Thursday, February 11, 2016

Story of the Year

That’s some story, for sure. Unprecedented five in a row. Unprecedented nine team trophies in a row. Unprecedented sweep of all five events.

They have pictures on facebook, Husky rowers hanging out with Michael Bennett. Holy Cow.

And Doctor Frank couldn’t be prouder. But damn, I couldn’t help just looking back.

Doctor Frank, back when he was just Frank, attended the Seattle Sports Star of the Year banquet one time. Dik Erickson was up for the award. There was just one award. No categories. You’re either The Star or you’re not. Dik sat up there at the table with Steve Largent, Ruppert Jones, Fred Brown, and Warren Moon. The football Dogs had just pulled off this impossible Rose Bowl victory, so Moon got the award and a deafening standing ovation. Dik had led the crew Dogs to an improbable victory over Leander in the Grand Challenge at Henley. He got polite applause. Well rowed, Washington. Now let’s move on to shit we care about.

That was then, when grunties were grunties, the Boys ruled the Boathouse, and the town didn’t care. With three new pro teams for its cocky growing populace to adore, crew in Seattle had become an afterthought. Back page news if we were lucky, just two short decades from the day KOMO sent Keith Jackson around the world to cover the race against the Soviets. By 1977, Dik had to harangue and cajole writers and sportscasters just to get someone out to cover Opening Day.

Of course, in 1977 Doctor Frank was damn glad there was no press in Pullman. So you gotta look on the bright side.

But I digress.

That was then, this is now. In 2016, mention that you’re a Husky Crew alum and all you hear is “ooooooh, did you read The Boys in the Boat®?” …which of course Doctor Frank did, but no reading of history was as humbling as actually shaking those guys’ hands when they were gods to us forty years ago. Stand on the big gold W in front of the Connie today, minding your own business having a shooter before a football game, and you hear the whispers in the passing crowd… “this is the place” … “Joe Rantz rowed here” … which of course is not true, since those gods of Husky crew worked out and launched from hallowed ground at the mouth of Montlake Cut. Doctor Frank, tequila bottle in hand, was actually accosted by a Utah football fan wondering where The Boat was. “What boat?” “The Boat. The 1936 Boat, the one from the book.”

Doctor Frank could have been an asshole, but the guy was so sincere and polite and excited to be standing Right There On The Very Spot…  “See the window up there? Can you see into the dining room? It’s hanging from the ceiling. If you go around the other side of the building, you can probably get in and get a closer look. I was lucky. I got to meet those guys forty years ago, when they had their reunion right here in this very place. And I got to meet Joe Rantz again just a few years ago, not long before he died. There was a banquet, and his seat of honor was right under the number seven seat. In The Boat.”

Utah man was bubbling over. His feet glided six inches off the ground as he sailed away to find the front door. Doctor Frank went back to his tequila.

This is now, when youth teams and masters teams are popping up so fast it’s hard to keep track. When the Opening Day regatta goes on for hours instead of twenty minutes. This is now, when people actually care about crew and know about crew and they at least think they understand the dedication and athleticism and winning attitude. Some from doing it, some from reading about it.

This is now, and times have changed, but Doctor Frank still had to wonder last night, helping a buddy drain another pitcher at the Northlake, when he read the news on… Come on, does this city care enough to make this the biggest story of the year? Do my fellow citizens finally realize what they have here, even in a year when Felix Hernandez throws a perfect game? Wouldn’t the shallow part-time baseball fans in this town, the ones who wander the concourses enjoying the “best stadium in the game,” outvote this insane, unheard-of achievement in consistency by our Huskies?

Doctor Frank sniffed a prank. In Dik’s language, another ratfuck. Is this possible?

The Boys in the Boathouse, led by Le Grande Raoul, managed to pirate the AD’s online bobblehead contest in 2002 and get Dik’s image enshrined permanently on our bookshelves. But, truly, in these days of internet security, could anyone hack this thing with so much riding on it? I mean, pissing off Rick Neuheisel is one thing. Felix, you’re taking a risk.

No way, we decided. Not only was the vote a clean one, we couldn’t even imagine it being close. Think about it. Five in a freaking row. Seven team championships in a row. With heats and semis, fourteen victories in fourteen starts on that glorious day last June. That is impossible. That’s why they have heats and repechages, in case there’s breakage or injury or someone pukes or some myriad other incident that always fricking happens and forces you to work a little extra to get there. But no. A perfect day.

What were the odds? Put forty Husky athletes on a plane, and every damn one of them comes home with a gold medal? Do it five years in a row, and come home with the varsity championship and the team trophy all five times? The odds? Impossible. Unless you’re a Husky.

That’s why they won the award, that’s why they deserved the award, even over a press-hounding machine like Felix. Not to mention that his voters were out getting a hot dog and didn’t know what happened.

And you could easily say, once again, that it’s impossible this year.

But you know what? It was eight months ago. Ancient history, and I bet the guys were grateful for the props this week. But it’s getting down to go time again. In less than four months these boys will be back in their boats on the same lake in New Jersey, looking to prove the naysayers wrong.

When Dik got back to the Connie for the first fall practice after winning the Grand Challenge, he talked about the Agony of Victory. The pressure. The distractions. The need to ramp it up and do it even better because there’s a big fucking target on your back. Anyone who listened had the opportunity to do something great.

That’s one thing Daniel James Brown got right. Husky rowers, faced with adversity, just pull harder. It hasn’t changed in eighty years.

And, to Dik, that was a lesson that meant way more than a sportswriters award.

Congrats Dogs and Coach Callahan. You’re carrying the torch like heroes. Check that sign behind you though. No Loitering. You’ve got work to do.

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