SALT LAKE CITY – Within minutes of receiving the news, Billy Joe and Danielle Hobert were on the Delta Airlines website surveying flights from Southern California to Salt Lake City. Kevin and Kristin Bacon hopped online to look at the options out of Spokane International.
Travis and Amy Jackson frantically began planning their road trip, mapping out the quickest route by car to Utah’s capital city, and ball-parking when they’d need to leave to make Washington State’s game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It turns out there aren’t many shortcuts on a 10-hour drive from Temecula, California, to Salt Lake City, but when the destination is your son’s college football game, the mileage is well worth it.
Unlike others in the “WSU CougFam,” Cole and Tara Cooper didn’t have to make last-minute travel plans. It’s a 35-minute drive from where their son played high school football in nearby Lehi to the venue of WSU’s season finale on Saturday. As a matter of fact, all it did was put more pressure on Cammon Cooper to wrangle as many player tickets as he could before kickoff.
“I could’ve packed the whole stadium, but we have about 20-25,” said Cole, the father of WSU’s redshirt sophomore quarterback. “My wife’s parents came down from Idaho. Cammon texted us about 9:30 on Thursday saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to be able to use other players’ tickets.’ So it was a like a scramble to see how many could get here.”
In the spirit of the holiday season, this was the closest thing to a Christmas miracle – better, even – for the family members of WSU football players.
Because of various COVID-19 restrictions around the Pac-12 Conference, the parents, grandparents, siblings and closest friends of WSU players were under the impression they wouldn’t see the Cougars play in person until September 2021. Earlier this week, though, Utah’s football program made an exception, permitting relatives to attend Saturday’s game in Salt Lake City – the final contest of the season for both teams.
According to Utah’s sports information department, each player got an allotment of four tickets. While Utah parents naturally outnumbered those of WSU, both teams had over 100 fans dispersed in the stadium seats directly behind their benches.
The mother and youngest sibling of WSU edge Brennan Jackson, a breakout player for the Cougars’ defense this season, had traveled to Pullman so they could see Brennan from a distance before and after WSU’s game against California, reasoning “getting to see him and spend time with him, as much as we can, has been huge.”
The Cal game never happened, putting a damper on the trip, but when Amy and 9-year-old brother Maddux landed back in San Diego on Monday, Amy opened her phone to an encouraging text message from Brennan.
“He was like, ‘You’re going to have to get on a plane,’ ” she said.
Amy and Maddux, along with father Travis and 11-year-old sister Makayla, piled in a car a few days ago to begin the 700-mile trek from Southern California. Two of WSU’s games this season have been canceled less than 48 hours before kickoff, and for a brief spell on Friday, there was skepticism as to whether WSU’s charter flight to Salt Lake City had left the ground. One flight-tracking website indicated it was canceled.
“Literally dying, we were an hour away (from SLC),” said Amy, who got text confirmation from her son that the team was at the airport and then alerted other concerned parents and fans on Twitter. “Definitely a lot to drive to turn around and drive right back.”
Many parents who’d kept a perfect attendance record up until this year have not only missed the games themselves but moments within the games they won’t get back. Two weeks ago at USC, Cooper got his first college snaps at QB and helped lead a late touchdown drive in the Coliseum.
In the same game, Joey Hobert got a rare chance to spell Travell Harris as WSU’s kick returner, and Jackson recorded his second college sack. The families of both players weren’t able to savor the moments in person, despite living less than two hours from USC’s campus.
“I was on the tracker on my phone … I could just see them,” Hobert’s mother, Danielle, said. “That’s so sad. We’re just down the road, really, and can’t go.”
Billy Joe and Danielle bought a house in Pullman, but Danielle is still working in Orange County, so they’re splitting their time between regions. Being on the Palouse allows them to see more of Joey, although lately, it’s been limited to socially distant conversations, meal drop-offs and a single round of preseason golf at Palouse Ridge, in which father and son drove separate carts.
“I’m not sure that any of these parents have even been able to give their kids a hug,” Billy Joe said. “… I’m not going to lie, her and I both kind of teared up. (Danielle) is the one that told me. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then he sent a text. I was like, ‘Game on, let’s … go.’ Cost be damned, we were all going to find a way to get out here.
“… Having the ability to just drive by and talk to him from 20 feet away has been huge for me. … He doesn’t need to see me. I need to see him more than he needs to see me.”
Billy Joe, who quarterbacked Washington’s football team to a 12-0 record and split national title with Miami, said his son has soaked up the experience of playing for the Cougars this fall amid the strange circumstances around the season.
“He’s not even remotely concerned about what he can’t control and he loves his teammates,” Billy Joe said. “He is thoroughly enjoying the Wazzu experience, which quite frankly, a little bit of me just died inside saying that out loud.”
A third-round pick of the 1993 NFL draft, Billy Joe has tried to put himself in his son’s football cleats and envision playing the sport through a pandemic.
“I would’ve gone into the military,” he said. “I’m not lying. I’m not saying that as a knock to the military, but I would’ve gone to the military before I put up with stuff like this.”
The result of Saturday’s game, a 45-28 WSU loss, may not have been ideal, but many of the parents got the moments they came for. Cooper got to play a series at QB in his home state, Hobert had the first two receptions of his career and Jackson added three tackles to his season total. Overshadowing anything that happened on the field, or anything that showed up on a box score, was the opportunity for family members to exchange hugs and brief conversations with players in the parking lot when the game ended.
“With there being a possibility of them playing and letting the parents be here for the first time … we’re going to make the trip regardless,” Travis Jackson said. “That’s what you do for your kid. You’re there to support him. So, even if it would’ve got canceled this morning, doesn’t matter, we still would’ve made the trip.”
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