Unleashed: Bishop Sankey, From Out of Nowhere? No Way
Dec. 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
This MAACO Bowl Las Vegas is far more than just Bishop Sankey's first postseason game as the Huskies' unexpected lead runner.
It's an extended family reunion, one that spans Sankey's entire life, plus five states.
In a season that has fulfilled a childhood dream, Sankey has gone from overlooked as perhaps Washington's third option at running back entering fall camp to owner of the eighth 1,200-yard rushing season in the 123-year history of Husky football.
But you'd be wrong to say this scintillating yet soft-spoken sophomore, one of the most popular and humble Huskies, has come from nowhere.
And you'd be missing the best parts of his story to know only what his bio says: That he is from Gonzaga Prep High School in Spokane, a would-be Cougar that became a Husky after a late recruiting visit two winters ago.
He is, in fact, the product of many places as the son of a career sergeant in the Air Force. His birthplace of Ohio. Then Washington. There's California, Nevada, and, by extension, Tennessee.
He remains supported by many, caring hands from coast to coast. Most of those hands will be clapping inside Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas Saturday afternoon when Sankey runs with his Dawgs against 20th-ranked Boise State.
Bishop's mother Julie Becker had him when she was 17. She is flying in from Cleveland with her mother Carol, Bishop's grandmother, to attend the game. Bishop and his mother remain close and talk regularly on the phone.
"My mom had me when she was really young," says the son she had with Christopher Sankey. "They were dating and then split up. They never married."
His grandparents Carol and Bob, who can't make this trip because he recently had hip-replacement surgery, raised Bishop from birth until age 8 in their home in Wadsworth, Ohio, outside Akron.
"They pretty much set the foundation for me. They are great people," Sankey told me following a recent practice. "I spent my first seven years with them. They've done so much for me, providing that foundation for me, making sure I was on the right track starting off."
This week is Bishop's second time in Nevada. The first came while he was growing up with the Beckers and he visited his father Christopher, when the Air Force had the administrative sergeant stationed at Nellis Air Force Base 10 minutes outside Las Vegas. His dad mostly came to Ohio to visit his son in those early years.
At age 8, Bishop moved to Dayton when the Air Force assigned his father to Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Father and son moved again after Bishop's eighth-grade year, to Spokane when the elder Sankey was assigned to Fairchild AFB outside that city.
Bishop's father is now stationed in San Pedro, Calif., working with the ROTC program at nearby UCLA. He will also be at Saturday's game in Las Vegas. So will Bishop's stepmother and one of Bishop's two uncles who are in the Army.
Despite being flung far across the country and the world by careers and circumstance, Bishop's family has remained tight and supportive of its beloved No. 25.
And his birthplace of Wadsworth, Ohio? That has become something of a Washington Husky enclave in the middle of the football-crazy Buckeye State.
"Yeah, it's pretty cool," Julie Becker said over the phone Wednesday from her home - Bishop's first home --in Wadsworth. "And I've got to tell you, you don't know how many people back here follow Bishop and the Huskies.
"I'm talking about people that don't even follow football! I have a lady who is a friend of mine at the local Sunday school. She's always asking me, 'What's time's the game on? When's Bishop playing?' The pediatrician and the dentist we took Bishop to here in town when he was little always watch his games. My very best friend moved to Tennessee. She's not in the best of health right now. But watching Bishop on television brings her a lot of joy.
"People do remember him back here. I think that's a neat little sidelight to what he's doing out there. There are so many people, I'm just amazed, and in so many states. That's pretty cool, I think."
So do I.
So is this:
"Julie, to her credit, she's maintained a good relationship with Bishop," Carol Becker said of her daughter, Bishop's mom. "It was just a rough time for her to raise a child."
FROM OPTION C TO ONE OF UW'S BEST SEASONS EVER
In these last three months, Sankey may have gone the furthest the fastest in UW rushing history.
"Bishop's gone from 30 carries to what, 259 carries (fifth most in any Huskies season)? That's quite a change," says Huskies running backs coach Joel Thomas, marveling.
As a true freshman last season, he carried the ball just 28 times for 187 yards and one touchdown. Chris Polk was having his second consecutive 1,400-yard season on his way to the second-best career ever for a UW running back -- and eventually, last summer, a job with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
Sankey was just trying to win a backup job from Jesse Callier.
"There was not much to go on from last year," Thomas said. "Bishop was just stacked behind Chris, and battling with Jesse."
This season began in August with Sankey as perhaps the third option in coach Steve Sarkisian's running game. Callier, a junior, was taking over the lead role from the departed Polk. Deontae Cooper was back from reconstructive knee surgery, and the 100-yard rushing star of the 2011 spring game was poised to make his long-awaited UW game debut.
Then Cooper unfathomably shredded his other knee in a freak, non-contact injury. Early in the opener Sept. 1 against San Diego State Callier tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on another open-field run without contact.
Sankey, Option C, was now the de facto Option A.
Wait, "de facto?"
More like driven. And devastating.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound Sankey has surprised even his coach and play caller.
"I didn't know he could run that hard," Sarkisian said in early October underneath Autzen Stadium in Eugene, minutes after Sankey ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns at swarming, No. 2 Oregon.
That was the third consecutive of six 100-yard rushing days Sankey has had this season. The second one was his then-career-high 144 yards on 20 carries in the Huskies' win over Rose Bowl-bound Stanford. That night Sankey by himself had more yards than Stanford had allowed its first three opponents combined.
