September 1, 2004 in Sports

Iron Will

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson/ photo

WSU linebacker Will Derting, from the tiny town of Okanagan, may well be headed for the next level. But football hardly dominates his life and his future plans always include cows and horses.
(Full-size photo)

The legend. Will Derting was one of those by the end of his first full college game. But like all living things, the legend must be fed or fertilized. And so this year we have Will Derting and the Horse He Rode in On.

See, it isn’t enough that he grew up in ranch country so remote it is not serviced by a telephone. That was the very first thing we learned about him, remember — or the first thing after we learned he was going to be a hell of a football player at Washington State University. Intercepts three passes as a rube freshman against Nevada in the Cougars’ big-city takeover of Seattle in 2002 and next thing you know he’s sheepishly regaling reporters with the tale of having to motor down the road to Aunt Janet and Uncle Ike’s place every Thursday evening at 8:30 so the Cougars could reach out and touch him with a recruiting call.

Everybody laughed and thought of “Green Acres” — Oliver Wendell Douglas climbing the pole outside his bedroom window to tap into the telephone wire — and they barked for more.

So Derting gave them the Okanogan County Fair and his blue ribbon in beef fitting.

More, they demanded.

He confessed he got lost driving in Pullman — Pullman! — the first time because of those darned one-way streets, paved and everything.

We would learn that during his first year in Pullman, his season wiped out by a knee injury, he begged off one Saturday and asked to go home. For branding.

Here was the obvious next big thing in Cougar football and damn if it didn’t happen to be the definitive Coug — ranch kid, ag major, aw-shucks gent with a wild-hare game. And there it pretty much sat as he went about enhancing those football credentials — All-Pac-10 last year, preseason All-American this fall, prominent on the watch list for the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker.

All of it baggage Derting is doing his best not to pack around now.

“I don’t ever buy into it too much,” he said. “And I have people around me who, if I was to get too cocky, wouldn’t let me stay that way very long.”

Then there was this: when he returned to campus in June for the not-mandatory-but-always-expected summer workouts, Derting brought something with him. Not an Xbox, an iPod or a PR campaign. Not an advisor or an attorney. Something truly all-American, but on the other hand something very much unlike what most All-Americans would bring.

He brought a buckskin quarterhorse.

His girlfriend brought her horse, too. They stabled the animals in Moscow and rode them regularly, often up on Moscow Mountain — “just dinking around, getting them broke,” Derting said.

“This is my fourth summer here and if you stay around here, you get in trouble — or I do. You go to class for an hour and a half and then you go to football for two hours. That’s three hours out of the day and then what do you do for the other 21?”

Well, you don’t take the country out of the boy, that’s for certain.

The family and the land. It was in the late 1940s that Fred and Sally Mary Timm left the Wilson Creek area and bought a large parcel along the Columbia River in Okanogan County where they raised eight kids, including a daughter named Margaret. A decade or so later, Jim Derting, fresh out of Central Washington State College, moved his wife JoAnn and 2-year-old son Brad to Okanogan, where Jim would teach and serve as the grade school principal for 30 years.

This was the start of it — that is to say, Thanksgiving dinners that can number up to 60 relatives, to say nothing of the nucleus of 50 or so Coug fans who caravan to Pullman on football Saturdays to watch Will Derting in action.

To find the Timm family ranch, go 20 miles downstream from Grand Coulee Dam or 20 upstream from Chief Joseph — and take a swim across the Columbia. Or you can follow a dusty trail 30 or so miles south of Okanogan to Brad and Margaret Derting’s doorstep. No doubt it will seem like the middle of nowhere, but to their son Will or any of his kin, it’s exactly where they want to be.

“It would have felt a lot more isolated,” said Derting’s older sister, Bess, a Gonzaga University law student, “but there are five families on the ranch. There were cousins half a mile down the road and more a couple miles the other direction. The school bus came out to our house and 10 of us got on at the same time. And then we have our grandparents and other cousins in town.

“But when you get out there, you know you’re a long way from anywhere.”

Can’t help but be. The Timm Ranch covers upwards of 10,000 acres, including some land leased from the Colville tribe, and supports more than 2,000 head of beef cattle and several hundred horses. And it has one overwhelming virtue.

