Napoleon Kaufman loves Bishop Sankey’s character as much as his game, which he likens to that of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. Greg Lewis helped make Sankey a Doak Walker Award finalist – and wouldn’t mind his daughter finding a guy as great as Bishop.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Bishop Sankey’s many fans coast to coast include two legends at the top of the Huskies’ career rushing list.
“I’ll tell you what, I sure do like Bishop Sankey,” Napoleon Kaufman told me cheerfully over the telephone Wednesday morning from his home in the east San Francisco Bay Area.
“I like him a lot.”
Kaufman has company.
“As good as he is in football, I’m more impressed with how much he is involved on campus outside of football, how he’s excelled in the classroom and been a contributor to the full college experience here,” says Greg Lewis, who won the inaugural Doak Walker Award as the nation’s premier running back while a Husky in 1990.
You probably know Sankey is currently fourth in the nation in rushing averaging 143.2 yards per game, that he is one of three finalists for this year’s Doak Walker Award.
What you may not realize as readily is that he is also winning where it counts most.
Sankey has a 3.19 grade-point average and is on track to graduate on time in four years in June 2015 with a communications degree. This week he became a second-team Pac-12 all-academic selection.
How many 1,500-yard rushers and national player-of-the-year candidates can say that?
So as we consider where Sankey ranks among the best running backs to ever play at Washington (we’ll get to that in a minute), I assert he might be something more important and lasting: the best person to have ever played the position in 124 years of Husky football.
Sankey had his 21st birthday in September. It’s a seminal and often raucous event in the life of a college kid, isn’t it?
Sankey celebrated turning 21 by first talking with and hugging his mother Julie Becker, grandmother Carol Becker and other family members at the Huskies’ team buses. They had made the six-hour drive from his native northeast Ohio to Soldier Field in Chicago to watch their favorite No. 25 romp for 208 yards in the win over Illinois Sept. 14, the night before his birthday.
Upon the Huskies’ return home, Sankey celebrated his actual birthday with a few friends.
Was it a riotous blowout?
“We ate cupcakes,” he said.
Wait, is this college kid for real?
“I just know how he’s regarded in our locker room and in our offices,” coach Steve Sarkisian says. “This guy brings it every single day with a great mentality.
“We fly home from a late game, and he’s one of the few guys up, studying for a midterm he’s got coming up next week. Or he’s writing a paper. He’s got a great mentality about himself that I think is contagious and rubs off on our younger players about the approach to practice, the approach to school, how you handle yourself on a day-to-day basis.
“Some of those things go unseen but have a direct impact on our locker room. And that’s saying a lot about a guy.
“As good as he is in football, I’m more impressed with how much he is involved on campus outside of football, how he’s excelled in the classroom and been a contributor to the full college experience here."
I’d sure like to meet the two running backs who made the Pac-12’s all-academic first team ahead of Sankey, Phillip Ruhl of UCLA and Patrick Skov of Stanford.
“He’s doing great things across all aspects of life. He’s just a great person,” Lewis, who is fifth on UW’s all-time rushing list, said of Sankey Tuesday from his upper-campus office as Washington’s senior director of advancement for academic and student affairs.
“He’s bright. He’s courteous. He’s humble – a trait that a lot of high-profile football players don’t have.
“I have two daughters. And I would like one of them to someday to date a guy like Bishop Sankey. As a father, that’s the ultimate compliment I can give.”
Kaufman, now 40, is an ordained minister – his twitter handle is Pastor Napoleon – at The Well Christian Community in Livermore, Calif.. That’s about a half hour east of where he spent six seasons rushing for the Oakland Raiders. And that was after he gained 4,106 yards rushing from 1991-94 for the Huskies, still the most in school history.
Many consider Kaufman, whose first season romping at Washington coincided with Don James leading the Huskies to the 1991 national championship, the best running back in 124 years of UW football.
He and Sankey are the only Huskies to ever rush for 200-plus yards in three different games; Sankey has done that in the last 11 months.
Sankey’s three touchdowns last week on a 179-yard night at Oregon State – while playing less than three quarters --- leave the junior with 34 career rushing scores. That’s tied with Kaufman for most all-time at Washington.
