Why not Eastern?
In retrospect, that seems like the logical question my wife, Chris, and I should have asked ourselves at the onset of our search for a college athletic program to embrace.
But it took us a couple of years – and a brief flirtation with (brace yourselves, Eagle fans!) the Montana Grizzlies – to settle on Eastern Washington University as “our” school.
It wasn’t like we were awash in disposable income following my retirement as a sportswriter for The Spokesman-Review in January 2012. But after enduring nearly 35 years of proper press box etiquette and super-fan celibacy, I was ready to become at least a small-time booster and unleash decades of pent-up enthusiasm.
To fully appreciate my frustration, one must realize the medieval restrictions placed on sports journalists.
From the earliest stages of your career, you are expected to remain fair and impartial in the stories you produce.
Sure, you’re writing about coaches and players you’ve familiarized yourself with over the years and have come to know and, in most cases, admire and respect. And while you realize that sugar-coating a story about the “home team” might sit better with S-R readers and produce far fewer personal attacks in next weekend’s letters to the sports editor, you must remain neutral, even if it means pointing out suspect play calling, sloppy execution or a complete lack of effort on the part of the local favorites.
Oh, yeah, and DON’T CHEER IN THE PRESS BOX!
While watching the game and writing your story, you’re allowed to torture metaphors, misplace commas and even complain about the complimentary press-box pizza. Just DON’T CHEER IN THE PRESS BOX!
And save that FCS playoff game involving a late North Dakota State fumble on Eastern’s 2-yard line, I never did.
A couple of years prior to my retirement, my wife and I had discussed becoming boosters once my run at the S-R was over. And having attended many of Eastern Washington’s football games at Montana – where I would trudge off to the press box while my wife and daughter sweet-talked various UM fans into sharing a cold tailgate beverage – we were briefly intrigued with the idea of becoming Grizzly fans, partly because of the terrific game-day atmosphere surrounding Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but primarily in hopes of making the officiating in Missoula seem a bit less criminal.
We also thought about looking into season tickets at Washington State, Idaho and Whitworth – all schools I had covered at some point in my career. Each had its own unique appeal, but not enough to persuade us to make the financial – and travel – commitments that were needed.
Our search was playing out in early 2009, when I was in the third year of my second stint covering EWU football. By then I had settled comfortably back into the beat and would have been content to ride things out until I turned 65.
At that point, neither Chris nor I had given much thought to becoming Eagle fans. Maybe it simply made too much sense.
After all, both of our children had earned their college degrees from Eastern – although I suspect my daughter might have been the only one who actually attended classes. And I had covered the football team during the coaching tenures of Mike Kramer, Paul Wulff and Beau Baldwin.
During my time on the beat, those three – along with the majority of the university’s administrators, athletes and support personnel – were as unpretentious, accessible and accommodating as any I had dealt with at any level. And the Eagles were fun as hell to watch on a football field, as well. Even a green one.
I’m still not sure where our hesitation at becoming retirement boosters at EWU originated, or why it persisted as long as it did. Perhaps it was the absence of the same kind of game-day excitement felt during our visits to Missoula. Maybe it was the nearly deserted upper-level parking lot I would walk through prior to the start of most home games at then-Woodward Field. Or maybe it was the general lack of a major buzz about the program – especially in Spokane.
Whatever the reasons, that hesitation was shattered by Eastern’s otherworldly journey to the 2010 FCS national championship.
I was there to witness and chronicle the entire unlikely season – from each of Bo Levi Mitchell’s early-game pick-6s, to the ridiculous number of crucial late-game, fourth-down passes he completed, seemingly as his own personal form of redemption. From each of Taiwan Jones’ “giddy-up horse” touchdown runs to every one of J.C. Sherritt’s cross-field pursuits and takedowns.
And two seasons later, Chris and I were proud EWU season-ticket holders, bronze-level donors and avid – albeit unpolished – tailgaters.
Back then, our lower-level tailgating digs consisted of a 10-by-10-foot pop-up canopy, a table-top charcoal grill that would cook only four beef patties at a time, a massive blue ice chest and a couple of lawn chairs. But despite our meager amenities, we were hooked.
And a brief encounter with Beau Baldwin just prior to the start of the Eagles’ home game in 2012 was a big reason why.
I was escorting my granddaughter back from a bathroom break just 15 minutes before kickoff, when we were halted by a roadblock of Eastern players headed back to the locker room for what I assumed would be a final pep talk from their head coach. I was pointing out some of the players to my granddaughter, when I heard a familiar voice.
“Hey, Bergum, you got a minute?” Baldwin shouted.
Now, I had covered certain coaches who put their players off-limits to the media after Tuesday practices, while cutting off personal phone calls from reporters just a day later, all to presumably keep themselves and their players focused on the upcoming game. And here was Baldwin asking me if I had a minute to talk on a game-day Saturday afternoon.
Gotta minute? Well, I was planning on walking Keleigh back to our shabby tailgate surrounds, reloading my flask and thinking up a fresh supply of drunken insults to yell at the officials. So, yeah, I guess I gotta minute.
“Follow me,” Baldwin said, leading me down the hall to his office, where he plucked a framed photograph off the bookshelf behind his desk. He extended the picture of me interviewing Bo Levi Mitchell in the hallway outside the Eagles locker room following the 2010 FCS title game in Frisco, Texas, explaining, “My wife and I were talking the other night and decided you might appreciate this as much as anyone.”
Turns out, he was right.
And since then, Chris and I have become even bigger EWU fans, upgrading our tailgating operation each year to the point of now owning a modest 15-foot travel trailer we pull behind out minivan to Cheney for all early-season home games. We have also become donors and season-ticket holders of the men’s basketball program.
And we have turned my former home office into an “Eagles Room,” with the centerpiece being the signed Military Day jersey that Cooper Kupp wore as a sophomore All-American at Eastern.
These days, we make it to all EWU home games and as many road games as our budget will allow. And we’ll be putting an even bigger strain on our bank account when we fly out to Texas on Thursday morning to take in Saturday’s FCS title game against North Dakota State.
Personally, I can’t wait to compare the experience with that of 2010 when I was facing the pressure of a looming deadline, while watching the Eagles’ stirring second-half comeback against Delaware – and biting my lip to keep from cheering wildly in the press box.
I’ve been asked several times who I think will win in Frisco this weekend. And, without trying to make light of the dominance of No. 1-ranked and top-seeded North Dakota State in the years since the Eagles claimed their national crown, I simply ask:
Why not Eastern?
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.