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Small-town Washington agriculture folk don't often see themselves reflected in the starting lineups of Division I football teams. When one of their own breaks into the big time, they enthusiastically cheer him on. When one does it in the manner of Will Derting, a ranch kid turned Washington State linebacker, they go crazy and redecorate their truck bumpers.
After Derting, a six-foot, 229pound junior, was named to several preseason All-America teams (including SI's), a bumper sticker that reads coug farmers* dert #51 began appearing on dusty farm trucks all over the dryland wheat fields around Pullman. "Will plays hard, and he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, and that's probably just the way he was brought up," says Bud Aune, 67, a wheat farmer from La Crosse who thought up the bumper-sticker slogan while harvesting on his combine one day. "He hits people dead square, lifts them off the ground and jams them into the turf, picture perfect. And he is tough. With him, there are no timeouts for owies."
To wit: When Derting dislocated his left wrist three weeks before this year's season opener, Cougars coach Bill Doba half-jokingly suggested canceling the season. But Derting rejected his doctors' recommendation of surgery, which would have forced him to miss the season, and chose instead to wear a padded cast. That bolstered his reputation as one of the toughest players in the Pac10 and cemented his place in the hearts of eastern Washingtonians. He says it hurts only when he's pulling guys down.
In other words, it hurts almost constantly. In a 41--38 loss to Oregon last Saturday, that dropped the Cougars to 3--2, Derting had nine tackles and a sack and caused a fumble, giving him 39 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles this year, his first at middle linebacker. In the off-season he was moved from outside to the middle in part because the Cougars' coaches felt opponents were avoiding his side of the field. ("Oh, I don't know if they were doing that," says Derting, blushing.) Derting likes his new position, not least because it's where his role model, Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus, played. "Butkus was that hard-nosed guy that everyone was scared of; that's what I always wanted to be," says Derting.
He grew up on his family's 1,500head cattle ranch with two sisters, Bess and Maggie, and a slew of cousins. They live 25 miles south of Okanogan in such a remote area of north-central Washington that his family has no phone service. "It never bothered me not having a phone," says Derting, who now owns a cell with a ring tone of Sweet Home Alabama. "All you had to do was say, 'Mom, I'll be home at nine o'clock.' If you weren't home by then, she was going to come looking for you."
In between doing the usual ranch chores--doctoring cows, putting up hay and mending fences--and enjoying diversions like hunting coyotes and grooming steers (he's a two-time Okanogan County Fair beef-fitting and -showing grand champion), Derting found time to play baseball, basketball and football at tiny Okanogan High. Although he notched 70 solo tackles while leading the Bulldogs to the Washington 1A state title as a junior, Derting didn't turn many college coaches' heads. Nor did he stand out in drills when he attended the Cougars' football camp the summer before his senior year. But when he hit a ballcarrier at the line during a scrimmage, "it looked like the kid had stepped on a land mine," recalls Doba, the linebackers coach at the time. "I told [then] Coach [Mike] Price, 'I don't care what that kid runs, I want him on our team.'"
After a redshirt year, Derting became a cult hero in his first game when he picked off three passes against Nevada, returning the third a schoolrecord 98 yards for a touchdown. Last year in a 29--26 OT loss at Notre Dame he had 12 tackles and three sacks, and against Texas in the Holiday Bowl he made four tackles, recovered two fumbles, had a sack and laid a devastating block on star receiver Roy Williams on a fumble recovery that led to a Cougars touchdown in a 28--20 upset win. "Will has a great ability to get to the football," says Cougars defensive coordinator Robb Akey. "He may not have the fastest 40 time, but put a guy 40 yards away, and he'll get to him faster than anybody."
That's just the way he was brought up.