This has to be one of the best pieces I've read about Seattle's football culture. I don't normally like posting full articles, but this piece by William Yardley is beautifully written and really encapsulates so much of Seattle - from the condos of Belltown to the strip malls of Aurora - and how it all comes together to produce one of the best college sports scenes in any big city. The full article is below:
They say Jake Locker was carved to athletic perfection between the Cascade Range and the Salish Sea. Big, strong and strikingly fast, he was a statewide myth by the time he was a teenager, a high school football force scorching through Friday nights in the farthest reaches of the Pacific Northwest.
By the time he became the quarterback for the University of Washington, he was cast here as nothing less than a savior, a rural kid summoned to the digital city from a place few of his new fans could find on a map, Ferndale, Wash., population 11,000. His father taped drywall for a living. His grandfather worked in a pulp mill for 37 years. Neither of them graduated from college, but Jake would stir the rescue fantasies of an ambitious university and what theCensus Bureau has called the nation’s best-educated city.
“Don’t go, Jake!” the crowd chanted at raucous Husky Stadium a year ago, at the end of his junior season. Pro scouts swooned in the stands. Mr. Locker was projected to become a top N.F.L. draft pick, and a multimillionaire, if he left college early. “One more year!”
On Thursday, Mr. Locker will play his final college game against heavily favored Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. Analysts will point to his decision to stay for his senior year as reflective of fine character — but they will also recount the disappointing season that followed, from blowout losses to his plummeting draft prospects. The savior proved mighty mortal.
Yet regardless of Washington’s 6-6 record or what might happen Thursday, many people will always measure the kid from Ferndale by more than touchdowns and passing efficiency.
At a time when college teams recruit from across the globe, when talented players are expected to jump early to the draft and others are quick to transfer if things do not go well, Mr. Locker has been defined not just by his performance or potential but also by the simple fact that he repeatedly chose to stay close to home, to anchor himself ever more deeply in the complicated corner of America where he was raised. In the Northwest, a region reaching for a broader role in the world even as it fears losing its sense of place, being a local hero meant playing across a delicate divide between old and new.
“The people who consider themselves to be the true Washingtonians, the true Northwest, they identify with Jake,” said Rob Rang, a high school literature and history teacher from Tacoma who has followed Mr. Locker closely as part of his moonlighting job — as an N.F.L. draft analyst for cbssports.com. “Not to make Jake sound like he’s some lumberjack, but he’s more of that than the latte-sipping, work-at-Microsoft kind of thing.”
Told of those comments, Mr. Locker agreed.
“You saw what my dad does,” he said. “No matter what the circumstances, you can always work hard enough to give your family what they need.”
Seattle is more than generous billionaires and precision composting. It exports airplanes and wine but also wheat and wood. It is still a crossroads, energized by friction between rural and urban, union machinist and transplant techie, immigrant and entrenched. Not far from the rows of bungalows beloved by carbon-conscious New Urbanists, Aurora Avenue, a critical city artery, features stunning views of Mount Rainier — and boarded-up motels.
Yet in the center of it all there has long been a uniting force, the home team. Before theSeahawks or the Mariners or the Sounders soccer team, before Microsoft or Boeing, before the Klondike gold rush or even statehood, there was the University of Washington, founded as the Territorial University of Washington 150 years ago next fall with a single professor and 30 students.
Back then, Seattle was a frontier town with fewer than 1,000 people. It was less Jet City — or Metronatural, as a new generation of boosters has branded it — than it was Ferndale. A century and a half later, the university, not Microsoft or Boeing, is the city’s largest employer, with nearly 30,000 faculty and staff members serving 45,000 students.
But for all its heft — Washington is perennially among the top universities in attracting federal research dollars — the university has lost some of its prominence in a changing region. It increasingly struggles to draw political support outside the Seattle area. Many people view it as elitist, distracted by its global ambitions.
At a time when public universities are taking significant budget cuts, Washington has suffered plenty, losing a third of its state financing in the past two years. To raise more revenue, it is capping its in-state enrollment because outside students pay about three times the tuition.
That shift is not expected to improve local loyalty, but the university has taken other steps that it hopes will, from expanding aid for low-income in-state students to enhancing its brand name, in Seattle and beyond. Next fall, it will begin construction on a $250 million renovation of 90-year-old Husky Stadium. Rejected in its request for state money, it began a private fund-raising campaign just as Mr. Locker began his senior season.
“Sports is the gateway into the university for many, many people,” Phyllis M. Wise, the university’s interim president, said in an interview. “It is the front porch. It’s what people know.”
