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Late Bloomer 

by Howie Stalwick & r & Too often, the term "student-athlete" is an oxymoron in college sports. Too often, the term "moron" would be more applicable to the hordes of college athletes who can't find their way to the classroom without a guide dog and compass.


And then there's Washington State tight end Troy Bienemann, who will graduate in December with two degrees, a grade point average in the 3.7 neighborhood and, quite possibly, a berth on the Academic All-America team.


Throw in the fact that Bienemann is a four-year starter and NFL prospect with hands like flypaper and the heart of a champion, and it's hard to imagine what recruiters were thinking when only WSU offered Bienemann a scholarship.


"He's very rewarding to coach," says Robin Pflugrad, who's assistant head coach, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. "When he comes through these gates [at WSU's practice field], he wants to get better. Most players want to get better most days. Troy wants to get better every single day."


According to Pflugrad, Bienemann is a rare blend of brains, brawn, skill and courage: "There are a few guys who have his work ethic, but probably not the total package with the intellect and the athleticism. He kind of rises to the top in every category."


Pflugrad says he gained even more admiration for Bienemann when the Santa Clara, Calif., native played on a bad leg most of last season. Bienemann's statistics (26 catches for 288 yards and two touchdowns) mirrored those from the year before, but he failed to earn all-league honors after making the Pacific-10 Conference second team in 2003. He did repeat on the conference and district all-academic teams.


"He displayed a tremendous amount of courage," Pflugrad says. "A lot of guys can't play hurt, but he can."


Adding to Bienemann's pain last year was WSU's 5-6 record after two straight 10-win seasons, bowl appearances and Top 10 final rankings.


"After last year," Bienemann says, "you realize how much you want to get to a bowl game."


Bienemann's chances of playing in a third bowl game looked promising when the Cougars started 3-0 this year. Since then, however, the Cougars have lost two straight and looked bad doing it. WSU's next five opponents are ranked in at least one of the Top 25 polls.


Starting in a third bowl game would steer another knife into the hearts of recruiters who passed on Bienemann. He starred for traditional California prep powerhouse St. Francis in the shadow of Stanford University -- highly respected for mixing academics with athletics -- but Bienemann said Cardinal coach Ty Willingham (now at Washington) never gave him a look.


Asked if that provides him with added motivation when facing Stanford and Washington, Bienemann fairly simmers. "You could say that," he snaps.


Bienemann says he suspects that his lack of speed scared off recruiters.


"He didn't show explosive speed," Pflugrad says, "but you could see the athleticism."


The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Bienemann still lacks blazing speed, but he's third on the Cougars with 17 receptions, fourth with 217 receiving yards and tied for second with two touchdown catches.


"If you have great technique, you can get away without having great speed," Pflugrad says. "In and out of his breaks, he's as good as any tight end in America."


Bienemann, a finance and communications major, revels in the role of the underdog. A self-described late bloomer, Bienemann laughs when recalling his first season of tackle football in the eighth grade.


"They had a rule that you had to play six plays minimum," Bienemann says. "I was a six-play guy. I was just the worst!"


Nine years later (Bienemann was a "grayshirt" who enrolled in January of his freshman year), Pflugrad predicts Bienemann will be playing in the NFL next season.


"He does some things that guys on Sundays are not doing," Pflugrad says.


Judging from his 3.72 grade point average, Bienemann also has done some things on weekdays in the classroom that few others are doing. Bienemann says he and sister Cassie -- an airline pilot who played water polo at Cal -- owe everything to their now-divorced parents, Tom (a KHQ-TV reporter) and Gail (a hospital nurse practitioner in Santa Clara).


"They got us involved," Bienemann says. "They did the whole parent thing."


Bienemann, in turn, has done the whole child-student-athlete-citizen thing quite well.





Washington State (3-2) plays its homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 3:30 pm against 12th-ranked UCLA (5-0). The game will be nationally televised on FSN. A sellout is possible. Call (800) GO-COUGS.

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