The post-game ritual was about to begin. In the midst of a boisterous celebration, everybody takes a knee and a different Eastern Washington University football player says a prayer. The Eagles had just defeated top-ranked Southern Illinois in the first round of the 1-AA college football playoffs last Saturday.
Coach Paul Wulff was waiting patiently to address his team, but only after everyone knelt for a moment of silence. "We're a family, get in tight," someone yelled above the noise. Suddenly the locker room was still. "Lord, I don't even know what to say." Nervous laughter began to erupt. The Eagles could barely contain themselves. For the second week in a row, they'd rallied on the road for a come-from-behind win, this one settled on the game's final play when the defense batted down a pass.
The prayer continued. "I just want to thank you for this victory. These guys, the family we have here." Silence returned. "Be with the guys who are banged up a bit, get us home safely, so that we can keep on rockin' 'n' rollin'." And the room responded in unison, "AMEN!"
"Fellas, you know what we get from this?" shouted Wulff, quieting down the locker room enough to be heard. "Four more quarters." More bedlam.
Eastern Washington University had survived and now will play in the 1-AA quarterfinals on Saturday at 4:30 pm in Cheney against Sam Houston State. "I don't know what to say, except that you are a phenomenal group," Wulff bellowed. "A great family."
At those words, those who know Wulff best -- and know about his childhood and about the loss of his first wife Tammy -- began to tear up. There are moments when sports and life intersect, and this was one of those moments. Family is what sustained Wulff in his early years, it's what drove him to excel in football so that he could get a college degree at WSU and it's what got him through the toughest years. "To me family is a group of people who come together in all circumstances," says Wulff. "No matter what the highest or lowest point, no matter what the adversity." His words trail off.
For a moment, he's lost in the memory of his first wife Tammy, who died of brain cancer nearly three years ago after a lengthy battle. Or perhaps he remembers still being a child, a 12-year-old boy, when his mother disappeared. His father, the prime suspect, was arrested. But his Dad never went to trial because there wasn't enough evidence. The youngest of four children, Wulff only says that "he had tremendous family support" from his brothers (who were 21 and 16 at the time), from his then 19-year-old sister and from relatives and friends. "The one thing I've learned is to never let the lows get you too low, or the highs too high," says Wulff. "If you bump yourself into the high or low of the emotion, the roller coaster can get too tilted."
Wulff adds that "he wasn't a very good football coach" when Tammy was fighting her battle with cancer. Still, his teams finished each of his first four seasons with a winning record. But the last three years, his teams have been 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference. "I've been more intense this season," says Wulff. "I didn't allow myself to have that 'fire in the belly' the last few years, in part because of my loss. But also I had such young teams, so my approach was to be more cautious."
But now, in his fifth season, Wulff has thrown all caution to the wind. He has built a truly fearsome offense, and his recruiting has been strong, too, as he and his staff have found some gems among those players passed over by bigger programs -- players like quarterback Erik Meyer, a baseball prospect from Orange County whose play has Division 1 coaches wondering how they missed him. Wulff has already been named as the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year, and is one of 16 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Div. I-AA Coach of the Year Award.
Feeling more like himself again, Wulff wants to work his team harder than he's ever worked them -- each and every week. And it's working.
"Because of our work and training, we have bonded together," says Wulff. "For the first time, all of these kids are mine, my coaching staff is settled, these are the guys I want to work with. And I can think clearer, because of my grief. It's almost like I was on hold for a couple of years."
Wulff's personal life is also more settled. He and his new wife Sherry have two children. "That's God working on my behalf, blessing me, putting me into a stable family situation," says Wulff. "This is an emotional, stressful job, but now home life is my calm and consistent."
Still, the season has not been without some roller coaster moments. After a nearly disastrous 0-2 start, Wulff's Eagles beat Central Washington. The following week, while preparing for their conference opener, two senior offensive linemen quit "for personal reasons." Wulff started two freshmen, yet Eastern running back Darius Washington rushed for 228 yards and four TDs in a 47-22 rout of Idaho State.
The following week, as the Eagles prepared to play at Portland State, another player -- a starting defensive tackle -- quit the team. That same week, one of those freshman offensive tackles, Rocky Hanni, couldn't play because of a concussion. Randy Mead, who had suffered a knee injury, had to go instead, even though he wasn't 100 percent. Before the game, Wulff was distraught, unsure how his team would respond. Yet the Eagles beat Portland State by 21 points. "That game was huge," recalls Wulff, "because they were very good and had perhaps the best talent in the league. We became an extremely tight-knit group because of how we overcame all that adversity."
Since then, the Eagles have lost only one game. Even then, with no time left on the game clock, perennial powerhouse Montana had to block an Eagle field goal attempt which could have put the game into overtime. If all goes well, the Eagles could get another shot at Montana next weekend, in the semifinals, but first they have to beat Sam Houston State University of Huntsville, Texas, co-champions of the Southland Conference. The game will played at Woodward Field in Cheney, late Saturday afternoon at 4:30 pm.
Don't let this end," Wulff shouted after the win at Southern Illinois last weekend. "I'm dang proud of you guys. I love you all." With that, the Eagles concluded their ritual by counting down the number of points scored, which happened to be 35. Never have hands and helmets banging on wooden benches sounded so sweet.
"The win over No. 1 Southern Illinois was exciting," Wulff said later, back to work for the next game. "But our goal is ultimately a national championship. The players and coaches don't want this to end."
Paul Seebeck is the host of the "Eagle Tailgate Show" for all Eagles football radio broadcasts.