Solemn moment defines game for WSU

SUNDAY, SEPT. 21, 2008

PULLMAN – A Washington State football season awash in humiliation, outrage, desperation, belittlements, indignities – but also an earnest determination the program’s many snipers have chosen to dismiss or ignore – trespassed into the grim, the sober and the strange Saturday night.

Especially the sober.

There is nothing more sobering than seeing two football teams gathered together in silence at midfield to say a prayer and watch one of their own being secured to a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance.

And there is little stranger than celebrating a sensational touchdown pass by that player’s third-string replacement not 30 seconds later – and, later, the much-needed relief of redemption, however relative.

“Surreal,” is what Cougars coach Paul Wulff called it, and though he was describing an instant of heartache in the middle of a playground game that no coach, player or parent ever wants to endure, he could well have applied it to the larger mosaic of Wazzu’s 48-9 win over Portland State – a game the Cougars couldn’t lose but that many of their constituents couldn’t bear to watch precisely because of that possibility.

For a time, however, those concerns were of no concern at all.

The only concern was Gary Rogers, very still on the Martin Stadium turf, trainers and doctors stabilizing his head and neck, gently squeezing and tugging at his fingers for some sign of feeling.

Early in the third quarter, the Cougars quarterback had fired one of his lasers in the direction of receiver Jeshua Anderson. As the ball flashed off Anderson’s hands, Rogers took a nasty – and late – lick from blitzing safety Aaron Dickson and toppled to the ground face first and remained there, motionless.

It had been just a quarter earlier that Rogers had entered the game when starter Kevin Lopina was blind-sided by PSU’s Eloka Anyaorah and had to leave with a bruised shoulder. This looked worse, and seemed confirmed as such when the ambulance was summoned from its parking space at the mouth of the stadium tunnel – and when first the entire Vikings team and soon the Cougars all assembled in a half-circle, many on one knee, some holding hands, all presumably joining in the prayer that Al Egg, the pastor who serves as the Vikings’ team chaplain, was offering.

And serious it was.

The news from Pullman Memorial Hospital late Saturday night was that Rogers suffered what WSU trainer Bill Drake called a “stable cervical spine fracture that is non-surgical” – with a recovery time of three to four months.

That means the end of college football for Rogers, who had paid four years of backup dues waiting to play – only to lose the starter’s job to Lopina.

The word that truly matters, of course, is “recovery.”

But Wulff thought the moment also mattered.

“You could sense a great feeling in the stadium, the crowd and the players,” he said. “I think it brought everybody to a very solemn place in their heart. It brings some reality to all our lives. In that way, it was a very good moment – and the fortunate thing is that we feel Gary will be OK.”

And in the way only sports seems to be able to do, the disappointment and concern an entire stadium felt for Rogers almost instantly was transformed into the joy and hope represented by his callow relief, freshman Marshall Lobbestael.

Even against an overmatched opponent, Lobbestael was something of a revelation. He would follow that quick touchdown with a perfectly placed pass to tight end Devin Frischknecht for 53 yards and another score – and until his post-game remarks, never betrayed how overwhelming the moment was.

“I was sort of uncomfortable going in – it was really scary seeing Gary and Kevin both go down,” Lobbestael said. “The first couple plays, I tried to act calm. The line knew I hadn’t had that many snaps, so they were ready to do what they had to do to protect me. I felt safe and good – and coach was dialing up some plays I ran in practice and some plays he knew would work.”

Including that first touchdown pass.

“I wanted to give Marshall an opportunity to make a big play,” said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, “and put him in a situation where he had a chance. He has a great feel for the game – and as quick a release as I’ve coached.”

What it will also do, however, is give the Great Bandwidth Army the opportunity to chew over any number of instant solutions, though if Lopina’s shoulder bruise is too severe to allow him to play against Oregon next week, there is only one solution.

“It’s too early,” Lobbestael acknowledged. “I don’t want to think about that because I hope Gary and Kevin are all right. If the situation presents itself and that’s what I have to do, I’ll work hard and try to get ready as best I can. But it’s tough to think about right now.”

It was tough to think about when he came into the game, too. Cougar guard Vaughn Lesuma admitted the Cougars were furious with Dickson’s hit and tried to send a message within the rules – but they were also moved by the Vikings’ show of support in the moments after Rogers went down. And even before the game got out of hand, Lesuma decided the score didn’t matter much.

“For us to see Gary give his little fist pump while he was on the stretcher,” he said, “that was the game for me right there.”


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