Can Jake Locker Save Husky Football?
A squeaky-clean kid from rural Washington tries to return UW ball to its glory.
JAKE LOCKER HEAVES his 235-pound frame across campus with the slow, careful deliberation of a child choosing from among 31 flavors of ice cream.
It’s a bright April morning at the University of Washington, and as the 20-year-old undeclared major plods through the sunshine, he could almost pass for your average “u-dub” student—a recent fraternity pledge, say, with baggy jeans falling over his white sneakers, black T-shirt, and ears that poke out from his Washington Nationals cap. But here, on this campus, Jake Locker, now lumbering through tree-ringed Red Square, cannot be mistaken for just any member of the student body. Anonymity isn’t easy to achieve when you cross paths with fellow students wearing replicas of your jersey (Locker, No. 10), when pretty girls stop dead in their tracks as you brush past.
Such is the life of the quarterback brought to campus to resurrect a football program that’s still trying to recapture its glory. People watch his every move, want to know what he’s doing with his free time, and how he’s going to bring a Pacific-10 Conference title, the most coveted prize in Western states college ball, to Montlake.
He takes a seat in the back row of his Intro to the New Testament class, pulls out a binder, and looks over his notes. A student a third his size looks over at Locker once, twice, three times, but says nothing. Locker looks up from his notes, says hello, shakes the kid’s hand, and starts up a conversation. “Sometimes,” Locker says later, “if I see someone wants to talk to me, I’ll just start it.”
It’s been six years since the University of Washington’s last winning season. Three coaching changes, 41 losses, and just 18 victories have followed. The UW’s last notable squad, the 11-1 Rose Bowl–winning team of 2000, is now infamous for its felons—that year at least 12 members of the team were arrested or charged with crimes including assault, robbery, and rape.
To revive its disgraced football franchise the school hired Tyrone Willingham, a coach known for his knack for connecting with players and turning them into scholar-athletes. A year before the UW won the Rose Bowl, Willingham led conference rival Stanford to the same high-profile game but lost by eight points to Wisconsin. In 2000, he and the Cardinal struggled through a 5-6 season, but rebounded in 2001, going 9-3, Stanford’s best record in seven years. In the process Willingham solidified his reputation as a successful coach who also built high-character teams and landed the head coaching job at Notre Dame. But after three mostly disappointing seasons there, the Fighting Irish’s first African American coach was ousted before he had completed a full four-year cycle of recruiting.
Willingham came to Seattle from South Bend in 2005 with two goals in mind: Build a team of integrity and stanch the losing streak. The latter has yet to happen—the team’s record in Willingham’s three years as coach is just 11-25. After a disappointing 4-9 season in 2007, fans, boosters, and alumni (including former Everett mayor Ed Hansen, who offered the school $100,000 to fire Willingham) cried for the coach’s dismissal. Willingham survived the tumultuous off—season, but athletic director Todd Turner got the axe. Another losing season will almost assuredly result in Willingham’s termination.
Standing in the way of disaster like a blond superhero is Jake Locker from tiny Ferndale, 100 miles north. The chiseled quarterback is coming off a promising freshman season that included the most rushing yards (987) by a quarterback in UW history, 27 total touchdowns, and Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. Locker has the tools that makes coaches drool—a rocket arm, size, speed, intelligence, leadership. His squeaky-clean image and aw-shucks personality also make him the poster boy for the type of team the university and Willingham crave. The immense pressure put on Locker to succeed comes from everywhere—his family, fans, the media, his coaches. “He’ll be the best QB that’s played here,” says the University of Washington’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tim Lappano. “I really believe that, and there’s been some great ones. But by the time he’s finished he’s going to be the best one to put on the gold helmet for the Huskies.” To save the job of the coach who inspires him, Locker’s time for greatness is now.
Locker sits in the middle of one of the school’s cavernous food courts after class, munching on a cookie before tackling a Subway sandwich, talking with a teammate as people gawk from nearby tables. His friend is finished with his soup and sandwich before Locker even unwraps his. “When he’s not playing ball, he’s kind of slow, kind of a plodder,” Locker’s father Scott says. “He eats one thing at a time—first his meat, then his potatoes. He’s a methodical eater.” “He’s not a multitasker,” his mother Anita adds. “It surprises me how well he does in athletics.”
