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Passion Play
Ivan Maisel
January 08, 2001
Emotionally charged Washington shrugged off injuries and laid a big hurt on Purdue in Pasadena
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January 08, 2001

Passion Play

Emotionally charged Washington shrugged off injuries and laid a big hurt on Purdue in Pasadena

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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 reamers 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."

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