by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & OLD MAN EAGLE & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Eastern Washington Eagles are celebrating the school's 100th season of football, and Alexis Alexander wants everyone to know that there is no truth to the rumor that he played on Eastern's first team.
"It's ridiculous how many 'grandpa' jokes I get from this team," moans Alexander, who turns 26 in November. "I'm called 'Grandpa,' 'Old Guy' and 'Are you getting arthritis?'
"I get all kinds of jokes about getting old, and what's funny is, the coaches want to make jokes with it! I'm telling them, 'You guys have no room to make 'old' jokes about me.'"
Sorry, Alexis, but it's bound to happen when you play professional baseball for three years, take a six-year break from football, date the same woman for nine years... and oh yeah, did we mention the time you batted against Roger Clemens?
"Struck me out," Alexander recalls. "I'm not exactly sure, but I want to say he struck me out with a slider.
"I couldn't hit his fastball, either. I was more in awe, just kind of looking at him. I don't think I was real focused about hitting the ball."
Facing Clemens (who was on a minor league injury rehab assignment) is one of the few warm memories Alexander holds from his first season of pro baseball. One week after graduating from Medical Lake High School in 2001, Alexander reported to the Gulf Coast League, where teams play on major league and minor league spring training fields in Florida in games deemed so meaningless that no tickets are sold.
"It's 90 percent humidity, it's 100 degrees out, you're waking up at 4 in the morning trying to beat the heat, there's two people in the stands... it was like a scrimmage every day," Alexander says. "They kept us in this dorm, so we couldn't go anywhere. It was almost like we were in jail.
"I was like, 'Wow. This is what professional baseball is?'"
Alexander says his two other seasons in pro ball were much more enjoyable, including a 2002 stint with the Spokane Indians. He missed football terribly, but...
"I liked baseball," he says. "I enjoyed playing pro baseball, playing in the minor leagues.
"More than the baseball, it was the experience of the minor leagues. The road trips, the 12-hour bus rides with your teammates, driving all over the country and playing in so many ballparks, playing baseball 15 days in a row, 20 days in a row.
"Experiencing those things were great. I made friends that I'm still friends with. I learned so much about baseball, and I learned so much about just being an adult and being away from home for the first time."
Still, Alexander says, "I was definitely a football player playing baseball." When the Kansas City Royals wanted to assign him to the Class A Midwest League for the second straight year in 2004, Alexander (who hit just .225 with five homers and 22 stolen bases in the minors) retired from baseball and attempted to resume his football career.
Alexander headed to Washington State, where he had been recruited for football and baseball out of high school. The Cougars, citing an abundance of running backs, wanted Alexander to play outside linebacker. He didn't like defense or the direction the Cougars were headed ("Everyone was fighting with each other"), so he transferred to Eastern in January 2006.
Alexander wasted two of his five years of college eligibility by doing nothing but practicing with the Cougars (he quit during the 2005 season). Promised a shot at running back at Eastern by coach Paul Wulff -- who, ironically, left the Eagles to coach the Cougars this season -- Alexander cracked the starting lineup at fullback in the second half of the 2006 season and made the All-Big Sky Conference second team.
Alexander started at tailback and fullback last season and produced his first 100-yard rushing game, but he missed the last five games with a hernia. He did make the All-Big Sky Academic team, and he's just one class away from a degree in electrical engineering. The Royals, who drafted Alexander in the 18th round and gave him a $40,000 bonus, foot the bill for Alexander's college education.
"That's something my mom said was a must [in his first pro contract]," said Alexander, who hopes to graduate with a 3.5 grade point average.
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Alexander is a strong and willing blocker, and he would love to play in the NFL as a fullback. First, however, he wants to help the seventh-ranked Eagles knock off 10-time defending Big Sky champion Montana. Alexander almost became a Grizzly in 2001 and again in '06.
"We feel," Alexander says, "like the Big Sky is ours."
EASTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
League: Big Sky Conference.
Classification: NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).
National rank: 7th in 125-team FCS (The Sports Network poll).
