Before the one-upmanship of athletic competition comes the one-downmanship of procuring talent.
Winning isn’t everything, or even the only thing. Winning with players nobody else wanted is also the thing. So is winning with rare gems polished lovingly over time that your rivals couldn’t have unearthed with a geology degree and a steam shovel.
Winning that way beats anything.
These are fish stories in reverse - not big ones that got away, but little ones that jumped into the creel.
Seldom can the University of Washington traffic in such whoppers, having the football wherewithal - location, tradition, ammunition - to entice whoever they covet.
Which makes Jerome Pathon’s tale just that much more improbable.
The Huskies may be staggering into Saturday’s 90th meeting with Washington State, but Pathon seems a pretty safe pick to click.
He is, without question, one of the finest wide receivers in the college game this season, and the Cougars have already encountered several. Troy Walters of Stanford, for instance - he caught eight balls for 118 yards and two touchdowns last week.
There have been others. Bobby Shaw of Cal: nine catches, 158 yards. USC’s Billy Miller: 10 for 138. Dennis Northcutt of Arizona: six for 84. UCLA’s Jim McElroy: five for 104.
Oh, one other thing about that trend: the Cougars won every game.
“The only statistic that counts,” WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba said the other day, “is 9-1.”
But he would also concede that Pathon is the kind of player who could make the Cougs 9-2 in a hurry.
An average afternoon on Saturday will make him UW’s career leader in reception yardage - remarkable in that he has started just 13 games as a Husky. A spectacular day will put him atop the Pac-10’s single-season list - stupefying in that he came to UW without a scholarship.
“He might be the best walk-on I’ve ever seen,” said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti.
Indeed, the lengths to which Jerome Pathon has gone to be noticed can’t be measured with a yardstick.
“I guess it’s just part of my character, how I was raised, not to settle for less,” he said.
You see it in the way he makes the impossible catches - when he goes horizontal for balls overthrown, when he goes acrobatic for balls thrown high, when he goes elastic for balls thrown into textbook coverage.
You see it in the wear and tear on his luggage.
Pathon was 5 years old when his parents, Raymond and Pamela, moved the family from Cape Town, South Africa, to Vancouver, British Columbia.
“It was for social and political reasons,” said Pathon, “to get away from apartheid. It wasn’t a good environment, they felt, for children to grow up in. They wanted us to have the best opportunities we could have in life, a chance to have everything we wanted.”
For young Jerome, that included athletic choices. He passed on the Canadian preoccupation, hockey, in favor of soccer and track and, eventually, football. He was small (5-foot-10, 160 pounds), but athletic (a 23-8 long jumper).
But Carson Graham Secondary School is no Mater Dei or Moeller, or even Mercer Island. On the recruiting trail, there is no off-ramp at Carson Graham.
So Pathon tried to sell himself. He wrote to colleges. He didn’t aim low.
Miami, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Washington, WSU - all got a chance to say yes.
Only Acadia University did.
An alumnus who coached at Carson Graham steered Pathon to the little school in Nova Scotia - halfway back to South Africa, it seemed. In the frontier of college football, you can’t go any deeper into the sticks. Acadia is located in the town of Wolfville, the name changed years ago from Mud Creek to sound more, uh, cosmopolitan.
Aspiring to shake down the thunder, he instead shivered in the maritime chill - playing the Mt. Allison Mounties and the St. Francis Xavier X-Men in front of crowds of a couple hundred.
“I don’t know why I didn’t write some smaller schools (in the states),” Pathon said. “I probably could have fit in, gotten a chance. But I was hoping someone would take a shot on me. In some weird sense, I felt I was good enough to play at that level.”
A year at Acadia did nothing to dissuade him. He caught 44 passes and led Canadian collegians in receiving yards - and homesickness. He tried the direct mail route again - this time with a video.
And this time, Washington bit.
Saddled with NCAA sanctions, however, the Huskies didn’t want to risk a ride up front. They asked Pathon to walk on, promising him a scholarship after one semester.
“I had done everything I could do at Acadia,” Pathon said. “I wanted to be closer to home. I’d grown up watching Washington on TV. I knew all the names - Mario Bailey, Steve Emtman. I didn’t know if I could hang with those guys, but I wanted to try.”
Three years later, the question is who can hang with him? Since he runs 4.36 for the 40 - down from 4.7 when he came to UW - not many.
“He’s not just a fast guy,” said Arizona State coach Bruce Snyder, “but a guy who believes every ball in the air is his. He goes up and outrebounds and outfights them and comes down with the ball. They are going to throw deep and it comes down to just how competitive is your guy that happens to be on him to get the ball away from him.”
In most cases, not as competitive as Pathon.
“I made a choice to push on and try to achieve something greater than what people expected of me,” he said. “There were people at home who told me guys like me were a dime a dozen in the U.S. I didn’t think they were right, but I didn’t know.
“I’m pretty much a big long shot, really.”
From Cape Town to Vancouver to Nova Scotia and back - hey, he’s the longest.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review