The Legacy Of Jake Locker

Terry LyttleContributor INovember 23, 2010

“Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob'ly die in a small town
Oh, those small communities”  John Mellencamp, Small Town

Just a few miles below the Canadian border nestled along the Nooksack River is the small town of Ferndale, Washington. Population 12,000. Home of the division 3A Golden Eagles football team.

As a freshman, Jake Locker earned first-team All-Northwest league honors as a  defensive back, but was switched to quarterback his sophomore season due to his incredible arm strength, which he displayed pitching a 95 mph fastball for the Golden Eagles’ baseball team. As a senior, Locker was named Washington’s 3A Player of the Year in both football and baseball.

In three seasons Jake led the Golden Eagles to a 37-4 record, including a 14-0 senior season where the team averaged 40 points per game.  The residents of Ferndale viewed these players as celebrities.  In the state championship game against the Prosser Mustangs Locker went up against Boise State's Heisman prospect Kellen Moore.  Despite Prosser’s powerful offense it was all Jake Locker running for 138 yards and passing for 106 more, leading the Golden Eagles to a 47-7 victory.

Coach Jamie Plenkovich had the Golden Eagles playing a variation of the Wing-T offense, so Locker never learned to read defenses because it wasn’t necessary. The plays revolved around either running the ball or using his powerful arm to throw long passes down field.

It was time for the small-town boy with so much potential to take it to the next level.  Pros: Character, tremendous athleticism, arm strength, size (6’ 3”, 225); 4.4 40-yard dash speed and leadership.  Cons:  The fundamentals of the quarterback position, reading defenses, foot work, balance and correctly taking snaps.

Admitting that Locker lacked some of the abilities quarterbacks from larger schools possessed, Golden Eagle coach Plenkovich said, “Reading defenses, and throwing the three-step and five-step stuff, he was certainly behind those other guys going to (NCAA) Division 1.”

Locker received 17 scholarship offers from universities including USC, Tennessee and Michigan. In late 2005. he announced he would attend Washington.

The Tyrone Willingham four-year era is one the Husky fan would just as soon forget.  Coach Willingham isolated himself and the team, not endearing himself to neither fans, boosters, community or media. Practices were closed and former players were not welcomed, and it became obvious he had created a 'us against the world' attitude.

In 2007, Locker played the entire season, passing for 2,062 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging a total of 254 offensive yards per game.

In 2008, Locker broke his thumb four games into the season and utter disaster ensued.  Coach Willingham led Washington to its worst season in school history (0-12), and subsequently was allowed to resign.

At this point, how easy would have it been for Locker to transfer to a top university?  Washington had just finished a winless season, the coach resigned, and both offensive and defensive lines had big problems. However, this is not Locker's mentality: for him, commitment and legacy are important. Years from now, what will the record of his life reveal about his decisions?  

Washington and Seattle then did a USC blitz. Washington snatched offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian as their new head coach, followed by USC’s defensive coordinator Tim Holt. A few months later USC’s coach Pete Carroll took over the Seahawks coaching position vacated by the fired Jim Mora.

Coach Sarkisian and Holt brought a bolt of excitement and energy to a drained program.  Practices were open to the public, former players were encouraged to visit, and Rose Bowl-winning quarterback Marcus Tuiasosopo joined the staff as an assistant.

Sarkisian brought in experienced quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier as well. This was to help Locker make the transition out of the bad habits he developed in high school to good ones pro scouts would take notice of.  

On June 10, 2009, just prior to his debut under Sarkisian, Locker was drafted in the 10th round by the Los Angeles Angels in the MLB draft. Oddly, not as a pitcher, but to use his speed and athleticism as a center fielder. $250,000 was given to reserve his playing rights for 6 years, if that was the direction Locker eventually opted for.

When asked about his draft situation Locker commented, “All my attention is on football and this doesn’t change any of that.” Noting that his priorities have been made clear, Locker said that the Angels 'understand that if I have a chance to play football, I’m going to.'

The 2009 season was decent for a team coming off a 0-12 debacle. Washington finished 5-7 and Locker played great. The junior passed for 2,800 yards and had a 21-11 touchdown-interception ration, plus averaging 265.7 offensive yards per game.

Locker now faced a life changing decision: enter the NFL draft where he was projected as the number-one overall pick, with a guaranteed contract anywhere between $30-$50 million, or go back for his senior season. Locker wanted to support Washington and help with its rebuilding process, so he returned for his senior season.

I think we have all experienced at least once a situation where people do something for our benefit that we do not necessary want, then later suspect an ulterior motive behind their benevolence. Enter Jake Locker.

Washington athletic director Scott Woodward decided to reward Locker’s decision to stay for his senior year by running a massive Heisman campaign. Being the consummate team player, Locker went along with it, but said, “Publicity is not something I’m comfortable with. If you asked me, would I rather just play football and not do it? Heck yeah!”

One has to wonder: was this purely for Jake Locker's benefit, or was this also a method to get exposure for the university and build a relationship with ESPN for the Pac-10?

Locker went to New York twice to interview with the media; then to ESPN's studio in Bristol, CT. He began appearing on the airwaves around the country: television, radio, and on internet podcasts.

He was scheduled to go with Sarkisian to Los Angeles for the Pac-10's media day, but was so exhausted defensive back Mason Foster took his place. Locker desperately needed a sabbatical, so he returned to Ferndale where his family took him out camping to recuperate.

“I think the flights took more toll on me than the actual interview process. It was pretty crazy. A different atmosphere, a different lifestyle, for sure.” Locker said.

The Heisman hype was everywhere, creating what was called 'Husky Fever.' Locker was viewed as a type of savior: one who would deliver his team out of mediocrity by producing 7-8 wins and Washington’s first bowl game since 2002.

During the Pioneer Days celebration in Ferndale, Jake was named the Grand Marshal of the Old Settlers Day Parade, where he rode on the back of a fire truck and Mayor Gary Jensen officially announced that July 24th as ‘Jake Locker Day’.

Sports Illustrated had Locker as their preseason Heisman pick, and ESPN listed Locker number two behind Alabama’s Mark Ingram.

All the hype led into the opening game with BYU. The Huskies had not won a road game in three years, but BYU was playing a freshman quarterback in Jake Heaps. Down by six late in the fourth quarter, Locker had the opportunity to look like a Heisman candidate.  The Huskies were driving, but Locker reverted to those bad habits that were ingrained in high school.  He made a bad read which resulted in a worse throw. Game over.  It was such a deflating decision, it prompted this response from coach Sarkisian: “Uh, Jake...what was that about?”  

Washington was 1-1, entering their big game against Nebraska.  The entire team played like Locker: terrible. The Senior was four of 20 for 71 yards, one TD and two interceptions. All hopes of a Heisman Trophy quickly faded like the tail lights of car being swallowed up in a dense fog.

What about Locker’s future in the NFL? According to some sports analysts and coaches, he has nothing to worry about. They believe when Locker is tested at the NFL combine, his draft stock will skyrocket. ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said this about Locker, “I don’t have any doubt that when it gets to the testing, he will blow the top-tier guys out of the water.”

Echoing the same sentiment, coach Sarkisian said, “when it comes to running, jumping, throwing, arm strength, he’s going to test through the roof on that.”

If the NFL does not work out for Locker, he has a future in Major League Baseball with the Los Angeles Angels.

The University of Washington has had many prolific quarterbacks throughout its history: Warren Moon; Chris Chandler, Sonny Sixkiller, Tom Flick, Mark Brunell, Billy Joe Hobert, and Marcus Tuiasosopo.

This is how Locker rates against them:

First in rushing yards by a quarterback
Second in passing yards
Second in passing completions
Second in 200 yard passing games
Third in touchdown passes

Locker’s legacy?  It’s etched in stone. The guy befriended kids with cancer. His teammates would go to war for him. In four years at Washington, he never lit up a teammate or coach, but was always the first to lend encouragement.

“As talented as he is physically, he’s a better person, a better teammate.  His teammates love him.  They love his work ethic and the passion he plays with and the preparation he brings.  They’re in this together,” said coach Sarkisian.

Jake Locker helped put Washington back on the collegiate football map, luring top prospects such as Joe Montana’s son Nick to the program. Because of Jake Locker and this new coaching regime, a solid foundation has been established and Husky football is heading in the right direction.


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