Connecting in the Denver airport for a flight to Dallas last week, D.J. Sigurdson – attired in Eastern Washington University red – passed by one of those snug-but-soulless concourse lounges and was hailed in a fashion familiar, yet entirely foreign.
“Go Eagles!” sang a knot of revelers, also in red.
And Sigurdson thought to himself, “What an interesting concept.”
Eastern people. Scattered groups of them, in major airports, doing those things that sports fans do, making minor spectacles of themselves in anticipation of something grand, their team in a national championship game. And with the championship won and history made for the underappreciated school in sleepy Cheney, there were those same fans in another airport, taking the euphoria back home.
“I’m in DFW and there’s probably 10 Eastern people waiting to catch a flight,” Sigurdson recalled. “I see five or six people in Auburn gear going to Arizona, and others in Oregon stuff. And I’m thinking, ‘We have a little bit of that.’ I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that before, and it was just kind of special.”
There will be time ahead to gauge the impact of Eastern’s 20-19 victory over Delaware in the Football Championship Subdivision title game last Friday in Frisco, Texas. It’s all supposition anyway. So much relies on people who have kept the place at arm’s length.
Others have kept it close to their hearts, and many – former players and coaches – were in Frisco to inhale the moment. Among them was Sigurdson, once a linebacker at EWU who now coaches at South Kitsap High School, from whence he sent his alma mater Renard Williams, the redoubtable defensive tackle. So was Rob Friese, a high school principal in his hometown of Menlo, Wash., but 25 years ago a salty Eagles defensive back and smart-aleck lyricist of “Save Eastern,” the wry anthem that played hourly on the campus station when the program was fighting for its life. So was Jim McElwain, 16 years an Eastern player and coach, who wouldn’t have been able to attend a year earlier because his job as offensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban would have had him engaged for a different championship.
And though an illness kept him home, no one savored it all more than the program’s godfather, Dick Zornes.
“Spectacular,” he said. “To be an Eastern guy like I am, something like this that makes so many people proud to have been a part of it at some time in their life is just exhilarating.”
Not that he didn’t eyeball the game as a football coach first.
“I was watching (Delaware’s) coach,” Zornes said, “when we scored to make it 19-6 and I’m thinking, ‘Guy, you don’t understand – you need a drive so bad.’ When he didn’t stay with running the football, I said, ‘You’re in trouble. You need to try to pound it and take the emotion away – and you didn’t do it.’ ”
Instead, the Eagles did as they’ve done all year – finesse a cannonball through a keyhole.
“When you think about it,” McElwain said, “it was a microcosm of Eastern itself: People want to count you out, and you just kind of hang in there.”
Yet even when it was 19-0, Sigurdson had a seatmate admit that he was happy “just to be breathing the same air” of the championship atmosphere. Said Friese, “You were proud just to be associated with that.
“They get the rings, but we were a part of it – ‘the start of something big,’ as Eastern says now.”
For nearly every Eagle, it’s inevitably a modest start. That’s what makes the payoff so gratifying.
“Every guy I was there with has a job, is involved in the community and is happy – and Eastern played a huge role in all that,” Sigurdson said. “We all got there in a variety of ways. I shared a scholarship. Renard was an (academic non-qualifier) they took a chance on. You had players there a couple generations removed and it was always the same thing.”
Agreed McElwain, “I’m one of those who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I can only say thanks.”
That Eastern had to ride out more than two decades of ups and downs as a Division I program has been well chronicled. But Zornes noted that, “Whatever we don’t have, we have this: a recruiting base. High school football in Washington is better than it is in any state with a Big Sky school other than Sac State. There are more players from Olympia to Everett than in the rest of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana combined.”
And now it has a distinction to celebrate – and sell.
“I go back to when my son was little,” Zornes said, “and we went to a Gonzaga-Loyola basketball game when Loyola had the two All-Americans (Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble). We walked up and bought a ticket at the door and sat with 900 other people. That hasn’t been 25 years ago. All it takes is something like this.”
Yet whatever happens, it’s hard to think it will top the singular feeling of what has happened. McElwain admitted as much to his boss.
“You’re actually happier about this than our win a year ago,” Saban teased.
“Come to think of it,” McElwain replied, “you’re probably right.”