DUKE WASHINGTON circa '54
AS FAR AS road trips go, the stops may not have been the most exotic: Gig Harbor, North Bend, Yakima, Walla Walla. But this journey isn't about geography. It's about memories and brotherhood. About Washington State football.
So, on a sunny day last month, while Paul Wulff's players were sweating in the dry, hot days of fall camp, a whole lot of history was rallying for a trip to the Palouse.
David Halberstam would have been proud. The best-selling author once wrote book about some long-retired Boston Red Sox players making a cross-country road trip to visit Ted Williams. The book was called Teammates. It celebrated the lasting power of youth, of friendship, of loyalty.
Now comes a similar tale. This one features more people and no Splendid Splinter but the siren song of Washington State University and it's lasting hold on people.
This story is about Cougar ballplayers from an era when face masks were considered newfangled and everybody played both ways. There were no spread offenses or soccer-style kickers. Both Nike and commercial jet travel were years away.
This was the early 1950s. And now it was coming back to Pullman.
The road trip started in Port Orchard, with celebrated tackle Ted Brose and a GM Yukon nicknamed the Tedmobile. In Gig Harbor, he picked up former WSU wrestling great Alden Peppel, and they headed for North Bend. Waiting for them there were WSU hall of famer Duke Washington, the football team's captain in 1954, and former standout center and linebacker Skip Pixley.
From there, they drove to Yakima to pick up former Cougar tailback Milt Schwenk, to Walla Walla for quarterback Albert "Red" Golden, and then on to Pullman, where another WSU hall of famer -- football and wrestling star Vaughn Hitchcock -- had flown in from San Luis Obispo, California.
DUKE WASHINGTON VISTS WITH ANOTHER FAMOUS COUGAR RUNNING BACK, STEVE BROUSSARD, LAST YEAR.
Collectively, Pixley calls the group that played for WSU more than 50 years ago "antique athletes."
They went their separate ways after college, the retired educator said, but now in their late 70s, "we're all Cougars at heart."
That bond makes it a fun trip. There have been Past Meets Present treks before, but some of this year's attendees hadn't seen each other since their playing days. There were stories to tell, events to relive, jokes to crack.
"It's a beauty of interaction that makes it so terrific," Pixley said.
And that's the selling point for Washington.
After all, he's seen a lot in his 70-plus years ... one of the very first black players to suit up for the Cougars ... the first black athlete to set foot in, and score, at Texas' Memorial Stadium ... the halls of Seattle schools where he was a beloved art teacher for many years.
"I went back primarily to renew the spirit of collegiality with my old teammates, and that was wonderful," he said. "You want people to know that you're present ... that you have the Cougar spirit and are willing to continue commitment to the better of the university and the program."
Washington, who refers to this period of life as the fourth quarter, said the trip provided a needed boost.
"I'm assessing my life, having gone through three quarters," he said. "As far as I am concerned, I've played the game. I've got some points on the board, but it doesn't mean I am going into defensive mode ... I'm not aggressively trying to get points on the board; I just don't want to lose the game."
Pixley agreed. The games he loves to recount -- beating the Huskies 26-7 on Rogers Field in the 1954 Apple Cup; a 13-13 tie against San Jose State in subzero temperatures the following season -- seem a world away in modern-day Pullman.
During his time at WSC, the team lived in old Army barracks and would wake to the sound of cowbells from their neighbors in the adjoining pasture.
"I guess we were at a cow college," he laughed.
The facilities have markedly improved since then and the game itself is different.
"In looking at the team, football is a lot more intensive than when we played," Pixley said. "They play more; the coaches are better; the athletes are stronger, faster, better."
Even so, he added, today's Cougars haven't lost sight of the larger reason for why they are in Pullman.
"Playing football is fun, but very few of us are going to be in the pros," said Pixley, who grew up in Spokane and returned there to teach.
"That's the name of the game -- education. Athletic glory will last you about a New York second."
Washington, who had brief stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and in the CFL, agreed, adding that it is important for the university to emphasize the role of personal development as a student and athlete.
"When I left Pasco to go to Pullman, I went there primarily to be a football player," he said, "but the dual objective was to get my degree." He calls his education life changing and refers to WSU and the direction it gave him in nautical terms. "It's my true north."
Pixley said it was a thrill to talk with current players and coaches and to watch practice sessions.
"It gives us a feeling of going back to when we were ballplayers," he said.
And long after the lights are dimmed in Martin Stadium, the Ferdinand's milkshakes are consumed and the group has gone home, the trip goes on.
Washington said that he frequently reflects upon the people he met during his time at WSU, or fellow Cougars he has met over the years.
In that sense, "I go back to Pullman every day."