By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE – Two days after they watched an ambulance rush their semiconscious teammate to a hospital with a spinal cord injury, the Washington Huskies players set out Monday to resume what could be a special season.
While senior strong safety Curtis Williams lies sedated in the intensive care unit at Stanford Medical Center, his prospects for living a normal life unknown, the eighth-ranked Huskies are turning to their game Saturday against Arizona.
They’re doing it because they have to.
“The significance of the game seems so small right now,” UW fullback Pat Conniff said. “But it’s what we do. It’s our job. And everybody here knows that if it happened to anyone else, Curtis would be saying the same thing and wanting us to perform.
“You can’t call a timeout on the season. You’ve just got to keep battling.”
Williams’ prognosis is uncertain. On Saturday, he sustained a cervical spine injury in a helmet-to-helmet collision with Cardinal tailback Kerry Carter and was transported to SMC. He remains under sedation and breathes with the aid of a ventilator.
The only certainty is that Williams will be at SMC for an extended period of time. Yet, life goes on. It has to.
The Huskies still are in contention for a Pacific-10 Conference title and a BCS bowl game at 4-1 in Pac-10 play, 7-1 overall. They have much to play for. The trick is to bear the heavy hearts they have for Williams enough to fully concentrate on the task at hand.
“That’s the goal, to make the season special,” Conniff said. “We talked about it before Curtis was hurt. I think it puts an exclamation mark on what we have to do.”
Understandably, the level of play the Huskies achieved before Williams was injured wasn’t the same afterward. Washington rolled up a 17-6 lead up to the point of Williams’ injury, with 2:01 left in the third quarter. The Huskies eventually built a 24-6 advantage with six minutes remaining in the game on Willie Hurst’s 22-yard run.
That, UW linebacker Derrell Daniels theorized, was when the UW defense’s concentration turned to what Williams must have been going through. Stanford scored three touchdowns in 41/2 stunning minutes and took a 28-24 advantage.
“I was trying to get my own thoughts to where they needed to be,” Daniels said. “It was really hard after that. I know, myself, there were a couple plays where I was supposed to do something and I didn’t do it because my mind was on Curtis. I just didn’t go at all a couple of times.”
Yet, somehow, Washington found a way to win. And they did it as they did in six of their seven victories – coming back from a deficit. UW coach Rick Neuheisel said it is that kind of character from which the players have to draw.
Neuheisel said he is encouraging his players to talk about Williams, to think about him, to pray for him.
“I don’t think you can ever say it’s not appropriate to talk about your friend,” Neuheisel said. “I don’t think he’ll ever be far from our thoughts. I also believe that it’s possible to care for your friend, to pray for your friend, to hope for the best and still concentrate on the task at hand. We’ve got to find that combination.”
To do that, Neuheisel is relying on his captains, the team leaders, to set a tone for practice this week in preparation for Arizona. One, nose tackle Larry Tripplett, said the team can draw strength from Williams.
“We have to get past it,” Tripplett said. “We’re going to have to come out here and have to be focused. Although it’s going to be difficult, we’re all fighters on this team and we’re going to keep fighting with everything that’s placed ahead of us. This is just another battle that we’re going to have to overcome.”
Neuheisel said Arnold was to have been examined by a back specialist Monday.
“My fear is the treatment is going to be rest,” Neuheisel said.
Freshman Rich Alexis is listed as the starter, followed by Willie Hurst and Braxton Cleman. Cleman also is listed as the backup fullback, behind Conniff.
Other semifinalists are Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech; Mike Bellotti of Oregon; Tommy Bowden of Clemson; Bob Davie of Notre Dame; Dennis Franchione of TCU; Lou Holtz of South Carolina; Gary Nord of UTEP; Bob Stoops of Oklahoma; and Randy Walker of Northwestern.
Three finalists will be chosen Nov. 20. The winning coach will be announced Dec. 6.
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