Before the overwhelming public attention, invitations to elite football prospect camps, and grand predictions of greatness, Jake Locker grew up in the sleepy town of Ferndale, where the speed limit on Main Street is 25 miles per hour and everyone knows everyone. His dad often coached his youth teams, mentoring his son each step of the way. It didn’t take long for Scott and Anita to realize that Locker had a passion for sports that surpassed his age. While Scott, a drywaller, oversaw the building of the family’s new house, Locker took to the backyard, where he hit rocks with a stick for hours on end; his own makeshift batting practice. “All you could hear was smack, smack, smack as he hit them,” Scott says. “I still have guys that work for me that bring it up all the time.”
Football, though, would come later. A family rule forbade Locker and his cousins from playing tackle football until seventh grade. Instead he played flag football throughout elementary school. Even without the pads and hitting, Locker showed flashes of his potential. “The first time I saw him run the ball in flag football, it was clear he had an instinct,” Scott says. Locker himself doesn’t feel as though his late start hurt his development. “I’d encourage all kids that age to play one or two years of flag football,” Jake says. “You learn how to move your body. You’ve got all those flags on your hips, so you learn how to run.”
His parents were monitoring his physical development, but they were also instilling in their son a strong code of ethics, a foundation built on his Catholic upbringing. When the Lockers went to sporting events, Scott took the opportunity to point out players acting inappropriately or celebrating too wildly. Jake paid attention; today he’s more likely to congratulate a teammate or join a group hug than he is to do an obnoxious victory dance. Ask about his accomplishments and Jake will answer with “we” and “the team.” Ask about his humble nature and Jake will shrug and insist that he owes his parents for who he is.
As a gangly 12-year-old, Locker was a running back for his junior high football team. But his amazingly quick feet, dwarfed only by his instincts and breakaway speed, foreshadowed greatness. His high school coach made him the varsity quarterback his freshman year. By his senior year Jake Locker was a six-foot-three, 210-pound blue-chip recruit on his way to a state championship, player of the year honors, and becoming one of the UW’s most heralded prospects ever.
To land him, Willingham had to compete against some of the best schools in the Pac-10 and the nation. USC, WSU, Oregon State, and Cal State all showed interest. But there was something about Willingham’s demeanor that made Locker feel comfortable. Though stoic both on the field and off, Willingham’s eyes beam with smoldering intensity when he talks about the game he loves and his duty to mold young men into solid citizens. Ask him about his players and his face softens into a smile, and it becomes obvious why so many Huskies look up to him as a mentor.
In the end the connection Locker felt with Willingham convinced Washington’s most hyped recruit in years to stay in state for college. “Coach Willingham stands up for the same morals I do,” Locker says. “He wants you to be a good student, a good person, then a good athlete. He and coach Lappano came up when I was confirmed at church. It let me know this is where I needed to be.” Locker committed to the UW while leaving the Oregon State parking lot with his father after an unofficial visit. He called coach Willingham with the good news. Seattle sports pundits soon began calling him the Huskies’ savior.
Despite the fan excitement and media buzz surrounding the new recruit, Locker didn’t set foot on the field at all during the UW’s 2006 season. The coaching staff felt Locker, coming from a small school that emphasized a run-first offense, wasn’t ready for college football and decided to preserve a year of his eligibility by redshirting him. “Thank God we didn’t play him; that would have been the biggest mistake we could have made,” Lappano says. “As good as he is, you could tell he wasn’t ready to play as a true freshman in the Pac-10.”
In actuality, Locker had as much trouble adjusting to living away from home and the comfort of the family and small town he left behind. “I didn’t realize how lucky I was to grow up in a place like that until—not saying anything bad about Seattle—but it’s a different lifestyle,” Locker says. “I didn’t have my mom around to take care of things. She was always my saving grace at home, letting me know when I needed to do things, where I needed to go. But it helped me mature and grow up a lot in those first six months.” It also helped that his teammates welcomed him into the fold—even if he was the butt of a few jokes. Not long after joining the team, Locker got a horrible haircut that made him resemble Jim Carrey’s hopelessly stupid character from the movie Dumb and Dumber. “They started calling me Lloyd all the time,” he says ruefully. “I like that, though. I’m a big Dumb and Dumber fan, so I accepted that; I enjoyed that.”
