By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
FERNDALE — Jake Locker’s hometown is the kind of place where the mayor will welcome an unexpected visitor into City Hall, offer a chair and clear an hour of his morning schedule for a friendly conversation.
But only if the visitor knows the secret passwords.
Mention the words Jake and Locker in front of Ferndale mayor Gary Jensen — or just about anyone else in the city of 12,000, for that matter — and you’ll be welcomed with open arms.
The University of Washington quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate and soon-to-be prized NFL draft pick is the most recognizable figure in town. And to say that Locker’s hometown is proud of him would be kind of like saying the Cookie Monster has an affinity for chocolate chips.
“If Jake decided tomorrow that he was running for mayor,” Jensen said, “I’d be out of a job.”
Ferndale has a Mayberry quality to it, both in appearance of its downtown as well as the fact that just about everyone in town is within one or two degrees of separation from Locker. Mayor Jensen actually employs the star quarterback’s mother, Anita Locker, in his full-time position as president of Sullivan Plumbing. Guy Occhiogrosso, the executive director of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, is the uncle of one of Locker’s best friends, Tyler Occhiogrosso. Across the street at Cedars Lounge, owner Holly Pike proudly lists Locker’s father, Scott, as one of her favorite customers. And down the way at Babe’s Palace Restaurant, Locker used to eat pregame meals with his Ferndale High teammates.
About a half mile from where Locker went to high school, the downtown strip looks like something from America’s Heartland. Within two blocks on Main Street, the businesses include five bars — Main Street Bar &Grill, Frank N Stein Brewery, Babe’s Lounge, Pioneer Sports Lounge and Cedars Lounge — mixed among places like Debt Solutions Bankruptcy Specialists, Moles Family Funeral Home and the Lucky Lady tattoo parlor. Along the same path, there are also occasional standards like Subway and Rite Aid.
A couple of blocks away, across the street from a 7-11 convenience store, Jensen’s office sits inside a modest City Hall. Among the items he has on display is a football signed by Locker and two former Ferndale High teammates after the 2005 state championship season.
“We’ve had professional athletes before,” said Jensen, a former high school football player who mentioned former NFL quarterback Doug Pederson and current Atlanta Falcons punter Michael Koenen as two of the most recent pros.
“But Jake has captured the attention of this community. Jake’s special, and his family’s special.”
Jensen and his city are so enamored with Locker that the mayor has proclaimed this year’s Old Settlers Parade, a 115-year-old tradition, to be Jake Locker Day. The UW quarterback will be the featured guest at today’s parade, along with the UW mascot and some of Locker’s current teammates.
“This community loves Jake Locker,” said Sue Remaklus, owner of 2nd Ave. Sports in downtown Ferndale.
Three years ago, Remaklus attempted to capitalize on Locker’s success while also rewarding his early supporters. She began selling a “FernDawg” T-shirt for $10 at her store on Second Avenue. The name comes from a word on the side of the RV that Scott and Anita Locker drive to each of UW’s home games. Grandfather Hugh Locker first suggested the idea to Remaklus, who had been trying to come up with a cheaper way for Ferndale residents to show their pride for Jake Locker.
“They wanted to support him, yet they couldn’t get anything cheaper than a $60 Nike jersey,” said Remaklus, who estimates to have sold 2,000 T-shirts during the past three years. “I wanted to create something for this community for $10.”
Next door, at the Ferndale Visitors’ Bureau, community development coordinator Lisa Garrison said she actually gets a better feel for Locker’s stardom when she’s out of town.
“When you go outside (of Ferndale), and people ask where you’re from, they say: ‘Do you know Jake?’” Garrison said.
The short answer, in Ferndale, is that everyone knows Jake. The unassuming, 6-foot-2 quarterback is often recognized in his hometown, even if he’s not always approached.
“He grew up here, so everybody here knows him,” Guy Occhiogrosso said. “Younger kids might go up to him and ask for an autograph. But for most people here, it’s not star-struck stardom; it’s: ‘That’s Jake.’”
Kayla Walton, a 22-year-old receptionist who works in Occhiogrosso’s office, attended Ferndale High at the same time as Locker and said he “was really popular” in high school. That was five years ago, and yet Locker’s popularity has only grown.
“I’d definitely say he has the greatest potential for being a superstar that we’ve ever had,” Occhiogrosso said. “He’s already made history here because he won a state championship (in 2005). He’s definitely a star here in town.”
Said Jensen, the town mayor: “It’s hard for Ferndale to realize that he’s bigger than Ferndale now.”
Born into a family of athletes — Anita won a state volleyball title at Ferndale High, while uncle Pat Locker was a star running back at Western Washington University — Jake Locker has emerged as the greatest of the bunch. He is the tallest member of the Locker family, which helped him stand out both literally and figuratively on the gridiron.
“The smartest thing Scott Locker ever did was marry a Dutch girl,” Jensen said, “because of that height. No one else is 6-foot tall in that family.”
By the time Jake Locker was 12 years old, Pee Wee coach Jack Brown started telling friends that he was going to be the best athlete in the family. And that was saying a lot, considering the athletic success of his mother, father, uncles and grandfather Hugh, an all-city football player while at Ballard High School in Seattle.
As a ninth grader, Jake Locker became Ferndale’s first-ever freshman starter on the varsity. He began opening the eyes of opposing coaches as a sophomore, brought in college recruiters from all over the country as a junior and as a senior won a state title after leading the Golden Eagles to a 14-0 record.
He then turned down schools like USC, Cal and Michigan to stay close to home and attend UW.
Ferndale has stuck with Locker through it all. Fifty people from Locker’s hometown were in Syracuse, N.Y., for his starting debut as a freshman, and I-5 continues to be littered with cars and mobile homes making the 100-mile trip to Seattle for Saturday home games at UW.
“I don’t think people realized until his freshman year, when he was playing at Syracuse and had a really good game, and they were like: ‘Wow. He’s Montlake Jake. He’s not FernDawg anymore,’” Jensen said.
Of all the things Locker has done through three years as UW’s starting quarterback, perhaps the most impressive came seven months ago when he turned down the chance to be a top-10 NFL draft pick and sign a $40 million contract — just because he wanted to return to school for his senior year.
“I was pretty sure that’s what he would do,” said Pike, owner of Cedars Lodge. “He comes from a wonderful family.”
Locker has certainly turned Ferndale into a mini-Husky Nation. Cedars Lodge fills up every Saturday in the fall, with most of the clientele wearing purple and watching one of the two big-screen televisions.
“I had sort of lost track of Husky football for years,” said Pike, a UW graduate and longtime fan. “People who wouldn’t be fans are fans now.”
Jake’s father, Scott Locker, has come to be known as J.D. on the construction site where he works. It stands for “Jake’s Dad.”
The elder Locker, who has lived in Ferndale all his life, has been overwhelmed by the community’s support. He “can’t walk down the street without someone asking me about Washington football.” But Scott Locker also said the fame comes with a small price.
“You have to dedicate time as family time,” Scott Locker said. “Otherwise, the house will be filled with people every hour of every day.
“The stardom thing is a great thing; anyone who put on a uniform would hope for it. But there are hurdles. I take my hat off to (Jake). He’s handled it all well.”
No matter how far Jake Locker’s football career takes him — and the so-called draft gurus are touting him as the likely No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft — Ferndale knows that Locker always will have a bit of Ferndale in him.
“We know he’s bigger than Ferndale,” said Jensen, the town mayor, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be proud of him.”