No matter how often we fans are burned by news of our favorite players falling far short of the reputations we have built up for them, we just can't quit caring about players for reasons beyond what they bring to the field.
We don't know these guys, but spin us a tale of childhood adversity or throw out a story about Seattle Children's visits and we will grasp on to it in an instant. We pull hardest for athletes that we feel like we know, even if the picture that is painted for us is incomplete. This emotional investment can, of course, have negative consequences. That being said, it's also an unavoidable and rewarding part of what it means to be a fan.
The 2014 season featured my favorite Husky in a long time: nose tackle Danny Shelton. Danny overcame an abusive father and the fairly recent shooting death of his brother. He used his time in the classroom to study anthropology in order to get closer to his Polynesian roots, earning academic All-America honors on multiple occasions. Plus, you'd never see the dude walking around campus without a big smile. I tangibly enjoyed Danny's massive 2014 season and 1st round draft selection more as a result of his story.
Hau'oli Kikaha and Deontae Cooper (among others) were also deserving of the same kind of adoration from Washington fans based both on the difficulties they faced as athletes and the intense positivity with which they managed to face them.
Now that two of those three players are gone, let's consider some possible good-story guys in 2015:
Everybody knows about Cooper. Three season-ending knee surgeries, and yet even stuck crutching around campus after his third surgery, Cooper still sported a permanent grin. He made it back on the field in 2013 as a third or fourth option in the run game, showing some flashes of the talent that had fans so excited for his career to begin all those years back. Unfortunately his role was fairly limited in 2014, and it's unclear how many opportunities he will see this season behind Washington and Coleman.
Cooper stands as an example of the good that can come of investing emotionally in a player. Perhaps it was silly for an entire fan base to care so much about one player who, as the injuries mounted, became less and less likely to become a key contributor. But I'm willing to bet nobody who heard the roar at Husky Stadium after Cooper's first career carry would have you told you so.
Clay transferred in from Hawaii in 2013 as a walk-on before becoming a key special-teams contributor in his first year under Coach Petersen. His efforts were rewarded with a scholarship, and he is now one of the main competitors for the starting strong safety job. In a college football world that increasingly revolves around high-profile recruits, his journey from walk-on to possible starter is a refreshing change of pace.
Victor doesn't necessarily have an overtly inspiring story relative to the rest of his teammates. Rather, from my time writing about the Class of 2013, I have distinct memories of how crazy committed Victor was to the University of Washington months before he even had a chance to sign. Like Elijah Qualls, he worked hard to recruit other kids, and bragged in the hours before signing day that he would get his fax in first. His energy really stuck out, even if it was just on social media, and as a result I've been eagerly waiting for Victor to harness that enthusiasm and grab on to a starting spot. This appears to be the year.
So, as we look forward to 2015, who will be the player you can't help but invest in emotionally? The player can be a star or someone battling for a backup spot, and your reasoning can vary as wildly as you like. Because the criteria for why you care more about one player or another is fundamentally arbitrary, I'm skipping the poll (Cooper would just win, anyway).