His 15 rushing scores entering the bowl game are tied with Rashaan Shehee from 1995 for second most in any Huskies season, nine behind Corey Dillon's total in 1996.
If he gains 157 yards Saturday against a stout Boise State defense, Sankey will break into UW's top five for its best rushing seasons ever. Napoleon Kaufman is fifth with 1,390 yards in 1994. Sankey, currently eighth, is just the 11th different Husky to romp for 1,000 yards in a season.
True to his modest, understated nature, Sankey deflects the credit for all he's done this fall.
"I've just been working to become a better back," he says. "A lot credit goes to Coach Thomas. He really pushes us as a group to get better. He has the other running backs pushing each other."
And get this: Thomas thinks there is more than this inside Sankey for 2013, in what should be a stacked backfield after Callier and Cooper return from their injuries.
"Bishop's game still has plenty of room for improvement," Thomas says. "Especially with the year he's had, things will slow down a little bit for him."
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Sankey and his Huskies teammates were greeted by a red carpet and an Elvis impersonator signing "Viva Las Vegas" when they arrived at the Mandalay Bay resort on Monday. They were to have Showgirls prancing at a welcome reception and team feast along the Fremont Street area off the glitzy Strip Wednesday night.
But as you might be able to deduce, Las Vegas is not Sankey's kind of town.
I mean, how many college sophomores end their conversations with "God bless," as Sankey did when we talked following UW's practice Tuesday at Bishop Gorman High School?
He thanks his grandparents for that.
"From preschool and kindergarten they were always helping me with homework. They were religious, so I always went to church every Sunday," he says. "They gave me the foundation for my life.
"Big credit to those two."
Carol Becker has a degree in elementary education. She also worked for a decade as an emergency medical technician in the Wadsworth area. But when one of her two adopted daughters had a baby at age 17, Carol knew it was time to be a stay-at-home mom for a third time.
"It's never ideal to have a teenage daughter having an unplanned pregnancy. So we dealt with that the best we could," she said. "When we realized that our daughter would not be able to be a parent, right then my husband and I decided to step in. And I am so glad we did.
"It was challenging; we were older. But it was very rewarding. Bishop brought a lot of laughter and joy into our home."
Many of the laughs came amid the differences between raising girls and raising a boy.
"With our daughters, we'd give them stuffed animals and dolls and they would hug them and love them," Carol Becker said.
"Bishop, he'd tackle them and throw them around."
She and her husband, a retired engineer, noticed while their grandson was a toddler that sports might be in his future.
"We knew he'd be a great athlete. Even when he was 1½ and 2 years old we'd give him a ball, any ball, and he'd just play and play with it," Carol Becker said.
Bishop played soccer and basketball most while growing up with his grandparents in Wadsworth. He began playing pee-wee football there for the first time as a fourth grader, when he came back from Dayton to live for six months while the Air Force deployed his father.
When dad returned, he coached his son in youth football.
And in life.
"He's always been a mentor for me," Bishop says. "He's given me advice just about life. He's taught me probably 90 percent of the things I know. He's always been there, just involved in athletics and school.
"He's always been there to push me, to have me learn, to help me get better."
"WHAT DEFINES YOU IS WHAT'S INSIDE YOU"
By the time Bishop returned to Ohio a second time to live with his grandparents, for three months while his father was deployed again and he was a freshman at Gonzaga Prep, it was obvious the toddler that played with every ball and tackled dolls was growing into a star athlete.
It's telling of Sankey's natural talent that he became the career rushing leader in the Greater Spokane League with 4,355 yards, was first-team all-state, and was the Inland Northwest Youth Awards Male Athlete of the Year for 2010 despite being a new kid not only to the Gonzaga Prep program but to Spokane and the state.
His first time on the UW campus was during September of his freshman year at Gonzaga Prep, when he attended a football game against Ohio State at Husky Stadium in 2007, "Jake Locker's freshman year," Sankey recalls.
He returned to UW for a summer football camp later in high school. Unofficially, he and his dad drove around campus, "just to see," he said.
His first official visit was not until December of his senior year of 2010 after he had been committed to Washington State, which is 90 miles from his high school. With no football game that weekend, he attended a Huskies basketball game.
A day or two later, he switched his commitment to UW.
"The coaching staff here, I fell in love with the coaching staff and the university," he said. "It's just a beautiful campus and it just became more and more appealing throughout the recruiting process.
"Coach Thomas and I had a pretty close relationship. He was consistent with me and always real up front with me."
I asked Sankey if he pictured then what he is doing now, shredding defenses as the Huskies' remarkable replacement for Polk.
"I mean, honestly, I didn't know where I would end up," he said. "I knew it was a dream of playing Division-I college football somewhere. I didn't know at that time I'd be ending up at the University of Washington."
Did he think he would become a 1,000-yard back as a Huskies sophomore?
"I always knew I was capable of it. But I didn't know it was going to play out the way it did," he said. "Just a credit to the coaches and our O-line for getting the running game rolling this season.
"We've been pretty successful. We are just going to try to keep it going through this bowl game."
The "foundation" for Sankey life sees even more valuable upside for him beyond football.
For that, Carol and Bob Becker, and Julie Becker and Christopher Sankey, should be darn proud.
Sounds like they are.
"From the time he was small I've told Bishop, 'You be great in life. You will do well in sports, but sports doesn't define you. ... What defines you is what is inside you,'" Carol Becker said before packing for her trip to see her grandson run some more in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
"We're thrilled to death that he seems to be growing up as a man of high character, of high morals, and a man of faith."