Unleashed: The Seniors' Last Game. Then, Real Life
Dec. 12, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Two Decembers ago, the Huskies took a tram tour of the San Diego Zoo days before they played in the Holiday Bowl. As the vehicle pulled back in front of the flamingoes, the zoo guide asked the amused players if they had any questions.
"Yes, I have one," senior offensive lineman Gregory Christine spoke up from the back, politely, earnestly.
"Do you have a job available? Because after this game Thursday I need one."
I've been thinking of "Preach," as those Huskies called him, this week as the 2012 team prepares to leave Monday for the Las Vegas Bowl to play one final time against Boise State.
Christine did get a job after UW beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, by the way, but no, not at the zoo. He is now in Houston working for PepsiCo in sales for Gatorade, producing advertising spots such as this one.
Four-year starting cornerback Desmond Trufant is headed to next month's Senior Bowl on his way to being selected in April's NFL draft. Center Drew Schaefer, another four-year starter, is hoping for a shot in the pros.
But for most if not all of Washington's nine other seniors next week's bowl game is the last football game they will ever play.
And since many have taken advantage of summer academic terms or redshirt years to complete credits and thus have already earned their UW degrees, the Las Vegas Bowl is the last time they will be doing anything in college.
It's the often overlooked but unforgiving flip side to bowl games, and why college seniors so intensely want to play in one. Often any one.
Sure, there is the annual pro day Washington and most major football programs host in a couple months for scouts prior to the NFL draft. Any Husky senior can come out for what amounts to an open audition.
But here are the latest, real-world facts provided by the NCAA: Based on previous years' data, just 1.7 percent of all college football players in a given season will get drafted by the NFL.
That's why Semisi Tokolahi and Talia Crichton have been talking almost daily these last few months about football ending and the rest of their lives beginning, starting next weekend. The Huskies' departing defensive linemen are roommates.
"It's just a big step in our lives right now," Tokolahi said.
"After this bowl game, we don't know what to do with ourselves."
Yes, you are justified in complaining about the overkill of 35 football bowls this month through the Bowl Championship Series national championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama on Jan. 7. To many, all but one or two of the bowls are meaningless.
But think about this: For 98.3 percent of the seniors from those 70 bowl teams, these games are the last times they will be on any field competitively.
Don't tell them a supposedly "minor" bowl is not a major deal.
"I don't like to think about it," Crichton told me in a quiet voice following practice last week at the Dempsey Indoor facility, "because I kind of get emotional."
Do you have a job available? Because after this game Thursday I need one.
Cody Bruns is UW's popular, fifth-year wide receiver who has been through a winless season, a regime change, the sudden death of his father 16 months ago and then a redshirt year in part to take care of his mother.
Last month when I talked to him he nailed the finality he and his fellow seniors without realistic chances in pro football are feeling right now.
Bruns has already walked in UW's graduation ceremonies with a communications degree. I asked him what he may want to do with that once the bowl game is over.
"Not sure," he said.
"We've done this for five years, on sort of a strict schedule - be here, be there. Now you are going to find yourself in the world. It's going to definitely be a transition."
Counting high-school football, it's been nine, 10 or even more years that these guys have had most moments accounted for them by their sport. Assigned wake-up, lifting, practicing, eating, studying, and even sleeping times from August through December. Wake-up, lifting, eating, studying times etched in during each offseason. Then spring ball, summer workouts, preseason camp. And another football season.
Now, beginning in 10 days for these seniors, the responsibility of real life begins.
"So if anybody wants to give me a job, January is coming pretty quick," Bruns said, chuckling.
"I DO REALIZE THERE IS LIFE AFTER FOOTBALL"
This is not to say the Huskies haven't been planning for the end of football.
Tokolahi, Crichton, Bruns, plus fellow seniors Jonathan Amosa, Justin Glenn, Anthony Gobern, Adam Long, Cole Sager, and Nate Fellner were all ears in May when coach Steve Sarkisian brought in speakers during his annual life-skills seminars throughout the Huskles' Football Education Month. Guests such as current and former NFL players, former Huskies and motivational speakers from corporate America got the Huskies thinking beyond dreams of pro ball.
"So people realize it's not always how you envision it in your mind," said Glenn, UW's starting safety as a fifth-year senior.
After the Dec. 22 game in Las Vegas, Glenn and his senior classmates will each sit with their position coaches to discuss plans for the immediate future and the longer term.
"We'll have to transition, and all those coaches have been in the same position we are now in," Glenn said. "They were playing college football and some of them maybe played in the NFL for a little bit and some of them had to find a job right away."
Each February, UW's acclaimed Student-Athlete Support Services department hosts a "Dinner with a Dawg" night. Fifty or more local professionals in various careers come to the Conibear Shellhouse to eat and network with Husky student-athletes from all sports.
