Tony Thompson stands off to one side, taking in the scene.
He's thrilled for the foursome, they're his friends and teammates. But Thompson, the youngest son of CougGreat Jack Thompson had earlier made a promise to himself -- and watching his teammates sign Pac-10 letters of intent only deepens his resolve.
"I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," says Thompson.
He's always been a hard worker, it runs in the family, but no school offered Thompson. So be it, he thought. He was still going to run out of the tunnel one day. He was still going to play Pac-10 football. And not only that, one day he was going to start. That was the pledge.
JUMP FORWARD TO Aug. 30, 2008. The official stats don't show Thompson as having started this year -- WSU officially counts starts as from their base units and there's only one tight end in the base offense. But Thompson, on the first play of the first game of the season, started for the Cougs. Just as he's started other games for Wazzu this year.
It's taken a lot of sweat, blood and untold hours of extra work to get there. But it's not enough... not for Thompson. And that's pretty much the point.
How he got here is a lesson in itself. And it serves as a big part of the roadmap for the Cougs to get back to winning seasons and bowl games.
THOMPSON DELAYED ENROLLMENT (called grayshirting for scholarship players) his first fall before walking on at WSU. He'd spent his high school years working to get better than other players with more God-given athleticism and now looking around the WSU practice field, he knew he would have to do it again. Now at the college level, just about everyone here was a high school star. His redshirt season was spent on the scout team.
As a freshman and sophomore, he packed on more weight. It helped in some areas, and it took away from others. Most importantly, he honed his long snapping and special teams skills -- it was the best way he could help the team, and so he attacked it with enthusiasm, while still with the steadfast goal to develop into a Pac-10 tight end. He played in 12 and 6 games those two years, the latter cut short to injury.
This offseason, prior to his junior year, he reworked his body. It's a different 234-pound package Thompson started this year with, and the result of the offseason work has resulted in increased playing time on offense.
"Tony is very passionate about being a Coug -- he cares a lot about this team and its success," says TE's coach Rich Rasmussen. "He's put in the work to make himself a better tight end, he's done a great job to get himself better, but he's also going to do anything he can to help the team -- he plays several positions on special teams. You can't underestimate heart and determination."
THERE'S FURTHER TO go for Thompson. He's always had a great set of hands. But he can improve on his blocking. Sometimes, he says, he can get too analytical and over-think some situations and at 6-2, 234 pounds, he doesn't have that prototype 6-5, 260 pound size.
But what he does have is lots of dedication and resolve. And that's why he's earned a scholarship getting Pac-10 snaps. And Thompson isn't alone -- there are a number of guys on the Cougars who have a heightened work ethic and mental toughness. But WSU also needs more of them.
And, yes, while heart and work ethic are often the tipping factors between winning and losing, they won't bring WSU back to prominence all on their own. There will need to be an influx of talent in the recruiting classes to come. Asked about the lopsided losses this season and what the future may hold, Thompson says the Cougars are on the right path.
"I just feel bad for the seniors," he said. "This is their last go-around. But I look at guys who are redshirting or (sitting out '08 after transferring) , it's going to add a lot more depth next year. That's a huge bright spot for me, and those guys have a lot of talent. But ugh, my heart really goes out to these seniors...but I also believe in the long run we'll get it done."
BONUS READ: Competitive fire runs in the family