Jimmy Rodgers understands what the Michigan game means.
On Sept. 17, 1983, he saw it. He felt it.
A few minutes prior to the second game of the season, Rodgers — a junior safety from Aloha, Ore. — found his head coach sitting alone on a bench in a darkened hallway connected to the Husky Stadium tunnel. Don James was 50 years old, his hair gradually graying, in the early stages of his ninth season in Seattle. His Huskies had won 10 games each of the past two years, and kicked off the 1983 campaign with a dominant 34-0 shutout of Northwestern a week prior.
His hands rested on his knees. His head hung. He took deep, measured breaths in the darkness.
“You could see it, man,” Rodgers told The Times 38 years later. “It was like he and (Michigan coach) Bo (Schembechler) were going to get into a fight. It meant a lot. And when I saw that I was like, ‘Holy (expletive). This is really huge.’
“Something came over me, and it was like, ‘Holy smokes.’ This is a 50-year-old man, and this is everything. This is everything you strive for, to get in this position, to play a team like this, to be undefeated.”
Roughly three hours later, Steve Pelluer found flanker Mark Pattison for a seven-yard touchdown that narrowed UW’s deficit to 24-23 with 34 seconds left, then connected on the ensuing two-point conversion to tight end Larry Michael to complete an improbable comeback. A year later, Rodgers racked up two pass deflections, an interception, a fumble recovery and a sack in Washington’s 20-11 win in Ann Arbor, Mich., earning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors along the way.
For Rodgers, the result was not earned by accident.
“When we were working out in the offseason — when you didn’t want to run that extra 100 or do the extra bench press or whatever it was — you always found that motivation, because of that Michigan game. It was all for the Michigan game,” he said.
“It was like a bowl game, I guess. I’m trying to put it into words, but I never worked out so hard in my life. There was always a little something extra to get ready for that game.”
For Dave Hoffmann and Shane Pahukoa, it was literally a bowl game — and a national championship hung in the balance.
So, when Pahukoa separated his shoulder on the first play of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1992, the junior safety had a decision to make.
“There was no way I was not going to play the rest of the game,” Pahukoa said on Wednesday. “It was very painful afterward, for the next month or so. But I just kept my adrenaline going. Even the plays I broke up, my shoulder was separated. Talk about adversity. I was like, ‘This is the biggest game I’ll probably ever play in my life, and this isn’t going to stop me from doing it.’”
UW earned a 34-14 victory in 1991, before Michigan rebounded with a 38-31 win in the same game a year later. Hoffmann — the Huskies’ all-American inside linebacker — said “that’s why you come play at a school like Washington, for those kind of games. That’s the fun of it. That’s why you do this. That’s why you play the game as a freshman in high school, so hopefully someday you can do something like this.”
So, yes, Hoffmann and Pahukoa understand what the Michigan game means.
And, before UW descends on “The Big House” at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jimmy Lake wants his players to understand it, too.
Which is why he asked both Pahukoa and former Husky wide receiver Mario Bailey to speak with his team this week.
“I know we don’t play them a ton, but it kind of feels like a rivalry, knowing the history,” UW tight end Cade Otton said on Tuesday. “I’m super lucky to be a part of it. There’s a lot of energy and electricity going into game day this week, so I’m super excited.”
But for Lake, this extends far beyond the Michigan game. In his second season as the Huskies’ head coach, the former UW defensive coordinator is injecting an appreciation of the program’s history and tradition into each of his players. That includes requiring first-year Huskies to take turns reciting the school’s fight song.
“I want to make sure our players know what it means to wear that jersey and wear that helmet,” Lake said last week, prior to his team’s embarrassing 13-7 loss to Montana. “This is a proud football alumni. This is a proud university. Our fight song is the fabric of who we are, written way back in 1915. We watch the video of how it came about.
“These guys are going to end up getting their degree from the University of Washington. They’re playing football for the University of Washington. They need to know their fight song.”
And they need to connect with their past in more concrete ways as well. Pahukoa said this is the first time any coaching staff has invited him to talk with the team. And Lake also organized a pair of annual events to welcome back alumni — the third and final scrimmage of fall camp, as well as the “gridiron social” that takes place the night before the spring game.
“I think it’s huge,” Rodgers said of the alum outreach. “I think they should get a limo and pick up (former UW corner) Ray Horton and bring him to practice and ask him how he wants his coffee. I think they should bring back every one of these guys — (former UW guard) Curt Marsh, Warren Moon.
“I was going through spring drills at UW and Warren was in the offseason for the Canadian Football League, and he came to a spring practice, and I was elevated. It was like, ‘What the f**k? That’s Warren Moon!’ That’s what kids want to see, man.”
And ultimately, alums and fans all want to see wins. It’s great that Lake brought back the Huskies’ helmet car, which had been retired since 2011. It’s great that UW will wear throwbacks honoring the 30-year anniversary of the 1991 national championship team, which Pahukoa called “an honor.” It’s great that Lake’s team (hopefully) understands what the Michigan game means.
But the next step is to recreate the 1991 team’s success — not just its uniform.
“I’ve been saying for 15 years, nothing would be better than to have another national championship, to have someone else enjoy this,” Pahukoa said. “It would be great for a young kid at UW at some point to be able to enjoy all the blessings that winning a championship comes with.”
Added Lake: “With the history and the tradition of this program, we need to honor those that came before us, that set up what we have now. We get to play in this gorgeous stadium, in this gorgeous facility, the beautiful new field, and now we have the indoor and the east field and all these things. I know our players don’t take it for granted. I want them to learn about the players that laid the foundation and the coaches that laid the foundation for all the success that Husky football has had.
“To me, if you know your history, you’re going to be able to try to do those things that those guys did way back when. We have two national championships. We would love to get back on that level and get another national championship. Let’s make sure we bring those guys around and they can share some information of how they got it done.”