Washington has seized on the small-town imagery surrounding Mr. Locker. In addition to putting his picture on buses across Seattle, the athletic department sent staff members to Ferndale for several days this summer after the town proclaimed the main day of its annual Old Settlers Picnic to be Jake Locker Day. Washington created a Web site featuring video testimonials from Ferndale residents recalling Mr. Locker’s earnest boyhood.
“I wasn’t comfortable with it at first,” Mr. Locker said. “But I thought the way they did it was best suited for me. It came from the people I grew up with. It’s a community that really, really cares about all the people in it.”
Of all the impressive tailgate parties that take place before and after Washington football games, one of the most formidable the last few years has been held by the “Ferndawgs,” the passionate group of family and friends from Ferndale who have cheered at every home game Mr. Locker has played.
Yet while the Ferndawgs now drape themselves in Washington purple and gold, very few of them attended the university. When Mr. Locker enrolled in the fall of 2006 — he graduated this month as a fifth-year senior — he was one of only 12 freshmen admitted from Ferndale High School, 100 miles north of Seattle and just south of the Canadian border.
“Even that hour-and-a-half drive, it was a huge adjustment for me,” Mr. Locker said. “I got really homesick.”
Every Husky fan knows that Mr. Locker chose to come to Washington when its football team was at rock bottom, after scandal and losses had prompted coaches, administrators and even boosters to leave a program once among the giants of college football. He could have played virtually anywhere, but Seattle was an easier drive for his grandparents.
Washington has produced many fine quarterbacks who have nurtured lasting connections here. One of them is Brock Huard, himself a small-town star who made a similar choice to stay in college more than a decade ago.
But Mr. Huard is among many people who say Mr. Locker’s tale is different and deeper. He may not have won the Heisman, but he stayed long enough to get Washington back to even.
“So much was on his shoulders to singlehandedly turn things around,” Mr. Huard said. “There’s almost a purity to him and his story — almost a ‘Hoosiers’ thing. He’s formed such a bond with this place. And that bond got pushed and tested more than anyone ever thought it could.”
Mr. Locker feels the bond, too. A principal reason he returned, he said, was “just being able to extend that passion one more year, one more game and one more snap.”
He risked failure on the field, but not necessarily financial hardship. In the summer of 2009, before his junior year, he signed a minor-league baseball contract — he threw a 95-mile-per-hour fastball in high school — that included a signing bonus of about $250,000. He has not been on scholarship since then, though he lives in a group house and shares a room with his dog. And when he decided to return for his senior year, he took out an insurance policy that would provide him with a very comfortable living should an injury prevent him from going on to N.F.L. wealth.
He still may be among the top quarterbacks picked in the draft, though far from No. 1. No one seems sure what to expect of him as a professional. Will he learn to read defenses better and pass more precisely?
“The most frustrating quarterback I’ve ever scouted,” Mr. Rang called him.
‘Thank You Jake’
In Mr. Locker’s final home game, against U.C.L.A., he missed several open receivers and threw an interception. He was marginal. He had many fine performances this season but many like this one, too. Washington won by riding other players to victory, as it often did late this season. It qualified for a bowl by winning its final game.
Yet when the U.C.L.A. game was over, the people in purple still chanted the quarterback’s name. He had played much of the season with a broken rib. More important, he had stayed. Among the better-selling Christmas items at the university bookstore this year was a hand-painted tree ornament in the shape of Mr. Locker’s No. 10 jersey.
“Jake! Jake! Jake!” they rumbled in the stands. “Locker! Locker! Locker!”
Down on the field, Clayton Olson, a 1963 Washington graduate and former high school scout who uses a cane to walk between end zones, pointed to 12 students who had painted their bare chests to spell “Thank You Jake.”
By simply getting to the Holiday Bowl, Mr. Locker has accomplished the only goal he clearly articulated when he returned for his senior year: taking Washington back to the postseason spotlight for the first time since 2002. That the game is against Nebraska only seems fitting to many people: the most disastrous performance of his life was against the Cornhuskers in a game in September this season.
No matter how things might end, Mr. Olson said, looking into stands that night against U.C.L.A., “He’ll own this town.”
Then again, for all his affection for Seattle, Mr. Locker has made clear that his final destination will be Ferndale.
“I’m very proud of where I came from and the people there and I always will be,” he said this month when he turned in the two papers that stood between him and a degree in history. “They’re the people that understand me and know me the best.”
Highlights of the Holiday Bowl: