by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ine years, one blown career and thousands of heartaches later, Ryan Leaf fondly looks back at the game that changed Washington State football forever as the "favorite game of my entire career."

WSU's football program had been overshadowed by the Washington Huskies for eons before Leaf pushed the Cougars into the Rose Bowl for the first time in 67 years by leading WSU to a 41-35 victory over the hated Huskies in the 1997 Apple Cup.

"It was the most amazing thing," Leaf said by phone from Canyon, Texas, where he's the first-year quarterbacks coach of NCAA Division II power West Texas A & amp;M. "To beat them in their stadium in front of all those fans, and our fans lifting us on their shoulders and carrying us around, and you've got roses in your hand...."

Leaf didn't feel nearly as giddy when he woke up five days earlier. Cougar wide receiver Chris Jackson provided the Huskies with mounds of bulletin-board material by casually informing a newspaper reporter how he and Leaf were going to destroy the Washington secondary.

"Coach [Mike] Price had him in the office at 7 in the morning, just ripping him a new one," Leaf recalled.

Alas, all was forgiven when Leaf passed for 358 yards and two touchdowns and Jackson caught eight passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the Apple Cup. Incredibly, Leaf accomplished all this while playing with a badly injured right thumb on his throwing hand.

"I thought it was broken ... I hit it on a helmet about the third play of the game," Leaf says. "I hid my thumb in my hand warmer the whole game so Coach Price wouldn't see it.

"He saw my thumb after the game, and it was about the size of my whole hand."

Leaf recovered in plenty of time for the Rose Bowl, but another stellar performance by Leaf wasn't quite enough to prevent top-ranked Michigan from winning a 21-16 thriller in Pasadena.

Little did anyone suspect it at the time, but the Rose Bowl would prove to be the beginning of the end for Leaf as a football player. He bypassed his senior year to enter the 1998 NFL draft and was picked second overall behind some fellow named Peyton Manning, but Leaf threw almost as many temper tantrums as interceptions during a brief and stunningly inept pro career.

Leaf's coaching career has been far more impressive thus far. In a mirror image of Leaf's final season at WSU going into the Rose Bowl, West Texas is 10-1, a conference champion and headed to the postseason, which consists of a 16-team national playoff in Division II.

"It's worked out great," Leaf says. "My expectations have been exceeded three or four times.

"Even though I was nervous about packing up and driving down to Texas, everything's been great. The quarterbacks are terrific, and the staff and coaches are unbelievable."

Price helped line up Leaf with West Texas. After Leaf returned to WSU for one year to finish work on his degree, he then spent a year traveling in Europe and following younger brother Brady, a backup quarterback at Oregon.

"I'm so proud of him. He's got all my good qualities and none of my bad ones," Leaf says.

The 30-year-old Leaf makes virtually no money working as a "volunteer" coach, but he says the experience has been priceless despite the heavy demands on a small-college coach.

"We're the equipment managers, and we're the ball boys," he says with a laugh. "We travel by bus -- 15 hours to Kingsville (Texas) on the Gulf Coast. It's not easy, but I'm having a great time."

Still, Leaf says he has no regrets about delaying his start in coaching for one year so he could tour Europe in the summer of 2005 for what Leaf terms "a life-changing experience."

"I ran with the bulls and did everything," Leaf says. "I skydived, like, eight mornings in a row in Switzerland.

"I experienced everything, did everything. I saw every museum, saw every piece of art. I brought along my cousin with me."

Leaf, who was married briefly to a former San Diego Chargers cheerleader, says his long-range goal is to become head coach of Montana or Montana State, the two NCAA Division I-AA programs in his home state.

"That's as high as I need to go," Leaf says. "I don't need to be in the limelight."

Washington State and Washington square off in football for the 99th time in the Apple Cup on Saturday at WSU's Martin Stadium (3:45 pm, FSN, KXLY 920). The Cougars (6-5 overall, 4-4 Pacific-10 Conference) hope to beat Washington (4-7, 2-6) for the third straight year for the first time in the 106-year-old series, which Washington leads 63-29-6. A win likely clinches a bowl berth for WSU.

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