Cougar walk on gets legendary treatment

JESSE BROWN

WHEN COUGAR coaches held their annual tryout a few weeks ago for Washington State students looking to earn a walk on spot with the football team, seven daring souls made the cut. One of them was no ordinary freshman and today he's wearing no ordinary jersey number.

Jesse Brown isn't any old former high school ballplayer looking to prolong the dream. He was the state of Oregon's Class 4A offensive player of the year last season, running and passing Baker High to a 12-1 record and a state title. The 6-2, 185-pound multi-sport standout threw for 28 TDs and nearly 3,000 yards. In two seasons as Baker's starting QB, the Bulldogs went 23-3.

He was no one-dimensional athlete, however. In addition to his passing prowess, he also was one of Baker's top rushers. Moreover, he was one of the team's top defenders, too, earning first-team All-State honors at defensive back as well as quarterback.

Now he's a quarterback for the Cougs. And his jersey number? Just say this: Brown struck gold when he walked into the equipment manager's office in Bohler Gym.

He's wearing No. 8. And why, you might ask -- with all due respect to Reid Forrest, Kyle Basler, and Marshall Lobbestael back when he was "Ocho Rojo" -- is No. 8 so special?

Because it belonged to Mel Hein when the legendary center and linebacker was an All-American at Washington State. But Hein's number was 7 and WSU retired it years ago, didn't they?

Number 7 was indeed retired with Hein's name on it but that wasn't the number he wore at WSU. When Mel was helping lead the Cougs to the 1931 Rose Bowl he was certifiably No. 8.

True fact -- the university retired the wrong number!

Well, not the wrong number, exactly. Hein, you see, wore No. 7 for 15 National Football League seasons with the New York Giants — a career that saw him become the league's first MVP and a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1969, sportswriters around the country voted him one of the 11 best players, college or pro, in the history of the game. The number 7 is inextricably tied to Hein.

"I thought he always wore No. 7," Hein's widow, Florence, told the Spokesman-Review in a 1995 interview. "But you know, No. 8 does ring a bell." One of the kids Florence used to babysit when she was a high schooler in Spokane was George Witter, the 90-year-old dad of CF.C co-founder John Witter. George was Mel's biggest fan back in the day and makes no bones about it: Mel wore number 7 with the Giants but he absolutely was 8 at WSU. And he has the old scrapbooks to prove it.

The discrepancy is easy to understand. When WSU decided to retire Hein's number after his final professional season, Giants owner John Mara was only too happy to help.

"Sometime within the next few weeks we shall forward to you Mel Hein's No. 7 jersey," Mara wrote to WSU in January 1946. "At the present all of our equipment is stored away for the winter and it will take us a little time to get it."

So now, 65 years later, what's it all mean? Not much. Except of course that Jesse Brown of Baker City has an open field to get No. 8 where it rightfully belongs: up there alongside 7 and 14 (Jack Thompson) as the only retired numbers in WSU history.

NOTABLE:

  • Brown is the second Cougar named Brown to wear No. 8 in the last dozen years. Running back Kevin Brown wore that number in 1998. Brown is the fourth WSU quarterback in the last 10 years to wear 8. Besides Lobbestael, the others were Chris Hurd (2002-03) and Arkelon Hall (2006)

  • Click here for video highlights of Brown's high school career:
    http://vimeo.com/18544005
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