Jake Locker was a part of Husky football long before he enrolled at the University of Washington in 2006. His legend, of a state champion quarterback with lightning feet and the size and toughness to be recruited as a safety by USC, had long since rolled south from Ferndale. He was Montlake Jake before stepping on campus, destined to resurrect a football program suffering through its worst seasons in decades.
The legend only grew when he turned down major league baseball, something that his almost predecessor Matt Tuiasosopo didn’t do several years earlier. He spent 2006 redshirting, to some controversy. The team could have used him, and many were concerned that Jake would be gone to the NFL as soon as he became eligible. Regardless, it was no surprise when he easily won the starting job in 2007 and made his debut at Syracuse.
It was everything Husky fans had hoped for. Jake ran up and down the field, showing the lightning speed and strong arm that had so long been rumored. He wasn’t polished by any means, especially his passing, but that was to be expected from a freshman making his first start, and it wasn’t hard to imagine him leading the Huskies to a Rose Bowl win a few years later before becoming the first pick in the draft. The talent was that obvious, that mind-blowing.
And then things didn’t quite go to plan. 2007 was respectable but disappointing, more from a team standpoint than individual. Expectations were fairly high coming into 2008. The Huskies started the year with losses, none more devastating than against BYU, where the now infamous celebration penalty against Jake cost the Huskies a possible win. Still, Jake’s passing looked improved, and the poise he showed in leading that last minute drive against BYU would surely be put to better use down the road. In the fourth game of the year, against Stanford, everything fell apart. Jake broke his thumb while blocking, and stayed on the sidelines for the rest of the year. The rest of the team spiraled lower than anyone thought possible. Tyrone Willingham was fired but allowed to coach the rest of the season, and the team lost all will to fight. They went winless, even falling to the equally hapless Cougars in the Apple Cup. Some argue that the talent on that squad was better than most winless teams, but few teams have ever been as low emotionally as the 2008 team was to end the season.
2009 brought a new coach in Steve Sarkisian and a new attitude, along with Locker’s return. The turn-around they made that season now seems nothing short of remarkable. Central to the season was an astonishing upset against #3 USC, as Jake calmly led UW down the field for a last second field goal to win. The season was up and down, ending in five wins, but the Huskies won their last two against WSU and Cal in dominating fashion, leading to huge expectations for 2010 and that potential #1 spot in the draft for Locker, if he wanted to leave early to take it.
No one would have been a bit surprised if he had left, and the national media had pretty much written him off as a former Husky, when he walked into Sarkisian’s office with his new dog, Ten, and nonchalantly announced that he was coming back for one more year. Fans started talking of the Heisman and winning eight or nine games, a juggernaut offense behind Jake, Chris Polk and Jermaine Kearse a seeming certainty.
The only problem was that the team just wasn’t that good yet. The offensive line, along with the rest of the offense, struggled, and the defense was inconsistent. The Huskies lost a winnable opener to BYU, beat Syracuse, and then got crushed by Nebraska. They beat USC again and won a thriller at Husky Stadium against Oregon State, but Jake spent the second half of the season nursing broken ribs and the Huskies dropped three straight to a murderer’s row of Arizona, Stanford and Oregon to fall to 3-6. Even with three winnable games remaining, hopes for a bowl game were nearly gone, and Jake’s reputation had taken a major hit during an inconsistent and lackluster season.
Then UCLA came to town on a cold Thursday night. It was close for the first half of the game before UCLA began to fall apart. UW seemed to grow up that game, sensing the victory was theirs to take, and they finally took it. By the end it was a laugher, with the Huskies pounding on a completely inept Bruin offense. The Huskies next went to Berkley in a faceoff of two teams trying to keep their bowl hopes alive. Cal’s offense was nearly as bad as UCLA’s, but UW had a difficult time against a stout Bear defense. Trailing by three in the final minutes, Jake again took over. Clearly still hampered by the rib injury. He threw a long pass that Kearse made a great play on en route to moving the Huskies to the goal line in the final minute. The Bear defense stopped them there, however, and it looked like the Huskies would settle for a field goal to tie it. Sarkisian decided otherwise, and in a play that may have single-handedly restored Husky football to its traditional state of toughness and excellence, Chris Polk plunged through the line untouched, and the Huskies were 5-6 going into the Apple Cup.
Jake again wasn’t perfect against the Cougars, throwing an interception just before halftime that made a close game out of what probably should have been a blowout. Polk made the difference, though, running for 284 yards, and the Huskies found themselves in the now familiar spot of having the ball in the final minutes of a tie game. Locker and Polk again marched down the field, and Jake threw a perfect pass to Kearse for a go-ahead touchdown.
The Huskies would play in the Holiday Bowl. Montlake Jake’s legend was cemented in Husky lore.
No one expected a win in the Holiday Bowl rematch against Nebraska, and now, of course, no one will ever forget it. The team seemed to finally take on the full personality of Jake Locker, dominating with their toughness, playing loose and aggressive and fast. They exerted their will and did whatever was necessary to win. When Jake found no open receivers for nearly the entire game, he calmly threw the ball away or scrambled for first downs. The offense came differently, with a pass from Jesse Callier to Locker, and then Polk and Locker ripped the heart out of the Cornhuskers as they ran over and through their vaunted defense. Mason Foster, in many ways Locker’s twin on defense, led an effort that saw the Huskies dominate the line of scrimmage and limit the Huskers to under 150 yards of total offense before a late desperation drive brought the total to 189. Before that last drive, the defense held Nebraska to an incredible -36 yards in the fourth quarter.
The final score was 19-7, but the domination was greater than even the score would tell
Now, the legend of Montlake Jake is complete. It didn’t end in a Rose Bowl win or national championship, there is no Heisman, and Jake won’t be the #1 pick overall. And yet, I don’t know that The Jake Locker Era could have been any more satisfying if all that had come true. It feels as though it took a complete collapse that sent this football team to the lowest place imaginable for Jake Locker to get a chance to show who he is and what he could do. This team was remade in his image. For all his physical gifts that fans will marvel about for decades, what will be most remembered is his calm eyes in the biggest moments, his toughness, his loyalty, and a level of character not often seen in college football.
College football is the ultimate fan sport, and only so often do players come along that connect with the fans on a special level. The only such Husky I remember is Marques Tuiasosopo, whose charisma and late game heroics will be etched in my mind forever. I wasn’t quite old enough to have those type of ties with the early ’90’s teams, although I’m sure there are plenty who do. My dad seems to remember Sonny Sixkiller that way. Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson were certainly that on the basketball court. Reggie Williams and others had the onfield talent and production to be remembered, but for whatever reason, there was never quite the connection with the fans that moved them to that other level.
Jake Locker is that kind of player who will be remembered forever by anyone who watched him these past four years. His physical talents were incredible, but it is our good fortune as football fans that the intangible gifts that separated him from others are what also allowed him to bring Husky football back from the dead.
Jake Locker is everything we could ever want a football player to be. There will never be another Montlake Jake, but his legend will live forever.