By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The University of Washington football team might have another upset in it when the Huskies host 11th-ranked USC on Saturday afternoon. Or, UW might get handed an Oregon-like pasting at the hands of the Trojans.
No one knows for certain what will happen.
But one thing we know about this weekend’s college football game at CenturyLink Field is that Keith Belton will be jumping and waving a towel on the UW sideline. About that, there is no doubt.
Belton, the Huskies’ first-year assistant strength coach, has been doing just that for five games this season — both home and away. His constant hopping and aggressive towel-waving have garnered plenty of attention, especially at home games, where he has been featured on the scoreboard camera more than a few times.
Belton’s theatrics have fired up UW players and fans, and his energy is so contagious that it seems like there’s only one person who refuses to watch.
“My wife doesn’t particularly like it,” Belton said of wife, Shantre. “But it’s about these (players), if that’s what they want. If I’ve got to go tie shoes or fix food, I’ll do it. I mean, Jesus washed feet, so why can’t I do this?”
Anyone who has seen Belton parade along the UW sideline, with towel in hand and feet hopping, has to come away with the same question. It’s one that Belton hears often, and one that makes him chuckle.
“I get tired when I get home,” Belton said with a grin when asked whether he ever wears out during games. “My feet get tired when I get home. But I’m not tired when I’m out there. I can’t afford to get tired. I feel like that’s what I’ve been put here to do, and I do it.”
The least conspicuous UW assistant has become anything but inconspicuous on game days, leading many to wonder who the towel-waving fanatic is.
A former John C. Smith College and Syracuse University fullback who spent part of four seasons on the rosters of four NFL teams, Keith “Thump” Belton is a 31-year-old assistant strength coach who came to UW via Baylor University. He’s a friend of UW assistant Donte Williams, who also played at Syracuse and who introduced Belton to Huskies strength coach Ivan Lewis before the Alamo Bowl last December — thereby setting off a series of events that led to his move to Seattle.
Belton did the same kind of sideline display at Baylor last season, and the Huskies couldn’t help but notice him during a 67-56 loss to the Bears in the December Alamo Bowl.
“I definitely saw him,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “It’s hard to miss him on game day. He stays very involved in the game, and I think the players respond to him.”
Belton is extremely thankful to the Baylor football program for allowing him to be himself on the sidelines, but he’s just as grateful to the game of football. He said the sport saved him from the streets of Charlotte, N.C., his hometown, and added that he feels the need to give back to the game he loves.
“To me, I believe this game saved my life,” he said after a Tuesday morning practice at UW. “Just like a lot of these kids (on the Huskies’ practice field), this game saved my life. If it wasn’t for this game, there’s no telling what I would be doing.
“It’s what I call reciprocity. In this world, you’ve got to give it, and you’ve got to take it. Coach (Sarkisian) and Coach Ivan (Lewis) gave me an opportunity to be here. I’ve got to take that opportunity, but I’ve got to give back.”
Belton said he was just as passionate on the sidelines as a player. He was a 232-pound blocking back whose nickname “Thump,” given to him as an infant, fit his role.
“More times than not, the name’s got me in trouble,” Belton said, shaking his head and unable to pinpoint just where it started. “When you’ve got a name like that, they expect you to be a certain way — especially on the field — so you’ve got to be tough all the time.”
At UW, Belton has had to be energetic at all times, which has become his trademark.
“He provides a great deal of energy, and it’s not just on game day,” Sarkisian said. “Everybody sees it on game day, but he does it every day in practice.”
Sophomore linebacker John Timu said that Belton’s energy has been especially inspiring on game days.
“We use it for motivation,” Timu said. “He’s our passion guy. Man, he loves football, and he gets us going.”
Belton certainly loves football, and he loves providing whatever inspiration he can from the sidelines. And he’s also just having fun doing what he loves.
“College football is the greatest sport in the world,” Belton said, noting that by comparison the NFL is “boring. … When it comes to college football, Saturday mornings, there’s nothing like it. It’s the greatest sport in the world. You’ve got to enjoy it.”
Belton’s theatrics seemed to play a large role in the upset win over No. 8 Stanford the last time the Huskies played at home. The offense was struggling throughout that game, yet Belton kept the sideline and fan base into the game with his towel-waving and constant stomping.
But there are also times, most notably last Saturday in Eugene, Ore., when Belton can’t get the Huskies over the hump. He never gave up, even when the Huskies were trailing by more than 30 points and fans at Autzen Stadium were heckling him.
“‘Hey, you’re losing by 30. Why are you still cheering?’” Belton recalls the Oregon fans shouting at him. “Of course, I know what the score is. But it’s about staying consistent. (The players) expect me to be the same way. I can’t be different.”
Thump Belton is most certainly different. There might not be a single college coach in the nation who puts as much physical activity into a Saturday game, nor is there anyone who wears so much emotion on his sleeve.
He might be a laid-back person off the field, but Belton is happy to be a part of the game day experience — even if it might cause his wife to cringe.
“She’s more embarrassed because that’s not who I really am — except when it comes to the games,” he said. “I’m a laid-back guy, kind of keep to myself. But then all of a sudden, when Saturday comes, she’s like: ‘Where in the world did that come from?’
“But she enjoys it. My son, who is 5 years old, he loves it. He doesn’t even watch the game anymore. He just swings the towel.”
OK, so maybe we know something else about this Saturday’s game against USC. No matter what the score may be, there will undoubtedly be two Beltons jumping and waving.