It is one thing to play through pain. It is another to play through injury.
For much of the season, Wyatt Musser has been doing both.
The Eagles senior offensive lineman missed two games earlier this season in concussion protocol, but other than that Musser has found a way to suit up for the other eight games for Eastern despite lingering and new injuries.
Some games he has left early, trading a shoe for a boot. He’s even left Roos Field on crutches at least once this season and hasn’t been listed on the team’s official depth chart for weeks.
But one thing is quite certain heading into Eastern Washington’s season finale Saturday at home against Northern Colorado: Musser is going to play.
“I’ve got 60 minutes left in my career,” Musser said. “I am not taking a snap off. I am not letting my coach take me out. I am playing until the clock hits zero.”
Musser is six games shy of Eastern Washington’s career record for games played with 54. Tristen Taylor, a senior last season, holds the high mark with 60. Current senior defensive end Mitchell Johnson expects to add one more to his second-place total of 57.
The extra year granted to all players during the COVID-19 pandemic means Eagles players from this era are going to have a bit of a head up on those from previous and future ones. Eastern played seven games in the spring of 2021 that were basically freebies.
Defensive end Debo McClain has also played in 54 games and tight end Dylan Ingram has played in 53.
They are part of a senior group of 2017 high school graduates that will be honored before the game Saturday. While this year – in which the Eagles are 2-8 overall and 1-6 in Big Sky games – has not been the ideal finish, this week many of them reflected on just how special their time at Eastern Washington has been.
“I wanted my senior year to be special,” defensive tackle Caleb Davis said, “and it’s not the outcome that I wanted. But I felt I put out on the field everything that I had.”
Johnson said much the same.
“The season hasn’t gone as we had planned it or thought it would go,” he said, “but adding a win for the last game would definitely make it feel a little better.”
A changing of the guard
Like Musser and many others in this class, Johnson redshirted as a freshman in the fall of 2017 but then jumped in as a contributor the following season.
Johnson played in all 15 games that season, including a loss in the national championship game. He was impactful enough to be named second-team All-Big Sky, with two interceptions, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss.
“(That season) was one of the most fun years of my career,” Johnson said.
He played in three more playoff games over the next three seasons. Of the 57 games he has played at Eastern, the Eagles have won 36 .
“Eastern took a shot on me when a lot of other schools didn’t,” Johnson said. “So I’m really grateful, whether it’s winning or losing, to be a part of this program.”
Last year’s team that went 10-3 and lost in the second round of the playoffs was not simply rich in experience but rich in collective experience.
“As a group last year, we played countless hours with each other,” Musser said. “Basically, three years’ worth of a team was on the team last year, so just having the experience together was very helpful.”
While this year’s team returned five offensive and seven defensive starters, it graduated a core of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
This year the team has suffered injuries to a number of its most experienced players, especially on defense, giving many underclassmen a chance to start. Next season, Eastern could return as many as nine players on offense and seven on defense who regularly started this year.
“I wouldn’t say we’re just playing younger guys because we have to,” said Davis, who started seven of eight games before he was injured against Portland State three weeks ago.
“Those younger guys have proven themselves with practice and (by) knowing what they’re supposed to do.
“It’s awesome to see them at a starting point (heading into next season) where they’re ahead of most people.”
Davis underwent surgery recently, so he plans to scooter his way onto the field rather than walking. He expects the pregame time of recognition to be bittersweet.
His grandfather, a parental figure, he said, died last summer, so he won’t be among the 30 or so people there with Davis on senior day. But he does have cousins coming up from Idaho and Utah.
“Having my whole family there is going to be a special moment,” he said.
Davis first came to Eastern as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship. In high school – at Bonney Lake, Washington – Davis twice played in the State 3A playoffs, losing each of those years to the eventual state champion.
His senior year, that included a 37-10 loss to Kamiakin, when he faced Musser, his future EWU teammate.
Kamiakin’s plan, Davis later found out from Musser, included double- and triple-teaming Davis and running the ball away from him as much as possible
Losing is not something Davis and Eastern Washington are accustomed to. EWU hasn’t had a losing season since 2006, and the program’s last two-win season came in 1988. Avoiding that finish is just one more motivator for Saturday.
“What we expect to do here at Eastern is win,” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “And now having been through a few more losses than we had predicted before this year, it becomes that much more important (Saturday). We’re just in a unique time and haven’t done many unique things, and we’ve been accustomed to being unique around here.”
Johnson, one of Eastern’s four captains along with senior quarterback Gunner Talkington, senior safety Anthany Smith and junior receiver Freddie Roberson, said he told teammates they didn’t need to play any differently this week simply because it’s the seniors’ last game.
For his part, Johnson said he’s treating this week the same as he has all of the other weeks.
He said the team’s record doesn’t indicate anything about their effort, either.
“The record that we’re at, it stings,” Johnson said.
“But finishing our last game of the season and my Eastern career with a win would be really nice.”