The University of Washington released Jake Locker’s “I’m returning for my senior year” statement earlier this hour. I swear I heard a collective sigh of relief from Montlake all the way up here on Capitol Hill.
After watching Locker dismantle California’s defense a couple Saturdays ago, I thought the Ferndale Phenom was all but gone. I figured he and his girlfriend would pull a Billy Joe & Bobby Sue and take the money and run. That extrapolation wasn’t arrived at because I think Locker is greedy, or that he values money over experience, or anything like that.
From what I have heard — and I write “heard” because I haven’t been in even one Huskies news conference this year to experience this myself — Locker turned inward this season. He wasn’t exactly snippy with the media, but he wasn’t the fun-loving, easy-going kid who once pretended his neck was still stiff in a news conference after what looked like a serious injury.
If Locker shut down with fans and the media, who can blame him? The coach that recruited him was fired and simply skewered by fans and the media. The offensive coordinator who Jake loves like an uncle was equally as fried. I don’t know if Locker felt pressure when he returned from injury, if maybe he simply tired of the rigamarole, or if maybe he just had other things to think about. (And there is always the reasonable possibility my assumption of Locker’s sudden introvertedness is just my misconception.)
Since his arrival at UW, Locker has shouldered ridiculous expectations. From the miserable night against Stanford his freshman year when he volunteered up his redshirt to the flukey thumb injury that helped lead to a winless season, Locker has lived through the lowest lows of this program. Who could blame the kid for turning a new page?
But Locker will instead write another page in his UW fairy tale. No, the Huskies haven’t won enough. No, he hasn’t even brushed up against his potential. But by announcing his return, Locker keeps hope alive for fans of a program that is still pulling itself off the mat.
But the fans need to be careful here or they will ruin his story.
After the Huskies beat USC this season, Huskies fans went from being disillusioned to downright hallucinogenic. Trust me, I have little problem with fans (or “internet halfbrains”) going overboard. I have no problem with looking at “your” team through rose-colored glasses. But as a sports reporter who at one time was paid to objectively assess a situation, I can tell you that Huskies fans held an arrogant viewpoint that the top the Pacific 10 Conference was their “rightful” place. When Nike pours money into Oregon’s facilities, and Mike Riley proves to be the conference’s best coach year in and year out, even Washington can become an afterthought. And it did. Refusing to upgrade the stadium, some poor recruiting and a major scandal will also help pull a program down. There is no “rightful” place; nothing is divinely begat or unalienable in college football. There is the place at the top you wish your team always is — a tangible champion and an imaginary ascension. There is also the real place that is earned through work, sacrifice and luck.
The Huskies beat USC and fans went from understanding their program was on a climb to thinking it had arrived. It hadn’t. It was exciting, and emotional, and a mark of positive change. Then the Huskies got some luck against Arizona — something else that is needed for the climb. The team looked freakin’ great — the best they did all season — in the season finale against Cal. But they looked God-awful against Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State. (Remember, too, the Huskies haven’t sniffed the Oregon schools since… well, the entire time I covered the team!) They displayed the tell-tale sign of youth — inconsistency.
So, as Locker begins work on another purple-colored page, fans need to be aware that he isn’t a savior. He isn’t even close to the near-mythological hero that fans paint him to be. Yes, Locker befriends children with cancer. He shaves his head to support little girls going through chemo, and he always says the right things. My God! He has let millions of dollars sift through his fingers not once (out of high school), not twice (last year with the Angels), but three times now! But if Tiger Woods has taught us anything in the last few weeks, it is that characterizing someone as a near-mythological hero is not only just that — a facade — it is also very unfair.
I think Locker is a sincerely good man. I think he’s likely a terrific leader, a great teammate, son, friend, boyfriend. I think the NFL scouts are right that he has all the physical tools to become a great pro. I also believe he has a lot of football growth still to do, a lot of living from which to learn, too. So, celebrate his decision, but temper down the rhetoric. Locker made this decision so he could enjoy himself. Let him.