PULLMAN – There is an elephant on the field when you talk with any of Washington State’s seniors.
There it sits, filling up the thoughts and memories of the 20 young men, who, wearing their crimson football uniforms, will go through the Martin Stadium tunnel for the final time Saturday.
The elephant is fat, well-fed, hard-to-move.
It’s all the defeats the group has had to endure in their years in Pullman, more than any group to every go through the school. No one likes to talk about it, but there it sits. And yet …
“It’s been a great experience,” says one of the 20, linebacker Myron Beck, a three-year starter. “I know people wouldn’t think to say that being our record since I’ve been here, it hasn’t been too great, but it’s been a great experience.”
And there’s a chance to add one more to the memory banks in the Apple Cup.
Underdogs once more, Washington State’s seniors have one last opportunity to go elephant hunting, to slay the beast, to wash away so many of the losses.
The group includes exceptional scholars like Chima Nwachukwu, Micah Hannam and Chris Prummer.
It includes players who came here under Bill Doba and stayed through Paul Wulff’s tenure, like Hallston Higgins, Marcus Richmond, Kevin Kooyman, Reid Forrest and Zach Enyeart.
It includes transfers like James Montgomery, Casey Hamlett, Bernard Wolfgramm and a handful of others.
And it includes the three players below, chosen to represent their classmates one last time.
The solitary man
When Daniel Blackledge stepped on campus in 2007, he was alone. The only recruit from Colorado, a wide receiver who also was a high school track star. He was miles away from home and his mom, Cynthia, who raised Daniel and his three brothers.
He will leave next spring with many friends but without his mom.
Cynthia passed away the spring of his sophomore year, taken away by the complications following a stroke.
“My mom, her whole life she taught me there’s more to life than sports,” Blackledge said this week. “When she passed, it was a really tough time for me because she was basically my hero, the person I looked up to the most.
“I always know she’s up there watching me, she’s always going to be with me.”
Saturday at least one of Blackledge’s brothers will be there with him as he says goodbye.
“I was talking with some of the young guys today and they were asking me how fast it goes by,” he said. “I was telling them it’s a little faster than high school. The next thing you know, in a blink of an eye, you’re done.”
And he has one goal for his last Apple Cup, besides a win.
“Take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way,” said Blackledge, who has caught 23 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns this season, his best in Pullman. “I haven’t done it this whole year and I really want to do it this last game.”
The forgotten hero
Nico Grasu stood just to Reid Forrest’s left, about 37 yards from the goal posts, awaiting the snap. It was the second overtime of the 2008 Apple Cup. The score was tied at 13. Washington had squandered its chance and now Grasu was on the cusp of eternity.
The snap and placement was good. So was Grasu’s kick. Martin Stadium erupted.
“It’s a big as it gets,” Grasu said, “in the rivalry game, the Apple Cup, to hit the game winner, it was pretty special, pretty high up there.”
Grasu, then a sophomore junior-college transfer, is now a senior. The glow of that kick stayed with him for weeks, months even. He discovered friends he never knew he had and now he’s discovered the fleeting nature of fame.
Going into this Apple Cup, Grasu will kick off for the Cougars. If there is another game-winning field goal needed, more than likely freshman Andrew Furney will kick it.
Grasu won’t pull punches. He’s happy for Furney, he’s helped him as much as possible, but he still feels he should be the kicker.
“I’m not going to lie and say it’s not going to bother me,” said Grasu, who was 4 of 6 on field-goal attempts this season and 19 of 29 in his career. “I’m on scholarship and if the coaches tell me to hop on one leg, I’m going to do it. But obviously, I think I’m the best kicker in the country. Coach thinks otherwise.
“But we’re just here to win. Over the years I’ve developed a hate for UW, so I just want to win. That’s what’s important right now.”
Beck wasn’t sure he would ever play major college football.
He had signed a letter of intent with Weber State, but his transcript from Seattle’s Ingraham High didn’t pass muster with the NCAA Clearinghouse.
Blocked from that path, he packed his bags, left the Northwest and ended up in Glendale, Ariz., for junior college.
Three semesters later, bigger, stronger and, most importantly, armed with a hard-earned AA degree, he joined Wulff’s first recruiting class at WSU.
“Being able to play Division I, Pac-10 football, I can’t ask for more,” he said. “I’ve gotten to play against the best. It’s just a blessing to be here.”
Beck came to Pullman as a safety and played there his first year. The next season he switched to linebacker, where he’s been ever since. This year he’s started every game and he’s fifth on the Cougars with 49 tackles, include 6.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
Like the others, he is surprised how quickly his time at WSU has passed. But he has a couple of lifelong memories.
There is the Apple Cup that Grasu finished – it seems to be atop every senior’s list – but there is also one other.
“The comeback win against SMU last year,” Beck said, “when I caught that interception (and returned it for a touchdown). That was a great victory that showed a lot of determination and fight.”
And there’s one other thing he’ll remember.
“The atmosphere here is wonderful,” he said. “The fans, win, loss or draw, they’re still here. It’s a great place to be.”