If America were an American flag, then all of its stars would belong here, in the upper lefthand corner of the country. The state of Washington would be a field of blue, and the city of Spokane might aptly be described as star-spangled. Star-spangled Spokane.
Three boys, separated by four years and five miles, were raised to greatness in this city of 177,000 residents near the Idaho border. Three boys put Spokane on the map, metaphorically, late in the 20th century, much as the Northern Pacific Railroad did, for real, late in the 19th. Three boys, their lives intersecting like tracks in a railroad switching yard before parting—one to the East, one to the West, one to the nation's heartland.
The three boys are now three famous athletes. The three famous athletes raced to prominence from a staggered start, so now they find themselves three different distances into their careers, wearing three different shades of fame.
Five miles, four years, three boys. They are three stars shaken loose from the upper lefthand corner of the country. Shaken loose from Spokane, but never really shaken free....
In northwest Spokane, darkness falls on a backyard barbecue. Whether the fall of darkness is defined as the sudden absence of light or the sudden absence of light beer, either way it got dark in a hurry behind the Rypien house on North Moore Street.
So friends and relatives scatter from the lawn like pollen. But Mark Rypien, 29, remains in a lawn chair behind the house he grew up in, a maple tree no longer shading him from sunlight, but from starlight and porchlight instead. "The Big Fella," he says, finally, as the voices of family and friends fade into the house or into the night. "The Big Fella should have been here."
The Big Fella would have admired the new vinyl siding on the old house he bought in 1968, the house in which he and Terry raised their five children on the money he earned selling office equipment by day, the money she socked away working nights as a secretary at Holy Family Hospital. He seemed to fill that house all by himself, the Big Fella, even though he wasn't all that big, not nearly as big as Mark is now. But he was as strong as ammonia, and he wore a potbelly like a prizefighter wears a title belt.
"He could bring a house down," says Mark. "Life of the party. It's so much fun when the whole family gets together like this. But in some ways, it's the hardest time, too."
The Big Fella was broad, that's the word, with a chest that would have broadened further last Jan. 26. Why couldn't Bob Rypien have been one of the one billion? That's how many people watched as his oldest son, Mark, for two seasons the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins, earned the Most Valuable Player award in Super Bowl XXVI....
Five miles away, at 1226 North Hamilton Street, men have been setting them up and knocking them back since Prohibition was prohibited in 1933—ever since the Buffalo Market was swiftly converted into the Snappy Service Beer Parlor.