The Washington Huskies won the Rose Bowl for paralyzed teammate
Curtis Williams, a free safety who watched from the press box in
a wheelchair. They beat Purdue, 34-24, for Peggy Watson, the
football coaching staff's administrative assistant, who died of
cancer three days before the New Year's Day game. The team made
sure it finished 11-1 for 94-year-old Herman Brix, the last
surviving member of Washington's 1926 Rose Bowl team, which lost
to Alabama 20-19. When he was brought to the Huskies' practice
last Friday, Brix became so emotional while addressing the
players that he could barely speak.
It was no coincidence that Washington went into the Rose Bowl
with more causes than the United Way. Coach Rick Neuheisel is a
believer in the power of passion. The ardor of Huskies fans was
one reason that he left Colorado two years ago for Seattle. "He
wants to include everybody in everything he's doing," says his
boss, athletic director Barbara Hedges.
After the game, however, neither Neuheisel nor his Huskies, who
were ranked fourth in the nation, wasted an ounce of passion on
laying claim to a share of the national championship if unbeaten
and top-ranked Oklahoma lost to No. 3 and once-beaten Florida
State in the Orange Bowl. A Sooners defeat coupled with a Sugar
Bowl win by No. 2 Miami would have left the top six teams all
with one loss, and it was Washington that had defeated Miami,
34-29 on Sept. 9. Quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo had expressed
his annoyance with the polls on the Friday before the Rose
Bowl--"I don't get this: Why is Miami Number 2?" he said--but he
refused to mount a soapbox on behalf of his team. "If we sit here
and argue about it, is it going to change anything?" he said.
No, and so, after the clock expired on Monday, the Huskies turned
loose their emotions in a different direction. They ran en masse
to midfield, looked up to the press box and raised their helmets
to and waved towels at Williams, who has been paralyzed from the
neck down since making a tackle in Washington's 31-28 win at
Stanford on Oct. 28. They chanted "Cee! Dub!"--his initials, C.W.,
which had been stitched onto every purple jersey. Neuheisel, who
visited Williams at his Santa Clara, Calif., hospital five times,
spearheaded the effort to get him to the Rose Bowl. When the
Huskies walked into their locker room before the game, they found
Williams and members of his family waiting for them. The players,
many in tears, filed by and kissed him on the forehead. After
Tournament of Roses Parade grand marshal Tom Brokaw flipped the
commemorative coin before kickoff, Neuheisel asked the NBC news
anchor if he would mind giving it to Williams. "It would be an
honor," replied Brokaw, who did so at halftime.
On Washington's first possession, which started at its 36,
Tuiasosopo called "Peg Left" in memory of Watson, who also had
been the secretary to former Huskies coaches Don James and Jim
Lambright. When Neuheisel had visited Watson at her Seattle
hospice before the team left for Pasadena, he asked her to call
Washington's first play. "She perked right up," he recalled at
the press conference on Sunday. In great detail Watson described
a veer option on which Tuiasosopo was likely to keep the ball.
That's what he did--and lost a yard, but it was one of the few
plays that didn't work for him all afternoon.
Nothing better illustrated the resiliency of the Huskies than the
way in which they beat the Boilermakers. After Washington's
leading receiver, Todd Elstrom, suffered a torn medial cruciate
ligament in his right knee in a Dec. 28 practice (two scout
teamers tackled him in a no-contact drill), Neuheisel tried to
bluff Purdue by describing the injury as a sprained knee and then
starting Elstrom, who wore a brace, on Monday. Though the junior
wideout played the entire game, he was not a downfield threat,
and Washington could not stretch the defense in its accustomed
manner. Instead, with an offensive line that averaged 314
pounds--46 more than the average of the Boilermakers' defensive
linemen--the Huskies pounded Purdue on the ground. They won the
Rose Bowl because in the second half they rushed for 245 yards
and controlled the ball for 23:29, thus keeping it out of the
hands of Purdue's All-America quarterback, Drew Brees.
Tuiasosopo, a senior, who rushed for 75 yards and passed for 138
en route to the Rose Bowl MVP award, overcame a bit of adversity
as well. Late in the third quarter Purdue linebacker Landon
Johnson upended the Washington signal-caller, who landed on his
right shoulder and sprained it. The Washington medical staff sent
Tuiasosopo to the locker room for X-rays. "It would have put a
lot of guys out of the game," Neuheisel said.
But Tuiasosopo was out for all of three snaps--the only snaps he'd
missed because of injury in his two years as starter. As the
fourth quarter began, with the Huskies nursing a 20-17 lead and
facing a fourth-and-one at the Purdue 35, Tuiasosopo reentered
the game and in seven plays drove his team to a touchdown. On a
first-and-goal from the Purdue eight, he saw that the 6'3"
Elstrom was being covered by 5'7" cornerback Chris Clopton in the
left flat. Tuiasosopo tapped his helmet, signaling to Elstrom to
run a fade route, then took the snap and lofted the ball to
Elstrom for the score with 12:00 to play. Washington's lead never
again dipped below 10 points.
Other offensive starters also played hurt for Washington. Split
end Justin Robbins, who ran into a goalpost during a Dec. 26
practice and partially separated his right shoulder, caught one
pass for five yards. Tailback Willie Hurst, who suffered a broken
right clavicle in the 35-28 victory over UCLA on Nov. 11, played
with a bubble pad over his tender collarbone and rushed for 53
yards. Tailback Rich Alexis, who separated his right shoulder in
early November, broke free on a 50-yard romp down the left
sideline on his first carry, the opening play of the third
quarter. His shoulder popped out when he was tackled, but Alexis
maneuvered it back into place and finished with a team-high 78
yards on 10 carries. Given their infirmities, it's remarkable
that the Huskies moved the ball at all, much less gained 417
yards. "If we were healthy, we'd be scary," offensive coordinator
Keith Gilbertson said after the game, then corrected himself.
"We're scary now."
Following the postgame press conference, Neuheisel and four of
his players left the interview tent outside the Rose Bowl and
found the ambulance in which Williams waited for his return trip
to the hospital. Neuheisel took off his ROSE BOWL CHAMPIONS cap,
placed it on Williams's head and said, "Hey, this is for you."
The wattage in Williams's smile could have solved California's
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER CUT OFF AT THE PASS Cornerback Roc Alexander (3) and the rest of Washington's defense kept the pressure on Brees.