The Good Hands Man
Nov. 1, 1999
by Susan Reid
It still gives people goose bumps when it's talked about. The setting was Husky Stadium, five games into the 1998 season, with Washington facing Utah State. Eleven minutes into the first quarter the Husky field goal unit trotted on the field and the stadium erupted - in a chorus of boos. The fans had yet to see a UW field goal made in 1998. It was a split second later when they realized it was Joe Jarzynka jogging out to lineup up for the attempt.
"We lined up for a field goal and right away the fans started booing," recalls the guy holding the ball for Jarzynka that day. "I'm thinking 'oh man, this is horrible.' They were booing and all of the sudden they saw little number 21 run onto the field and realized it was Joe who was going to kick. As quickly as it was booing, it turned into cheers. It was awesome. I got goose bumps on my arms and I said 'Joe, you better make this kick.'
"Well, he made it and the place went wild. I don't how the cheers could get any louder but they did. They just cranked it up a notch in Husky Stadium. It was unbelievable."
So Jarzynka makes the field goal, from 35 yards out, and etches his name in the hearts of Husky fans everywhere. He was a hero that day, Jarzynka went on the become the team MVP at season's end, and his story became legend.
But this isn't a story about Joe Jarzynka. It's a story about Ryan Miletich.
Exactly. Miletich is a fifth-year senior walk-on with the football program. He is a quarterback who will likely never see a snap from center. And he is the Huskies' holder on the field goal and point after touchdown units. He cites Jarzynka's first field goal as one of his most exciting moments as a Husky. Imagine if he had bobbled the ball that day. "Joe the Toe's" kicking career may have ended after one attempt and Miletich may have walked off the team.
The life of a walk-on is an ignoble one. The non-scholarship player, who usually grew up as ardent Husky fan, may toil for three, four or five years and never play a down. The life of a placekicker's holder may be even more ignominious.
If everything goes smoothly and the kicker sends one through the uprights, the holder goes unnoticed. He bobbles the snap and his name is all over the newspapers the next day.
Miletich came to Washington from Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash., where he played quarterback on a team whose best record was 4-5. He was recruited by a few small schools, but didn't turn many heads at the Division I level, including those of the Husky staff.
Nevertheless, Miletich wanted to go to school in a big city and liked what Seattle had to offer. So he headed a few hours north on Interstate 5 and landed with the Huskies.
"I knew Washington had a good walk-on program and that they treated the players well," recalls Miletich. "I decided to give it a try. I wasn't intimidated. I figured I would just learn about football, have a good time and come away with a great experience. I could play on the scout team and work against a Pac-10 defense for five years. I could handle that, so I signed up."
Though his name might not be as recognizable as fellow walk-ons such as Jarzynka, five years later Miletich has developed into a valuable part of the Husky special teams unit.
As all freshmen quickly learn, the first year of college football is often a time to watch, listen and adapt to the system. Miletich did just that and came away as the Most Inspirational Walk-on at the end of his first year.
"As a freshman, I didn't really say much and just did what I was told," he says. "But you get a feeling for what is going on in the game and realize, in a good way, that it isn't quite as big as you once thought. You figure, hey, I could be out there on the field with those guys.
"You start thinking about where you could compete for a position on the field," says the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Miletich. "You look at quarterback first. I'm a little bit short for that position. We've had Damon (Huard) and Brock (Huard), Marques (Tuiasosopo) and J.K. (Scott). All those guys are good players. I don't have a problem taking a back seat to any of them. So I started looking at defense. I'm a decent sized guy, but my speed wasn't up to par. What I could I do? I've always had pretty good hands, so why not try holder."
Still not intimidated, Miletich, who greatest desire was to make the travel squad, went into the head coach's office and asked for a chance.
"I had a good conversation with (former) coach (Jim) Lambright," recalls Miletich, who was a junior at the time. "I felt I had worked hard and the kickers had confidence in me. I got the ball down every time. Give me a shot and if it's not meant to be, fine. All I'm asking for is a shot."
Shot granted. Once he got over the first time jitters, the job was his for the duration, beginning with the BYU contest in Husky Stadium. Miletich played in all 11 games in '98, earned his first letter and was named Most Inspirational Junior Varsity Player at the year-end banquet.
"I was nervous the first time I ran out there," Miletich says of that BYU game. "Chris Juergens scored a touchdown and I was all pumped up. Then they started yelling 'we're going for one, we're going for one.' All of a sudden it was my turn to go in. I freaked out for a second. You don't really think about how big the crowd is out there. We got it down perfect, he kicked it, made it and I said 'okay, this isn't so bad.'
As he enters his senior season, Miletich finds himself asking for a shot again. The Huskies are being led by a new staff this year, including a head coach who purposely did not watch any game tape prior to Spring practice so as to avoid pre-conceived notions on any player.
"When you have a new set of coaches, it's especially hard as a walk-on," explains Miletich. "You aren't one of the scholarship players they know by name. You don't get the reps in practice. I won't say it's frustrating, only that they don't really know your story and what you've done. You've had your battles with the former coaches. They knew what you are capable of doing. As a senior, it's a little bit like starting from scratch. You just need to convince the coaches that much more. It's like being a freshman again."
But, rest assured, Miletich won't be intimidated.
"When I first got here, I thought one play would satisfy my career," he concludes with a smile. "If I went five years and made only one play, that would be enough for me. Then once I got in the game, I liked it. I'm greedy now. But I also know there are a lot of guys who have gone through the program as walk-ons and haven't played a down. I feel pretty thankful. Things are good."