Kaufman loves that Sankey is about to break his TD record.
“Yeah, man, at this point it’s all about the young guys and what they are doing,” Kaufman said. “And Bishop’s been great.”
Pastor Napoleon is more impressed with Sankey off the field.
“He is such a classy kid,” Kaufman said. “He stays out of trouble. He represents himself, his family and his school so well. He’s just a great kid.”
All this, and we haven’t even gotten to Sankey’s place among all-time UW greats on the football field yet.
THE BEST EVER?
Sankey has 1,575 yards through 11 games this season entering Friday’s 106th Apple Cup at Husky Stadium. He needs 121 in that game and in Washington’s bowl game next month to surpass Corey Dillon’s UW single-season rushing record from 1996.
In less than two seasons as a starter he already has 3,201 career yards, third all-time at Washington. He’s 848 yards behind Polk and 905 yards behind Kaufman with at least 14 games of college eligibility remaining.
Is he already, or going to be, among the best to ever rush at UW?
|KNIGHTING A BISHOP AMONG UW's BEST|
After just 24 games as a starter, junior running back Bishop Sankey is already among the most-accomplished running backs in the 124-year history of UW football.
|SEASON RUSHING YARDS||YARDS||CARRIES|
|1. Corey Dillon (1996)||1,695||301|
|2. Bishop Sankey (2013)||1,575||272|
|CAREER RUSHING YARDS||YARDS||CARRIES|
|1. Napoleon Kaufman (1991-94)||4,106||735|
|2. Chris Polk (2008-11)||4,049||799|
|3. Bishop Sankey (2011-13)||3,201||589|
|4. Joe Steele (1976-79)||3,168||676|
|5. Greg Lewis (1987-90)||2,903||577|
|SINGLE-GAME RUSHING ATTEMPTS||CARRIES||FOE|
|1. Bishop Sankey||40||Arizona, 2013|
|2. Corey Dillon||38||WSU, 1996|
|SEASON RUSHING ATTEMPTS||CARRIES|
|1. Corey Dillon (1996)||301|
|2. Chris Polk (2011)||293|
|3. Bishop Sankey (2012)||289|
|4. Bishop Sankey (2013)||272|
|CAREER RUSHING ATTEMPTS||CARRIES|
|1. Chris Polk (2008-11)||799|
|2. Napoleon Kaufman (1991-94)||735|
|3. Joe Steele (1976-79)||676|
|4. Vince Weathersby (1985-88)||606|
|5. Rich Alexis (2000-03)||596|
|6. Bishop Sankey (2011-13)||589|
|SEASON RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS||NO.|
|1. Corey Dillon (1996)||24|
|2. Bishop Sankey (2013)||17|
|3. Bishop Sankey (2012)||16|
|CAREER RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS||NO.|
|1. Bishop Sankey (2011-13)||34|
|Napoleon Kaufman (1991-94)||34|
|3. Joe Steele (1976-79)||32|
“Man, that’s tough,” said Lewis, who was an Associated Press second-team All-American in 1990, and a first-team selection by the Walter Camp Foundation and The Sporting News. He gained 2,903 yards from 1987-90.
“We’ve had some great runners here. Napoleon. Hugh McElhenny. Louis Rankin. Rashaan Sheehee. Joe Steele. Chris Polk.
“If he comes back next year I’d say he’ll be the best, because of the impact he will have had over four years was greater on the program, from where it was when he got here,” Lewis said of Sankey.
“Right now, I’d put him and Napoleon at the top for a career. For a season impact, I’d put Bishop and Corey Dillon. Those have been the best for one season.”
When asked where he ranks Sankey among the all-time best Husky backs, Kaufman deferred momentarily.
“Ah, man, that’s hard to say. I really like the all-time guys like Hugh McElhenny, one of my favorites Greg Lewis. Rashaan Sheehee. So many great backs,” he said. “One of the great backs who doesn’t get noticed much is Beno Bryant. He was a mentor of mine when I got to U-Dub.
“All those guys. But Bishop’s right there.”
