You know what? They need to be commended for the tremendous kindness they showed,” Jackson says.
“My dad says, ‘I’ll never forget that. That memory will always be with me.
“’And it will always make me smile.’”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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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