Predicted finish: 2nd in 9-team Big Sky (league coaches poll).
Tickets: (866) 446-3247.
2007 record: 9-4 overall, 6-2 Big Sky (second). Lost in FCS quarterfinals.
Coach: Beau Baldwin, 0-0, 1st year (10-3 career, 2nd year).
Key players (2007 statistics): QB Matt Nichols (passed for 3,744 yards, 34 TD's). DE Greg Peach (11 sacks, 15 tackles for loss). WR Aaron Boyce (85 receptions, 1,308 yards, 10 TD's). TB Dale Morris (rushed for 930 yards, 12 TD's).
Outlook: The Eagles are loaded with talent and experience, but there are four new starters on the all-important offensive line. Baldwin, a former EWU offensive coordinator, has retained the explosive no-huddle offense after returning to Eastern following a one-year break to guide Central Washington to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
Quote: FB Alexis Alexander: "The way our whole coaching staff seems to get along and is so together, and our team is so together; it seems like our chemistry is even better than last year."
Season opener: At Texas Tech on Saturday, Aug. 30, 4 p.m. PDT (KGA 1510).
Howie sez: Make room in the trophy case for Eastern's first national championship in football.
League: Northwest Conference.
Classification: NCAA Division III.
National rank: 31st in 239-team Division III (D3football.com coaches poll).
Predicted finish: 2nd in 7-team NWC (league coaches poll).
Coach: John Tully, 69-55, 14th year (100-76 career, 19th year).
Outlook: The Pirates lost nine starters on defense from an 8-2 team that won the Northwest Conference for the second straight year. Former Riverside High standout Adam Anderson, who ran for 958 yards and 12 TD's, was the NWC Offensive Player of the Year. Senior Kory Kemp is back at quarterback, and defensive tackle Brandon Martin made the all-conference first team as a freshman last year.
Season opener: La Verne (Calif.) at Whitworth on Saturday, Sept. 13, noon (no TV, KSBN 1230).
Howie sez: Tully does a masterful job at Whitworth's charming little Pine Bowl, but it's going to be tough to knock off perennial NWC powerhouse Linfield with so many new faces on defense.
LEADER OF THE PAC
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & tar wide receivers tend to be flashy. Loud. Cocky. More than a little bit selfish, if the truth be known. And then there's Brandon Gibson, aka the anti-Terrell Owens. Gibson most definitely has the gift of grab -- he led the Pac-10 in receiving and was a third-team All-American last year -- but he goes about his business without a whole lot of fuss and bother. He's all about the team.
"Really, I don't care about records," says Gibson, the Washington State senior from Puyallup. "They aren't that big a deal to me. I'm more into winning games. I'd like to set the record for winning games."
That is one of the few records certain to elude Gibson at Washington State. The Cougars are rebuilding under a new coaching staff this year, and WSU hasn't experienced a winning season since capping a three-year run of 10-win seasons and bowl appearances with a 2003 victory over fifth-ranked Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
"I came here because of the Holiday Bowl," Gibson says. "We had just beat one of the top teams in the country, Texas. I thought this was going to be the up-and-coming team on the West Coast. Coming in, I thought we'd compete for the Pac-10 championship.
"Unfortunately, it didn't work out. But I still have confidence in our team."
The Cougars certainly have confidence in Gibson, an all-conference first-team selection in 2007. He set a school record with 1,180 receiving yards last season, and his 107.3-yard average ranked seventh in the country. His 67 receptions ranked fourth in the league and tied for third in school history.
"He's got all the talent in the world," quarterback Gary Rogers says.
Gibson needs 71 catches and 618 receiving yards to become WSU's all-time leader in those categories. He's the only WSU receiver with much experience, but he's not certain he can top his glossy numbers of last year.
"I'm not really expecting them to go up," Gibson says. "I just want to be consistent.
"Whether I'm the 'decoy' or the main option, I'm just going to have to produce. I'm into winning football games. I don't try to focus on stats."