Meanwhile, Locker showed Willingham and his staff flashes of greatness in practice. He made play after play with his powerful throwing arm, but it was the breakaway speed he displayed during an 80-yard scamper that took his coaches’ breath away. “I’m not as fast as people think,” Locker says. “My 40-yard-dash time is nothing impressive, probably 4.6 [seconds] or something like that.” No one seems to agree with his assessment, though. “He’s lying” if he said that, Lappano counters. “I’ve timed him myself, with a handheld stopwatch, at 4.45.” The key, says Scott, is that Locker loses little speed when he dons his heavy equipment. “When Jake puts his pads on, it’s almost as though that was the way he was meant to run.”
The 2006 season ended, as nearly everyone feared, in disappointment: another losing record, 5-7. But when Locker emerged from the following spring and summer practices as the team’s starting quarterback for the 2007 season, fans and media immediately projected a winning year. Locker ignored it all. “I love the support and the excitement around the program. I’m grateful that there are people excited about the team, but I’m going to do what I set out to do, not what other people set for me.”
He made plays that sent the stadium into a frenzy. Against Arizona, he became just the second player in Dawgs history to pass for 300 yards (including a 98-yard bomb to Marcel Reece, the school’s longest ever play from scrimmage) and run for 100 in the same game. He threw four touchdowns in a game—twice; amassed the school’s most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season; and posted comparable first-season numbers to the University of Texas’s quarterback legend Vince Young, to whom Locker is often compared.
During the November 10 game against Oregon State, Locker flew around the right corner before trying to cut upfield, unaware that a 215-pound safety was in pursuit. The hit drove Locker to the turf, where he sprawled, unable to feel or move the left side of his body. He lay motionless as staff and medical personnel swarmed. Scott Locker jumped the railing in the stands, rushing to Jake’s side. When Jake told him he couldn’t feel his legs, Scott’s insides turned to water. Jake squeezed his father’s hand before he was rushed to the hospital. More than 30 family members and friends who had traveled for the game waited for news. “Anytime you’re standing over a person that isn’t moving, you’re thinking, My God, this can’t be happening,” quarterback coach Lappano says. “I was worried his career was over.”
Locker had suffered a neck injury known in the sport as a stinger, which can cause the body to go numb. Although painful and scary, it would not affect him in the long term. Inside his hospital room, Locker was more concerned about the game (forcing his dad to bring in a radio so he could listen) as the Oregon State fans doubling as his nurses teased him. Locker refused to hand over his wristband covered with the team’s offensive plays. The lead nurse had to bring in his mother so Jake could give her the wristband. “The nurses were joking with him, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to take those plays and give them to [Oregon State] Coach Riley.’ He’s looking at me with huge eyes,” Scott says, laughing. “ ‘Don’t let her touch that,’ he says. He’s all yoked up in a neck brace… It was good to see him back to his old self.”
After being released to team doctors, Locker, stiff, sore, and in a restrictive cervical support, rushed back to the stadium to cheer on his teammates. The move instantly transformed him into the team’s unquestioned leader. Even the Oregon State fans were touched, giving Locker a standing ovation when he appeared. “What was most pleasing was the reaction of the OSU fans,” Willingham says. “It shows the tremendous amount of respect the young man has earned in just half a season.”
In the end the Huskies finished with another losing season, limping to a 4-9 record after a promising 2-0 start. Rumors swirled that Willingham, delivering yet another bum season, would be fired. Instead school president Mark Emmert decided to give the coach one more year to get the team headed in the right direction. The decision pleased Locker. “One of the reasons I decided to come here was because of [Willingham] and what he stood for,” the quarterback says. “I was really happy to see they kept him.”
While Locker’s hard work earned him Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors, his performance drew harsh criticism. “The media’s been good to him, but I don’t think they were fair in their evaluation of his first year here,” Lappano says. “Seventy-five percent of our offense was through Jake Locker. Did he make every throw? No. Did he force some balls? Yes. But, then again, he has no passing background. People thought he was going to run for 1,000 yards and make every throw.”