Instead, Kaufman went beyond UW’s all-time greats to describe Sankey. He invoked the most impressive, contemporary legend imaginable: the NFL’s career rushing leader with 18,355 yards who is now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“To me, Bishop reminds me of Emmitt Smith,” Kaufman said.
Physically, the comparison is apt. Sankey is 5 feet 10 and 203 pounds. Smith played at 5-9, 216. Neither are considered speed burners – but try telling that to a defender as he eats black-rubber turf pellets trying to catch them. And both are stronger than they look, plenty strong enough to bull through and over defenders.
Like Smith did, Sankey excels at running laterally on a play, waiting what seems like too long for his blocks and holes to develop, then cutting sharply inside a hole for more yards than seem to be there.
“All my years playing against Emmitt, he could do everything: run well, catch the ball, pass block,” Kaufman said. “Like Emmitt, Bishop is not in a hurry to expose his blocks.
“He does everything you want in a back.”
Lewis says what sets Sankey apart as a back is his patience.
As a Husky Lewis ran behind one of the best offensive lines in UW history in 1990: Jeff Pahukoa, Rick Schulberg, Lincoln Kennedy, Ed Cunningham, Dean Kirkland and Siupeli Malamala. Pahukoa and Kirkland were all-Pac-10 linemen; Pahukoa was an Associated Press third-team All-American. Cunningham was all-conference by the next season. Kennedy became a consensus All-American in 1992 then the ninth overall pick in the NFL draft in 1993.
Sankey ran for 1,439 yards last season behind a battered line that had eight different starters in the first two games of 2012, and lost 80 percent of it to injury at different points. This year the line has had just one injury cost a starter game time, a shoulder injury that put left guard Dexter Charles out for two games last month. Sankey’s blockers are more notable for their collective efficiency than for individual brilliance.
“To me, I never saw a hole. I just felt a hole,” Lewis said. “I think Bishop is the same way. And he’s had to be a little bit more patient as a runner waiting to sense those holes. I didn’t have to be patient. Not to degrade the current line at all, but I had the best offensive line in the country opening up huge holes for me. They were driving guys five yards downfield.”
Lewis, Kaufman, Polk and Sankey are the only Huskies to rush for 1,000 yards in more than one season. Lewis did it with 1,197 yards in 1989 and again with 1,407 in ’90. He is fifth on the UW career rushing list, behind Kaufman, Polk, Sankey and Joe Steele (3,168 from 1976-79).
Lewis was fourth until Sankey started running wild on Sept. 8, 2012. That night at LSU was his first game as a full-time starter -- after Polk left a year early for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and then Jesse Callier ripped up his knee in last season’s opener.
Those events created one of the best Plan Cs any college football team has ever had.
“I remember we were on the plane coming back from SC freshman year (2011) and he told me all he needed was one Opportunity,” Huskies tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins tweeted this week. “Ladies and Gentlemen this is a perfect example of a man working his tail off doing everything right couldn’t be prouder man. You deserve this. #FootballFam #BestRB in thecountry.”
That was on Monday, when Sankey was named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award with Ka’Deem Carey of Arizona and Andre Williams of Boston College.
The quiet, let-my-play-speak-for-itself junior told me Tuesday how cool it was that he gets to go to Orlando, Fla., all expenses paid, to be part of the national college football awards show on ESPN Dec. 12. Sankey will be there with the other two Doak Walker finalists. Williams leads the nation with 2,073 yards rushing. Carey is fourth, 16 yards behind Sankey, with 1,559.
Sankey’s biggest concern was picking whom to bring with him. He gets to have one guest. He doesn’t want to offend the many who have helped get him to where he is now, atop college football.
“I’m on the (Doak Walker) selection committee, so I know his game very well,” Lewis said. “Bishop Sankey to me is one of those running backs for whom you can use the term ‘complete back,’” Lewis said. “He has enough speed to run by you. He has way more strength than his size indicates he should. He has great vision. He has good balance.
“He is a little faster than I was. Like I had, he has that ability to run inside and make people miss in tight spaces. I probably was a little bit stronger than he is, but he’s absolutely a strong runner who runs through tackles.”