Gibson figures to draw plenty of attention from opposing defenses, particularly early in the season, when speedy receiver Jeshua Anderson will be sidelined due to hernia surgery. Gibson says the Cougars still have plenty of talented folks to catch the ball, and he raves about the coaching skills of longtime WSU receivers coach Mike Levenseller.
"I plan on getting double-teamed, but I still have to produce," Gibson says. "It almost makes me want the ball more."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Gibson explored the possibility of turning pro this year. He returned to WSU after being projected to go in the middle rounds of the NFL draft.
"For the most part, I didn't feel I was ready to compete at that level," Gibson says. "You're competing against men."
It's often a case of man against boys when Gibson takes the field for the Cougars. He's glad to see good buddy Rogers finally get a chance to start as a fifth-year senior, and Rogers is glad to have Gibson by his side.
"Not only is he a great player on the field, but he's a good guy off the field," Rogers says. "He's got a lot of character."
"I'd like to credit a lot of that to my mom," Gibson says. "She did a great job with me. She taught me to be honest and trustworthy."
WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY
League: Pacific-10 Conference.
Classification: NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (BCS).
National rank: 84th in 119-team BCS (Sports Illustrated rankings).
Predicted finish: 10th in 10-team Pac-10 (league media poll).
Tickets: (800) 462-6847.
2007 record: 5-7 overall, 3-6 (tied for 7th in Pac-10). Missed postseason for fourth straight year.
Coach: Paul Wulff, 0-0, 1st year (53-40 career, 9th year).
Key players (2007 statistics): WR Brandon Gibson (67 receptions, 1,180 yards, 9 TD's). QB Gary Rogers (4-for-16 for 25 yards, 0 TD's). MLB Greg Trent (89 tackles). RB Dwight Tardy (rushed for 676 yards, 6 TD's in 8 games).
Outlook: The new coaching staff has injected new life into the Cougars, but years of bad recruiting and bad play has taken its toll. The 6-foot-6 Rogers has a cannon for an arm, but he's thrown just 52 passes in games since his senior year of high school in 2003. The defense returns nine starters, but is that a good thing? After all, the Cougars gave up more than 40 points five times last year.
Quote: SS Chima Nwachukwu: "Anything worse than third (in the Pac-10) is bad for us. We have high expectations here. We're going to shock some people."
Season opener: At Seattle versus Oklahoma State on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 12:30 p.m. (FSN, KXLY 920).
Howie sez: The future is bright -- like, say, in two years -- but Cougar fans don't have to worry about planning their winter vacations around a bowl game this year.
UNIVERSITY OF IDAHO
League: Western Athletic Conference.
Classification: NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (BCS).
National rank: 117th in 119-team BCS (Sports Illustrated rankings).
Predicted finish: 8th in 9-team WAC (league coaches poll).
Coach: Robb Akey, 1-11, 2nd year (1-11 career, 2nd year).
Key players (2007 statistics): RB Deonte` Jackson (rushed for 1,175 yards, 7 TD's). QB Nathan Enderle (passed for 1,786 yards, 10 touchdowns, 10 TD's, 18 interceptions in 9 games). SS-PR Shiloh Keo (81 tackles, 4 interceptions, 16.8 yards per punt return). C Adam Korby (has started at center in all 35 of Idaho's games the past three seasons).
Outlook: The long, long, LONG rebuilding process continues under the perpetually optimistic Akey. The Vandals are way too young and inexperienced to compete with the big boys -- not to mention a bunch of the little guys -- but Jackson was outstanding as a freshman last year and is worth the price of admission.
Quote: Coach Robb Akey: "There's a better spirit about this team. I think there's expectations for success. They're competing harder. They're having fun competing. Things are a lot better."
Season opener: At Arizona on Saturday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m. (no TV; KVNI 1080).
Howie sez: If and when the hard-working Akey halts Idaho's string of losing seasons -- it'll be nine come November -- he should be named a) national coach of the year; b) governor of Idaho and c) head coach at a school that pays a heck of a lot better than Idaho.