I was seven years old on that fateful day. Old enough to know that somewhere close to me, lives were being lost and unthinkable damage was being exacted. Young enough to not fully grasp the tragedy of the situation or to anticipate the symbolic metaphors that could one day be drawn between the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the Pacific Northwest and the greatest calamities to ever befall our beloved UW football program.
The day is still etched in my mind. It was May 18, 1980. I was living with my family in a typical, suburban, middle-class house just off of the train tracks running through Vancouver, Wash. My father—God bless him—fancied himself a survivalist in the days leading up to the inevitable eruption. I suppose anybody with a Swiss Army knife, a garage full of still water bottled in one-gallon plastic jugs and a year's supply of D-cell batteries to power the wireless would qualify.
I don't recall the exact time, but we felt the precursor quake hit before it was time for school. It wasn't dramatic—certainly not comparable to the Loma Prieta quake that I had the pleasure of experiencing in 1989. But it made an impression. Of course, the whole world was on red alert and we knew that what we were feeling under our feet was simply an echo of the natural ruination that would soon be happening about 45 minutes away from our domicile. We knew school was going to be cancelled—yay!—and we hunkered down, radio on, as mother nature did the rest.
It all happened sometime before lunch. It wasn't dramatic. We didn't hear the boom, but we could see a sudden change in the air above us. As the smoke—and ash ... a whole lot of friggin' ash ... filled the sky all around us, I was filled with both a sense of fear and a feeling of discomposure—a unique combination of emotions that I've rarely experienced together.
I don't have to tell you how that story turned out. The eruption of Mount St. Helens turned out to be one of the most significant natural disasters to ever strike U.S. soil. Economists estimate that the total economic burden of the blast exceeded $1 billion, not to mention the destruction of countless miles of roads, railway and protected national preserves. Species that once existed on this earth were eradicated. 200 homes were destroyed. 59 human beings lost their lives.
The St. Helens eruption is a thread in the fabric of the story that makes up the Pacific Northwest. We all have a version to tell—whether they be of the "eye-witness" variety or if they simply involve the collection and selling off of ash to companies that would turn it into trinkets. I do not wish to trivialize any of it. But, like St. Helens, UW football is also part of that fabric. And this is a sports blog.
So, in honor of the greatest natural disaster to ever occur in the little corner of the globe that we occupy, I present to you my newest offseason list—the worst "disasters" to have struck UW football in the modern era.
7. Suddenly Seniors
Thanks to Tyrone Willingham for introducing Husky fans to this now-infamous phrase. In one fell swoop of football coach villainy, Willingham achieved two distinct outcomes. First, he stripped away any remaining romantic feelings that some fans may have held towards the sanctity of the program-student athlete relationship. Second, he provided yet more evidence of how horrible a hire he was for our program.
6. One Game, Two National Championships Lost
"The National Championship is dead," said Don James. Truer words are rarely spoken.
I don't recall the exact date—but it was October 1990. A late UCLA field goal had given the Bruins an upset victory over the Huskies at Husky Stadium on a day where just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Dawgs.
The second blemish on Don James' record in the 1990 season not only cost UW a national championship then, it also bled into 1991. Had the UW defeated UCLA that day everything was set up for them to be a shoo-in for the 1990 title and they would have opened 1991 as the #1 team in the nation. Then they would have held that spot from start to finish and laid claim to a second uncontested National Championship. As it was, the door was cracked open for the Miami Hurricanes, and the '91 title was split. UW would not see those heights again.
5. Jerramy Stevens
I'm going to go out on a limb here and presume that this requires no further explanation.
4. The Magnificent Nevada Wolfpack
It figures that it would take a former Husky at the helm to hand the Huskies one of the most significant losses in program history. Flashback to October 2003. A still ranked but underachieving Husky football team under the guidance of interim head coach Keith Gilbertson was sitting at 3–2 and hosting Chris Tormey and his upstart Nevada Wolfpack. The Huskies were enormous favorites against a foe that they had only faced one time in their entire history: a 1903 game that ended in UW's favor by a score of 2–0.
What would happen that day would become, in my opinion, the true turning point in the downfall of the UW football program. The loss to Nevada on that day, by a not-so-subtle score of 28-17, was more significant than anything else that would befall the Huskies as they embarked on a decade of mediocrity. Sorry Duckfans, this was even worse than "The Pick."
Nevada dominated the Huskies at Husky Stadium. Their quarterback hit just about every pass he wanted on his way to a three-TD day. Their special teams blocked two field goals. Their defense sacked Cody Pickett eight times. Let me repeat that. EIGHT TIMES! It was a pure disaster that let the world know with no uncertainty that UW football as they had once known it was no more.
3. the L.A. Times ... and all that ensued
I try to keep these Offseason List pieces around 1,500 words and I can already tell that I'm racing past that goal. As such, I will keep my commentary on the role that the Los Angeles Times played in the demise of the greatest head football coach that the University of Washington has ever seen limited to a quote from one of the most brilliant but forgotten movies of our era: Johnny Dangerously.
I would like to direct this to the distinguished members of the panel: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights. Dis somanumbatching country was founded so that the liberties of common patriotic citizens like me could not be taken away by a bunch of fargin iceholes... like yourselves. --Roman Maroni
The snow-job perpetuated by the L.A. Times and then acted upon by the traitorous bastards of the Pac-12 and the heads of campuses at USC, Oregon and ... yes ... Washington goes down as one of the darkest marks in the history of UW athletics. If you'd like to read the full story, I can't recommend Malamute's legendary blog write up heartily enough. This is a story every Husky fan needs to know.
2. Ty Williingham and the O-fer
Ty Willingham led UW to an 0–12 record in his lame duck season of 2008. You may have heard. It was horrible. Beyond that, I don't remember much. Thank God for the humble blessing of short memories.
1. Curtis Williams
I was in Palo Alto that day. Mother Nature was not cooperating. We had torrential rainfall the likes of which would make a Washingtonian blush. People were scavenging garbage liners to use as makeshift ponchos. Not surprisingly, most of those folks were rooting for the purple and gold (because, let's face it, the wine-and-brie crowd at a typical Stanford game doesn't appreciate the feel of Mother Nature on their collective face).
In most respects, Oct. 28, 2000, was a brilliant day for UW football. Marcus Tuiasosopo was at the helm and led his Huskies to an important win in the most impossible of conditions. It was Husky football in Husky conditions. Everything was going fine ... until that moment. A ridiculously unspectacular moment at that. Stanford receiver Kerry Carter had just caught a pass and was turning to move the ball upfield. Williams did what he had done countless times before: He put himself into a tackling position with his head aiming for Carter's numbers. Carter braced for the impact by lowering his own helmet. The helmet-to-helmet collision was not particularly memorable, but the impact was catastrophic. It looked so innocuous that some Stanford fans were booing, thinking that Williams must be faking.
It was no joke. Williams ended up fracturing the top-two levels of his cervical spine, which would in turn damage his spinal cord at its highest point. He would lay on the field completely motionless for nearly 20 minutes before paramedics would take him to the Stanford Medical Center. His teammates would end up not celebrating the win that they had earned, instead opting to join their fallen teammate in a vigil at the hospital following the game. Like us, they waited.
You all know how it would end. Curtis Williams suffered devastating injuries that would leave him completely paralyzed, and two years later, he left this earth as a direct result of those injuries. Like so many other kids who came through the program during that period, Curtis Williams wasn't a perfect role model. But the conclusion to his story is not one that any human being deserves, and certainly registers as the greatest tragedy in the modern era of UW football.