“The great thing about going home,” Derting said, “is that you don’t see anybody you don’t want to, that’s for sure. And you don’t talk to anybody you don’t want to.”

He goes home, of course, to see family, though he jokes that when he arrived at WSU, there were already eight to 10 cousins and siblings there ahead of him, including Bess. Another sister, Maggie, would attend WSU for a year and is now a nursing student in the Seattle area.

But he had brothers, too — cousins bonded by work and play and virtually common birthdays. One is a day younger, another a month older, another a year. Together they raced motorbikes and roped and fired their .22s and swam and boated and rode horses, a passion of Derting’s that long predates football.

Naturally, this was all after they’d been assigned and completed “the strong-back jobs nobody else wanted to do,” Derting said, for being low men on the family totem pole.

“Growing up on the ranch made him really understand the value of hard work,” Bess said. “If you work hard, you’re going to get where you want to go.”

It also made him appreciate a good time in getting there.

“We had a lot of fun and did a lot of crazy stuff,” Derting admitted. “You can do a lot more stuff out there that you can’t do in town.”

Noted Bess, “They made great male-to-male relationships that guys don’t always have, relationships that are strong and go back so far and just don’t change. I mean, his cousins love to go watch Will play football, but they’d just as soon be out at the ranch taking target practice with him.”

Which is not to say his football abilities aren’t admired in the family circle. Derting’s aunt in Kahlotus has an 8-year-old daughter, and not long after school begins this fall she plans on bringing her cousin to school. For show and tell.

The player. Just this past spring, the Cougars were doing a drill in the red zone, the No. 1 defense going against the No. 2 offense. A couple of passes were completed and suddenly coach Bill Doba noticed that Derting “has that look in his eye.

“I tell him, ‘Hey, lighten up a little bit — those guys are going to be on our side on Saturdays,’ ” Doba recalled. “And he said, ‘They’re not on our side now.’ ”

So he doesn’t like opponents. At all. Well, maybe he likes USC’s horse, but that would be it.

“He’s what you want in a football player,” said Doba.

Which is to say, ferocious, quick, strong, smart and, at least between the lines, ill-tempered — but that’s just for starters.

The Cougars have never had a first-team All-American linebacker of any stripe. James Darling, another small-town kid from Kettle Falls, received second-team mention from The Sporting News in 1996. Mark Fields, surely the best linebacking talent ever at WSU but also the rawest, was an Associated Press third-teamer in 1994, and Anthony McClanahan earned that distinction from Football News the previous two seasons.

But none of them had the degree of preseason splash Derting is getting this year from the websites and magazines, based upon what he and the Cougars have accomplished the past two seasons — and in Derting’s case, often on the biggest stages.

Those three picks and his 98-yard touchdown return in Seahawks Stadium. Twelve tackles and three sacks at Notre Dame. Two fumble recoveries in the Holiday Bowl against Texas.

What is often overlooked is that he didn’t have the same sort of incubation period or process normally afforded a young player, especially one from a small-school background who admittedly didn’t get truly serious about the game until the summer before he came to college.

“The older guys who were here when I got here, Raonall (Smith) and J.P. (James Price), I didn’t spend much time with them because I was hurt,” he remembered. “I’d watch stretch and then go to the weight room. The next year, Al Genatone was sort of the ‘old guy’ and he helped me a lot, but everybody else was young or a JC coming in and they were in the same boat. We had to learn fast.”

Or, as Doba put it, “He became a veteran in about two games.”

A number of things helped this along. The realization that he not only had to play, but didn’t have to make allowances for his A-school pedigree. A quick grasp of how sorting out keys and reads on video could be a shortcut to becoming a better player. And never losing the free spirit that lets him approach every practice as not just a duty, but a delight.

“He’s like Jason David in that way,” Doba said. “I was talking to the scout from Indianapolis and he said that’s why he recommended (Jason) to his people — he loved to watch him practice. Will is the same way. Doesn’t matter the challenge. You could put him at safety and he’d find a way to get it done. He’s just a great football player.”

The man. Will Derting’s sister wants you to know that he’s not simply a great football player, however.

“I knew Will before he played football and he’s still the same Will,” she said. “He’s a mama’s boy, he’s very silly, goofy, easy to be around.”

Wait a second. Rough-and-tumble Will Derting, 100-mph-collisions-with-quarterbacks Will Derting, they’re-not-on-our-side-today Will Derting — a mama’s boy?

“Oh, she’s definitely the one,” Bess insisted. “For instance, Will will never walk into a room in front of a woman. That’s kind of a silly example, but he has impeccable manners and that’s growing up with a mom who didn’t let him get away with anything and two sisters who would stand in front of a door until he opened it.”

But more often than we like to admit, manners can mask character flaws, and that’s not the case here, according to his sister.

“Growing up where and how he did, it makes you care about people a lot more,” Bess said. “The kids he went to school with, he still knows where everybody is and what they’re doing. He knows how to treat people the way he’d like to be treated.”

Indeed, the air of entitlement that so often attends the standout athlete is curiously subdued in — if not completely absent from — Okanogan’s favorite football son.

“Football was never that special — it just something to do,” he said. “It wasn’t a big deal to my family. Wait, I shouldn’t say that — but none of them blow it out of proportion. And the guys I hang out with here are pretty much the same way. We’ll talk about horses and cows before we’ll talk about football. Those are the kind of people I was raised with.”

True enough, there is that motorcade to follow Will on football Saturdays.

“But my mom also has four brothers who have never been to a football game,” Bess aid. “They love Will just the same, but to them he’s not Football Will, he’s the same as the rest of us. That takes a lot of pressure off him, especially this year — when he’s obviously felt more pressure than he ever has.”

The pressure. Hype doesn’t distinguish small-town values from big-city bluster. Being in the spotlight also means being in the hot seat. Exacerbating that condition for Derting this year is that he’s just one of two starters returning on the Cougars’ defense, that he’s one of the leaders trying to carry on this unprecedented run of Wazzu success — and now, alas, that he’s practicing in a cast with a dislocated wrist suffered in an early scrimmage.

There is also the matter of the less immediate future, football and otherwise.

Recently, his mother unearthed a picture of Will Derting, age 7, wearing a Seahawks jersey, and reportedly even then he pictured himself playing on Sundays — “a little boy dream,” as his sister said, “which now could come true.”

Now, make no mistake, Will Derting is playing for the moment. His upbringing — treat those around you the way you want to be treated — demands nothing less than that singular loyalty. But it is both for his current and future sakes — and the realization, in the wake of a by-the-book DUI that cost him a start in one game, of just how public a figure he is — that he said spurred him to turn a personal corner in the past year.

“Maybe it was a wake-up call,” he acknowledged. “I have some things I want to accomplish, and I have people around me who are good for me and keep me going in the right direction. I’ve got a chance to do something not many people get a chance to do, and at the same time I realized how important school is to me. There are some things I want to get out of college.”

A degree, for one thing. Tools and resources that will allow him to return, in some form, to exactly where he came from.

“Cows and horses,” he said. “that’s what I’ll always do the rest of my life. It’s what I’d be doing now if I wasn’t playing football.”

Idyllic as that sounds, the challenge is every bit as great as a National Football League training camp, the pressure an entirely different animal than hype.

“The ranching way of life is almost becoming extinct,” Bess Derting said. “The costs are becoming so much higher than profits, it’s year-by-year for our family. Everyone loves it and has a passion for it, but you can only do something so long on a passion.

“The mad-cow scare last December. On Dec. 15, cattle prices were good. On the 16th, every rancher in Washington state was looking himself in the mirror wondering, ‘Am I going to be doing this tomorrow?’ Things happen overnight you have no control over. But at the same time, we’re going to be doing it until it’s so bad you can’t make a living at it. And I have no doubt Will will always have that in him. Whether he has horses out back he’s training or a little farm or a big one, it’s what he loves.

“Will has few passions in life. One is his family, one is football and one is horses.”

Legend will have it, eventually, that he came to campus on one. Not true. But go ahead and let it ride.


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