His selflessness and understated quality came through again last Saturday night Corvallis. Outside the visitors’ locker room in Gill Coliseum next to Reser Stadium, Sankey redirected praise for his latest rampage, at Oregon State, to his offensive line of Micah Hatchie, Charles, Mike Criste, Colin Tanigawa and Ben Riva.
He was asked about his latest huge game, which set Washington off to 530 yards rushing against Oregon State, the second-most in school history.
"Man, shouts out to our O-line for that one," Sankey said. "They kept it on them the whole game."
“HE MAKES US LOOK GOOD”
The Huskies love affair with Sankey is enough to make a Dawg blush.
“He comes to work. He understands the game plan. He studies the blocking schemes probably better than any other back I’ve been around,” Sarkisian said.
And he’s been around Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush at USC, when Sarkisian was the Trojans’ offensive coordinator before leading Washington.
“This guy wants to know how plays are being blocked,” Sarkisian said. “Then, he’s going to go play hard. He’s going to keep his mouth shut and he’s going to get back in his alignment – and he’s going to do it again.”
This regal runner even turns fiery, irascible, veteran offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto into “aw-shucks” mode.
The mere mention of Sankey makes the ol’ line coach smile.
“Well, one he’s from my high school, Gonzaga Prep High School (in Spokane). There are a lot of great players that have come from there. Ahem,” Cozzetto said with an exaggerated clearing of his throat.
“Bishop, we can’t say enough about how proud we are of him. He’s the ultimate team player.”
The one thing I am very impressed with Bishop: he can carry the load. He can carry the ball 25 times, over 30 times, 40 times a game. Sometimes a back can’t do that. A back can’t go over 200 yards in a game, then come back out and practice the next day. He’s physical. And he’s rock solid.”
Cozzetto has coached at Arizona State, California, Oregon State, Idaho, and with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. So he’s led lines that have blocked for a running back or three.
“He develops a pre-snap vision of how the play is going to go, then he sets up his blocking (accordingly). So he really helps us,” Cozzetto said of Sankey. “He makes us look good. He might start one way and then all of a sudden see his blockers come another way to change direction.
“The one thing I am very impressed with Bishop: he can carry the load. He can carry the ball 25 times, over 30 times, 40 times a game. Sometimes a back can’t do that. A back can’t go over 200 yards in a game, then come back out and practice the next day. He’s physical. And he’s rock solid.”
Sankey set the Huskies single-game record with 40 carries in the torrential rain against Arizona earlier this fall. He needs 30 carries over the final two games this season to pass Dillon’s 1996 season record of 301 carries.
“I had backs one time (at Oregon State), Kenny Simonton and Steven Jackson, two different types of guys. Kenny was a smaller guy, too, but if you gave him the ball 30 times he wasn’t moving very well for a couple days,” Cozzetto said.
“But Bishop is every bit as physical as … he’s like the Energizer bunny. He keeps going and going and going.”
Sankey has talked with Kaufman occasionally this season, most extensively during the couple of chapel sessions Kaufman has convened chapel meetings for the Huskies before games. Kaufman attended the Huskies’ re-opening game at Husky Stadium in late August against Boise State, and he was in the locker room before UW played at Stanford in early October.
When I asked him what advice or words Kaufman, Lewis, Polk and any of the other running backs he is joining in Husky history have given him, Sankey shrugged.
“Really, to just keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Just short and sweet.”
Just like his wondrous, 24-game career as UW’s starter so far.
“There have been some great ones, as we all well know. I mean, for decades here there have some great running backs here,” Sarkisian said. “He’s done something very unique, and in his own style. He’s not the most physically imposing guy when he walks into the room … but he plays big. He plays hard. He does the little things.
“I’m hopeful that when he is done here that he is recognized as one of the greats here, because I think he deserves it. But that’s not for me to decide. You probably have more influence on that than I do, quite honestly.”
OK, then, I’ll pitch in:
Put Bishop Sankey among the greatest running backs – and greatest guys -- to ever play at Washington.
“I’m constantly watching him,” Kaufman said. “I just love watching Bishop Sankey.”
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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