Counting high-school football, it's been nine, 10 or even more years that these guys have had most moments accounted for them by their sport.
The forward-thinking Glenn has taken advantage of those events and follow-up correspondences to explore opportunities beyond UW and football.
The SAAS also has Ink Aleaga, its assistant director, partnering with Seattle-area career coach Shelly Goetz of Infinite Momentum, LLC, to help prepare Huskies for life after sports. UW hosts Goetz to be available to assist all of its student-athletes year around.
"This program - from my perspective, not knowing how any other programs do it - it's been world-class," Glenn said of his five years as a Husky.
I like Glenn's chances of excelling past the Las Vegas Bowl. Beyond his off-the-field initiative, he's proven his resiliency as a player and as a person during his rocky UW career.
He redshirted his first year out of Kamiak High School in the Seattle suburb of Mukilteo but practiced through the winless season in 2008. He then adapted so well to Sarkisian's new regime that he became a starter as a redshirt freshman. But five games into that role he broke his leg on a thick, wet field at Notre Dame. Goodbye, 2009.
He resolutely returned for 2010 and played in all 13 games, including that Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska. But he had lost his starting job at safety. In 2011 he was in and out of the starting lineup then re-established his value while starting in a loaded secondary this fall.
Glenn, who has been roommates with Bruns and Schaefer since the weekend on which they all took their official UW recruiting visits five years ago, walked in graduation last June with a degree in communications.
"I want to try to continue playing football. I love the game. My passion is still burning for it. I just want to see where that takes me," he said, echoing his classmates.
But he realizes that is likely not in his future.
"I do realize there is always life after football," he said. "Whether that comes sooner or even later I have made some connections that hopefully I will have put myself in a position to be successful."
He intends to pursue internships to get "my foot in the door, working with people ... just to learn how things work in the business world," he said. "I haven't done any of that because I've been so busy with football.
"I've picked up a lot of skills along the way, marketing, advertising. And I love the game of football, so that is a possibility, too, coaching. Eventually I'd like to start my own football camps later on in life. I've been working in camps the last few years and that's something I definitely like to do is teach young kids things. That is definitely a passion I have, so that's an option.
"I just love working with people, getting out there, hands-on stuff. I just don't want to be stuck in the office."
Crichton is on track to graduate in the spring with a sociology degree. Tokolahi is also preparing to earn his degree in June. Their hopes for a chance in pro football faded as they battled injuries. They are contemplating applying for the Secret Service, perhaps with the help of former Husky All-American linebacker Dave Hoffmann, a Secret Service agent.
"That, or I may go back home," said Crichton, a native of American Samoa who came to UW from Lakewood, Calif., just south of Los Angeles.
"I'm just going to miss all these guys out here. I'm going to miss doing it," he said.
"I really want to keep playing. I don't know yet. I've got to weigh out my stuff."
Gobern, 23, is looking into getting a pilots' license. His father, Alex Gobern Sr., is an Air Force Academy graduate who has been a pilot for United Airlines for 20-plus years.
Anthony has received his UW degree. Motivated these last few years by UW assistant Ivan Lewis, Gobern is also trying to get certified as a strength and conditioning coach.
Trufant is in sort of an awkward spot within this unusually small senior class that lost some players after January 2009 when Sarkisian replaced Tyrone Willingham.
He is seemingly "The Chosen One," the one who can expect to be playing football beyond next week's bowl game.
The youngest brother of Marcus and Isaiah, both current NFL cornerbacks, Desmond is considered to be a third- or perhaps even second-round pick in April. He has the invitation letter from the Senior Bowl in his room at his apartment. Next month, while his senior classmates begin other new lives, he will be in Mobile, Ala., getting coached by an NFL staff in a week-long showcase. Executives, coaches and scouts from every team in the league will be there.
"It's a great honor. It's a great opportunity," Trufant said last week. "I'm honored. I'm blessed."
I asked him if he's talked to his classmates who know their football days will end next week.
"I feel like you'll never know what's going to happen," he said. "Everyone is going to have a different path, regardless.
It's another chapter. It's a stepping stone. I feel like every day is a stepping stone to where I want to be.
"I know whatever these guys do they are going to be successful at it."
Trufant shook his head affirmatively and chuckled uncomfortably while agreeing there's an acute finality to this Las Vegas Bowl for his classmates.
But the first-team All-Pac-12 cornerback knows his final Huskies game is not his final game in the sport.
"It's another chapter. It's a stepping stone. I feel like every day is a stepping stone to where I want to be," he said.
"I've had a dream my whole life to have the opportunity to play in the NFL. But nothing's guaranteed.
"I just keep it all in perspective."
That's the trait all these 11 UW seniors are taking into their final games as Huskies. In loads.
"Yeah, it's going to be weird, man. All this structure that we've had for so long, it's just done," Glenn said. "It's going to be different but you've got to adjust to it.
About Gregg Bell 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.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.