PULLMAN – With a trip to the postseason already out of the question and only pride left to play for in his team’s finale, Travis Long rallied the troops.
“We’re going to go out and play our best game of the year,” Long told his teammates on that November day.
And so Gonzaga Prep won its final game of the 2008 season, Long leading the Bullpups both offensively – he was a running back in high school and tallied 136 yards that day – and defensively in a victory over Moses Lake.
“It was amazing,” G-Prep coach Dave McKenna recalls. “It’s one I’ll never forget, and the performance was unbelievable.”
That will also be Long’s legacy as a Washington State defensive end/linebacker – ignoring circumstance and setting, ignoring losses and pain and frustration, and just playing football.
It would be most unfortunate for Long, then, if he’s unable to play in today’s Apple Cup against Washington. It’s Senior Day for Long and 12 other Cougar players, but the Spokane native hasn’t practiced this week with an apparent right knee injury. Long was seen observing practices on Monday and Tuesday, wearing sweatpants, heavily favoring his right knee.
WSU coach Mike Leach doesn’t comment on injuries, not even to let folks know whether Long, the brightest of Cougar players throughout the darkest of the program’s days, will be able to play – and start – his 48th consecutive game.
So it’s not clear whether Leach, who has praised Long’s effort repeatedly this season, was simply being coy when he said during a Wednesday radio interview: “I’ve never suggested that Travis Long can’t play.”
McKenna will be there, regardless. He bought six tickets to the game – “my whole family’s coming down” – to make sure he could see Long play his final game as a Cougar.
And who knows? Considering what Long has already endured, would you put it past him to try to play through another injury? After all, he did play the entire 2010 season with a dislocated shoulder, and all he did was lead the team in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (10.0).
“Everybody loves games,” McKenna said. “That’s the fun part. But it takes special guys to love practice to get better, and he was one of those guys.”
Long’s toughness came to define his career here. He’ll leave WSU with 20.5 career sacks, sixth all-time at the school and more than any current player in the Pac-12.Long, who was not made available to the media this week, said earlier this season that he has no regrets about choosing to play at WSU.
“It’s not what I expected, but it is what it is,” Long said on Nov. 5. “We’ve just got to handle it, take what you can from everything and move forward.”
Even though the Cougars failed to achieve Long’s goal of making a bowl game this season, Long at least took a big step as a player. His move from defensive end to “buck” linebacker – a hybrid rush-end position – in defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s 3-4 scheme resulted in 9.5 sacks this season, a category in which he is tied for 13th in the country.
“We’ve asked Travis to do a lot of different things on our defense, and not all people can do that,” Breske said. “He learns quickly, but he’s a competitor, and we’ve got to have a bunch more of those.
“I’m going to miss him. College isn’t like the NFL. You can’t keep ’em around. I’d love to have Travis next year, where this system’s just evolving.”
In that regard, Breske likely speaks for most Cougar fans.
“I think a lot of guys play for themselves,” McKenna said. “And he played for his school. His team is always his No. 1 priority.”