No one was harder on Locker than himself. Sitting in the Bank of America Arena last winter, Locker was still fuming. “We didn’t play to our potential,” he says. “We had an opportunity to win every game in my opinion—in a lot of people’s opinion.”
Fans in Ferndale seem unfazed. The attention Locker receives on campus is nothing—nothing—compared to the circus he encounters back home. “When he comes back, once the word gets out, there’s a ton of people at the door wanting autographs,” Scott says. Quick trips to the mall turn into hours-long photo ops and autograph sessions; everyone in Ferndale wants a chunk of his time. Locker is almost always accommodating, stopping to talk to anyone who wants to shake his hand. Almost always. “Sometimes we’ll stop at Haggen’s [grocery store] and he’ll say, ‘I don’t want to go in there today; you just run in.’ Just like anyone, some days he’s just not that social,” Anita says. The crush of requests for interviews and fundraiser appearances became so pervasive that Locker began to dread phone calls from home, his parents say. The university eventually stepped in, and now all requests go through the school.
Many, including his father, are already looking past college to Locker’s NFL prospects. “Oh, I’m definitely looking forward to him having a chance to play on Sunday; I’m not going to lie about that,” Scott says. Locker himself admits it’s a goal, but he downplays his chances. He smiles briefly before shaking his head when asked about the money he could earn as a top draft pick, saying he’ll worry about those things when and if they come. “If that comes, I wouldn’t worry about him,” Scott says. “He’s too levelheaded and knows there’s more important things in life than money.”
“His family has provided him with a base that a lot of young people don’t get,” Willingham says. “As talented as he is, they still look at him as just Jake. That has a tremendous balancing effect that gives him two of my favorite traits. He is humble, and if an individual is humble he will never be selfish. Jake realizes that no matter how talented he is, he needs his teammates to be successful. And yet he’s hungry. He has a tremendous appetite, almost an insatiable appetite to be the best.”
Locker and his teammates attacked the off-season with conditioning and weight lifting programs to get stronger, faster, and fitter. Locker visited the football offices more often than almost anyone, studying film, finding flaws, and breaking down how opponents played him last year. He worked with a new group of largely green and unproven receivers, throwing route after route so that everyone is on the same page come fall. A hint of things to come was on display at the team’s spring game, where Locker completed 13 of 17 passes. “He’s much faster with his reads now. The game has slowed down for him; that has made him more comfortable,” Lappano says of Locker’s spring performance. “When he’s comfortable and doesn’t have someone up in his grill and everyone is running the right routes, he can throw the ball with accuracy.”
As the 2008 season draws near, columnists in Seattle write stories on Locker with headlines like “Locker’s Act II Needs to Bring Down House” and “Huskies Have Reason to Believe.” Already a legend in Ferndale, Locker’s mystique on campus grows with every No. 10 jersey the bookstore sells. “There’s a lot of people who don’t realize how good this kid is yet, I’ll guarantee you that,” Lappano says. “I think they’ll find out this year.”
This season the team faces one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, one littered with top-25 teams from a year ago and nonconference games against the likes of Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and BYU. Locker will have to live up to his potential beginning August 30 against Oregon if he has any hope of saving his coach’s job. Pressed for a prediction for the upcoming season, Locker narrows his eyes. “If we want to win and we believe we’re going to win, then we’ll go to a bowl game. I don’t think it’s going to be a little one, either.”
Back at the Sand Point house he now shares with five teammates, Locker falls like old-growth timber onto a tattered sofa, picks up the controller to his Xbox 360, and fires up NCAA Football 08. One of the players Locker can choose to be in the game is Jake Locker, third string quarterback. “I’m not real accurate in that game, I can tell you that,” he says, laughing at the game’s outdated version of himself. “I miss a lot of throws.” But through practice and deft joysticking, Locker has overcome his avatar’s inaccuracy and inexperience to lead his on-screen team to the Rose Bowl, even a national championship. Now Jake Locker has to figure out how to do it for real.