Locker has unfinished business

SEATTLE – The big stadium stands decrepit in a summer squall. Long gone are those Saturdays when 72,000 people squeezed into the steel bleachers, when the huge grandstands literally shook and a joyous purple navy bobbed on Lake Washington just outside. A once-mighty college football program all but died.

It has been seven years now.

Jake Locker returned for his senior season with Steve Sarkisian and they hope to start the season with a couple of big non-conference wins.
(Joe Nicholson / US Presswire)

And Jake Locker could have gone away. The senior quarterback of the Washington Huskies didn’t need to stay for this. The NFL made it clear that he was welcome in its draft last spring. Teams loved the way he fired his passes downfield. They admired his elusiveness. One draft expert said he would have been the first overall pick. Others suggested he might not have gone in the first round, but there is little doubt he could have made at least $10 million once the bonuses were added up.

[Photo: See Locker throw out the first pitch at a Mariners game]

More importantly, he could have escaped the fallen football program with its 16 victories since 2003.

Except he couldn’t leave. Not now, not while the once great Huskies still lay in ruins needing to be saved. When last season ended, he took his decision to stay or turn professional back to his apartment and studied it. He asked his parents for their opinion. He let the decision churn inside him. Only there wasn’t much to dwell upon. The millions he could have made were all but guaranteed. Staying offered no certainty. A bad senior season or a strange twist of his knee and the money would be gone.

But turning professional also meant walking out on the group of players with whom he came in 2006. In the darkness he saw their faces. They had dreams together. They were going to win big. They were going to go to bowls. Then they felt the same grinding pain as Washington kept losing. Leave them? He couldn’t.

“The thing about Jake is he is one of the most sincere, genuine guys,” says senior linebacker Mason Foster. “I knew he was going to come back.”

“We’re all attached to each other,” said another senior linebacker Victor Aiyewa. “We’re like one big happy family.”

He told the NFL no.

And suddenly Washington sensed it had a football future.

“No guy in that locker room has ever been to a bowl game as a player,” Locker says. “I know they all had aspirations to. I know I did.”

He is sitting in a small room not far from the stadium. The door is open and he can see his teammates shuffling down the hall, coming from lunch. For a moment he stares at them. Then for the slightest moment his voice appears to crack. He looks down.

“I’ll never have the opportunity to play college football ever again, I’d never be able to come back here again. To have the opportunity to play with this football team ….”

His voice trails off.

There was no decision about the NFL draft. He was coming back.

Great college football programs do not fall overnight. They take years of neglect and mismanagement to crumble and then once dead it takes many seasons to build them back. Rick Neuheisel brought the Huskies down and neither Keith Gilbertson nor Tyrone Willingham could bring them back. The losing started in 2004 and never stopped.

Jake Locker's decision to delay his NFL career could cost him millions when a new labor agreement is reached.
(Mark J. Rebilas / US Presswire)

But there was also hope last year. It came with Locker and a new coach Steve Sarkisian. The Huskies beat USC. They won five games. Then when Locker said he was coming back there was rejoicing. It was the best news the program had heard in years.

And it forever sealed the UW fans’ affection for Locker, perhaps even placing him ahead of quarterbacks such as Warren Moon, Chris Chandler and Mark Brunell – players who had great success and huge winning seasons.

Locker’s father Scott tells of Husky fans who have stopped and hugged him and said that Jake’s decision to stay was the “greatest moment of my life.” Their words gave the elder Locker pause. Washington has won a football national championship and been to several Rose Bowls. It beat Miami in Miami when Miami still mattered. There have been dozens of “greatest moments” in Husky history. And these people thought his son’s returning for a senior season was the finest of them all?

“This leaves a tremendous legacy for Jake,” Sarkisian says. “I think there’s something about being the class that was here when we turned it around.”

Scott Locker never really thought his son was leaving school. “I know how he is wired,” he says. Whatever Jake endeavored to take on, he would complete. When he was in high school, in Ferndale, just south of the Canadian border, Jake rose early three days a week, long before the sun, to meet a sprinting coach who worked to improve his speed. Scott looked at the coach’s schedule, saw how aggressive it was and how Jake would have to wake so early and he doubted it would last for more than a few weeks.

Jake completed the entire program. After that, Scott Locker knew: his son would follow through on any commitment.

So if he said he would stay until the Huskies were revived then that is exactly what he’d do.

It’s almost cruel the way the players have to walk through a long tunnel to the Husky Stadium Field. Along the wall hang signs celebrating each bowl game the school has played. Between practice and game day and private workouts, the players must pass these signs almost every day. Since 2002 there has been nothing. The players notice. They hear from fans. They are aware of their failure in this regard.

“It was tough to walk into the stadium every game when you knew you had no shot to beat anybody,” Foster says. “That’s what’s brought us closer together and helped each other out.”

There is a sense around the program that the winning might finally come. Beat BYU on Saturday and the country will notice. It will make Sept. 17th’s game against Nebraska perhaps the biggest on campus in 10 years. Locker knows this. He smiles.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience I’ve had here,” he says. “It’s made me a better person because of it. I know I’ll appreciate [a bowl game] much more now after having gone through all the hardships.”

He stops again for a moment, then smiles again.

“I guess I could dwell on the situation we’re in. But how many people get to play college football?”

There is a lot that comes with staying for a senior year. After throwing for 2,800 yards and scoring a combined 28 touchdowns passing and throwing last season his name has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He is now the No. 1 quarterback prospect in next spring’s NFL draft. This time many more people are declaring him the top pick. But there is also a price. A potential NFL lockout looms. No one knows exactly what the pay system will be when the labor dispute is resolved.

Veterans and league executives alike were outraged that this year’s top pick, quarterback Sam Bradford from Oklahoma could get six years and $78 million as the No. 1 selection last spring. More likely the new system will have a more modest rookie pay scale. So if Locker truly could have been the top selection this past spring he may have cost himself tens of millions of dollars.

But sometimes it’s not the money. Something Scott Locker learned when his son, then 17, was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels to skip college and play center field. He sat Jake down and said that the contract would be about $2 million and that he had been hanging drywall for 20 years and couldn’t make the kind of money Jake would make with one swoop of his pen. His son, if he was smart, could be set for life.

Scott recalls him looking up and saying: “Dad, if I ever asked for something you’ve always been able to get it, so maybe the money thing isn’t important.”

Recalling this, Scott Locker laughs into the phone.

“It’s been refreshing for me at times,” he says. “He’s just got a unique way of looking at things that brings me back to reality.”

No, it never was about money. It was about a promise Jake Locker made four years ago, when he left home in search of being Washington’s salvation. Nearly every school in the Pac-10 wanted him and he visited almost all of them. But in the end he told his parents he wanted Washington.

He wanted to help save the Huskies.

“I know the tradition,” he says. “I know what it was nationally. I thought it would be cool to be part of the process of bringing that back.”

He smiles once more.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience I had,” he says. ” [The losing] has made me a better person because of it.”

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010