In 1960 the Washington Huskies defeated the Wisconsin Badgers, 44-8, in the Rose Bowl and brought respectability to West Coast football. My dad and my grandfather watched the game on a black-and-white Zenith television in my father's knotty-pine den, and although I was only 7 and too young to understand the implications – that the hometown school, whose stadium's upper deck I could see in the distance out of our living-room window, had won the "Granddaddy" of the bowl games – I knew that something great had taken place. My dad and my grandfather were thrilled; their faces beamed, and toasts were raised in celebration.
In later years my father would often recall how George Gobel opened his weekly television show that January evening by saying how all American schoolchildren should respect the name Washington, and "that especially applies to Wisconsin schoolchildren." My father smiled with pride every time he told the story.
The next year the Huskies repeated the feat, defeating Big 10 champions the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 17-7, and once again the drinks flowed in my father's den. By now names like Schloredt, McKeta, Fleming, and Owens loomed in my consciousness with those of Washington, Lincoln, and Eisenhower, men about whom I knew little except that each had done something great.
Seattle was a small town back then. There were no major league teams nor a Space Needle, and these young men and their coach were its most revered heroes. Their pictures were mounted on the walls of Mike's Barber Shop on 45th Street. Their names dominated Seattle's two papers. I doubt I even knew what a first down was at the time, but to me these guys were gods. They, too, had done something great: They put my city on the map and made my father and grandfather very happy.
The following season I was old enough to walk down the long hill and across the vast acreage of dirt parking lots to Husky Stadium for my first home game. I'll never forget the ambiance: the lush green of the field and its meticulous chalking of yard lines; the smell of hot dogs; the instantaneous roar that erupted when the team ran out of the tunnel; the regal look of the Huskies in their dark purple jerseys, their gold helmets moving in disciplined synchronicity during warm-ups as a coach barked out signals and all 90 players responded by turning this way or that.
I remember the program and newspaper sellers shouting out for business. I remember the band playing "Bow Down to Washington." It was the liveliest, most thrilling scene I had seen in my short eight years.
I can't recall who won that game, and my interest in the actual playing gave way to exploring the stadium with my friends, but I was bitten by a passion that would return me to Husky Stadium every year of my ensuing five decades.
Another Rose Bowl came in 1964, a stinging loss to Illinois and a ferocious linebacker named Butkus. A bowl drought of 13 years followed, until a new coach made a habit of regularly visiting Pasadena. In 1992 the Huskies played their second of three consecutive Rose Bowls. This time the Huskies had a perfect record, and my father and I watched the game in my living room, where atop another Seattle hill the second upper deck added to Husky Stadium in 1987 could be seen.
My very young son was not watching the television, but he was aware that something special was happening that absorbed the attention of me and his grandfather, for he was on splendid behavior. The Huskies annihilated Michigan and claimed a national championship along with another Rose Bowl victory.
That summer my wife, Janine, and our small toddler visited my great-aunt Gladys in San Francisco. She was close to 90 at the time and didn't quite comprehend Louie's very young age. She asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He stopped his playing with a magazine on Gladys's coffee table, looked at her, and seemed to ponder the question. Silence followed as Louie stood with a slightly wrinkled brow. I seriously doubted that he could answer such an abstract question. She asked again. I was about ready to intervene, to help explain the question to an 11-month-old boy who might not have understood that people were supposed to do something when they grow up, when he answered in his soft voice.
"Football," he said.