SEATTLE – Kyle Benn had lived this scene before. The last thing he imagined was that he would ever have to live it again.
But here it was, just over a year later, unfolding before his very eyes.
“Deja vu,” said the center on the University of Washington football team.
On that late October day a year ago, Benn had watched as Husky teammate Curtis Williams lay unmoving on the Stanford Stadium football field. Williams had suffered a severe spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Now, on this first Saturday in November, Benn watched in stunned disbelief as Stanford strong safety Simba Hodari lay unmoving on the Husky Stadium turf. “It was an eerie feeling,” Benn said.
Eerie because these things aren’t supposed to happen one year and six days apart with the same teams involved. Eerie because both players were injured late in the third quarter. Eerie because the scene around Hodari had the look that this injury, too, could be serious.
As medical personnel tended to Hodari inside the hushed stadium, the Washington players knelt as the team chaplain led them in prayer. “I’m sure everybody said his own prayer,” Benn said. “I prayed for him to move. He did.”
And when he did, the Husky players saluted him with their helmets held high. Taken from the field in an ambulance, Hodari was transported to Harborview Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a concussion and kept overnight. A day that had looked as if it might have a tragic outcome had taken an upward turn. Not that a concussion is to be taken lightly. But considering that Hodari could move his arms and legs was a huge relief.
You wonder when something like this happens how it affects the players. You wonder if they wouldn’t just as soon unsnap their helmet straps and walk off the field. But the game must go on, right?
When it did, the fires within had to be stoked. “It took awhile to get the intensity back,” Benn said.
Once it was back, the Huskies did what they so often do – won the game in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns in the final 3:48 to win 42-28 and keep them in the hunt for a national title, though you didn’t hear that from their coach.
“I told the team not to fall prey to that,” said Rick Neuheisel. “We found out a year ago that we have no control over that stuff. We just take care of our own business. Our business is with Oregon State (next Saturday).”
The Huskies have been very good at taking care of business – with one exception. But even that loss to UCLA is not looking as damaging as it was in the Pacific-10 Conference. Not with the Bruins losing to Washington State on Saturday and seemingly out of the title picture that still has Washington, WSU and Oregon tied for first.
To take care of business on Saturday, the Huskies wanted to do something that teams haven’t been very successful at doing – run on Stanford. The Cardinal was giving up 93 yards per game and had yielded 100 yards to only one running back.
On the opposite side of the line, the Huskies were averaging only 119 yards on the ground. The blocking had been so poor against UCLA that Washington had ended up with negative yardage. And Stanford had beaten UCLA while holding standout DeShaun Foster to 77 yards.
What chance did the Huskies have to run the ball? “We made it a personal challenge to run the ball,” said tackle Khalif Barnes. “That was our main goal.”
Goal accomplished. They tacked up 130 yards, hardly an eye-popping amount, but combined with 291 passing yards from Cody Pickett, it was enough to get the job done. And Willie Hurst became the second back to gain 100 yards (more precisely, 108).
“We knew we had our work cut out for us,” Barnes said.
Which is nothing new. These Husky linemen have faced a monumental task all season. With the exception of Benn, all of them are starting for the first time. Neuheisel has called them “a work in progress,” and their work is progressing.
They dominated in the early going Saturday, as the Huskies scored on three of their first four possessions, including an 11-play, 76-yard opening drive that featured Hurst running for 43 yards.
The linemen had done what they set out to do. Build confidence in themselves. Plant some doubt in the Cardinal.
Too often this season, the holes simply haven’t been there. The abysmal performance against UCLA really got to Benn.
“The worst day of my career, performance wise,” he said. “It’s hard to look people in the eye after you lay an egg.”
He knew about the proud tradition of Husky o-lines, and he felt that the job he and his people were doing was “embarrassing” at times.
“Husky lines were dominant,” Benn said. “We were (dominant) last year. You know how it was and you don’t want to let it (the tradition) down.”
He felt that his mates would have to play “the game of our lives or get our asses kicked.” Well, it just might have been the game of their young lives and they were the ones doing the kicking.
Each week, the Husky line – “us players,” Benn stressed, “not the coaches” – sets a goal for itself. “We haven’t met it that much this year,” Benn said.
And did they meet it Saturday? “We weren’t near it,” he said.
But they are getting better. And that’s the important thing. By this time next year, they could be dominating people every week.
Benn, the only senior in the line, pondered that possibility for a moment and mused, “Makes me wish I was a few years younger.”