As we near the halfway point of the season, there’s one area that I’ve noticed hasn’t changed. Despite a 1-4 record this year, the Cougars still practice almost every day with passion. There just hasn’t been the going through the motions as I saw at times last season. So it seemed like something I wanted to explore further. To do so, I talked with three guys who are capable of examining such things and give reasoned answers to the questions of how and why. For the long version of the story, read on.
• Here’s the story …
PULLMAN – The losses have piled up.
Eleven last season, four already in this one after just five games.
But despite all the disappointing Saturdays, the Washington State Cougar football team continues to practice five times a week with an energy that belies its record.
The players still work with fervor. The comments between teammates are unfailingly complimentary. The on-field attitudes seem positive.
So how do more than a hundred 18- to 24-year-old men keep upbeat playing a physical, draining sport in an increasingly tough season?
To find out, three players were asked the formula. Their answers ranged from the example about hard work their parents set to the hope they hold for the future. But there was common thread. They love the game. And they love playing it.
Not only does Chima Nwachukwu lead the Cougars in tackles with 37, the junior safety also is a leader off the field.
He’s the chairman of Washington State’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee and has attended Pac-10 and national leadership conferences.
And still he knows how tough practice can be.
“We talk about it all the time in the locker room,” he said this week. “Some times, when you’re not winning, it feels like a job. You’re just coming in here and you’re just putting in your hours, to put food on the table, something like that.
“But when you’re winning or when you’re in close games, it feels like it’s more fun. You can actually come out here and play football the way it’s supposed to be played. That’s something we need to start doing, so we see it as something fun you do.”
No matter the record, Nwachukwu says he has fun every day.
It starts with his position coach, Chris Ball, who Nwachukwu says “always has a great attitude not matter what the score was last game, no matter what kind of practice we had before, he’s always hyper.”
And he credits the rest of the secondary, especially cornerback Brandon Jones, for injecting humor into everyday practice situations. Plus, he said, he sees development.
“We see some progress on the field and we try to carry that progress onto the practice field,” Nwachukwu said, “And have an optimistic outlook on the next game.
“We look out on the field and see guys working hard and we see the progress we didn’t see last year. And that makes a big difference in the attitude and demeanor of the team.”
Center Kenny Alfred has been at WSU long enough to remember when the Cougars were just one win away from a bowl berth in 2006 - and then see it slip away. It was a lesson about living in the moment. And it’s how he keeps centered during tough times.
“There’s a mental satisfaction that comes from winning games,” Alfred said. “At the same time each week has to be an independent animal. … You have to say, ‘It’s a fresh week. Whatever happened is in the past and it will never come back.’
“It’s just a number, either a one or a one on either side of the column.”
After suffering through last season – besides the losses, Alfred had a hip injury that required surgery at the end of the year – the senior takes each practice as a gift.
“Coming on the field is something I’ll never take for granted,” he said. “Especially after going through last season with some of the pains, and having that surgery, it makes every day a little more precious.”
It’s something he tries to model for the younger players, of which WSU has plenty.
“If you have a leader on the team who comes in mopping after we lose,” Alfred said, “the younger players are going to think something’s wrong, that we need to mope, things aren’t going to be OK.”
And it’s something he learned from his dad, David.
“One of the biggest parts of football is flipping the switch,” he said. “And I think that’s a part of life too, from what I’ve been able to see. I’ve been watching my parents and how they act, especially my dad with his job.
“I’ve never heard him yell in my life – he always had a stern control over us – but I know he turns it on when he goes to work.”
Running back Chantz Staden is redshirting this season after suffering a major knee injury in 2008. He’s healed enough to be with the scout team, but lacks the burst he needs to be successful in games. So he sits. And watches on Saturdays.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be this difficult.”
And it’s worse when WSU loses.
“It’s one thing for us to be losing, but it’s another thing for us to be losing and me having nothing to do with it,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do, on game day.”
So at practice he is the most vocal guy on the field, joking, yelling, talking trash, having fun.
“They do appreciate it,” he said of his teammates. “It’s to keep me sane too. If I were to come out here and be quiet, I probably would just go crazy. I just want to be loud and energetic.
“In the locker room they come up to me, they repeat the jokes I said (on the field). I don’t remember what I said, but they tell me ‘you had me rolling’ and stuff like that.”
Staden see it as his role.
“I try to do my best to come out here, keep my energy high, because I probably have a little more energy than the guys playing, because I’m not so mentally in to it everyday,” Staden said.
“We need everyone to be like that. I’m just trying to spread (enthusiasm) like a wildfire.”
As the season wears on, no matter the results, coach Paul Wulff expects the practice focus to remain strong. It’s the only way, he said, to develop for the future.
“We wanted to establish a consistency of our approach, a business-like approach, and have excitement for the game,” he said. “When you’re building something special, it starts with great attitude. When you come watch us at practice … I think you see that.”
Alfred has his own way of putting it.
“Even with the struggles over the weekends, I still embrace the camaraderie that we have and how far we’ve come,” he said. “And I still have all the faith in the world in the competition and ability of our team.”
• That’s it for now. We’ll be back later with some notes and quotes from the day. Until then …