With 4:13 left in the third quarter at Roos Field, Idaho State’s Nikko Hayes was hurt. On both knees at first, then one, the redshirt sophomore from Lompoc, California wasn’t right. No one surrounded him until one young man walked up and checked on him.
The young man started motioning to the Idaho State training staff to come check on Hayes, which they did. Then, the young man walked back to his team – the Eastern Washington Eagles.
When the clock struck 0:00 on last night’s 48-17 Eastern Washington victory and the post-game press conferences concluded, I couldn’t write. Oh, I could write. I just couldn’t write another routine game story.
Not this time.
Last night was the last regular season game at Roos Field for twelve EWU seniors. They are:
- #1 Shaq Hill: WR – Stockton, CA, 20 starts (co-captain)
- #2 Jabari Wilson: RB – Carson, CA, 16 starts
- #3 Samson Ebukam: DL – Portland, OR, 33 starts (co-captain)
- #4 Miquiyah Zamora: LB – Pasco, WA, 41 starts (co-captain)
- #5 Jordan West: QB – Maple Valley, WA, 13 starts
- #9 Zach Wimberly: TE – Tumwater, WA, 20 starts (co-captain)
- #10 Cooper Kupp: WR – Yakima, WA, 47 starts (co-captain)
- #11 Kendrick Bourne: WR – Portland, Oregon, 28 starts
- #23 J.J. Njoku: DB – Tacoma, WA, 7 starts
- #32 Zach Bruce: DB – Spokane, WA 19 starts (co-captain)
- #60 Jerrod Jones: OL – Arlington, WA, 5 starts
- #94 Matthew Sommer: DL – Salem, OR, 27 starts
As I watched each of them during pre-game Senior Day ceremonies, I watched them embrace their families and friends prior to their names being announced. Some had large entourages while others had just a few. But, each of them had someone to walk onto The Inferno with them.
Around the country, many other young men had or will have similar experiences this month. Whether this is at FCS level or FBS or Division II or III, even NAIA, each of them played college football. They found a home, a safe place, a talent, a skill through football. But, they cannot reach it alone.
They all had to have at least one person to believe in them. It could have been a dad or mom, an aunt or uncle, a brother or sister, a cousin, a neighbor, a friend, a teacher or, quite simply, a coach. Someone who, through word or action, encouraged them to believe in themselves.
The Eagle players embraced those people, but I believe they were also embracing those who weren’t there. The ones who also told them, “You can’t….” or “You won’t….”. Embracing brings challenge. Challenge to who you are as a person, a player and, in this case, as a man.
I remember back in 2012, covering this team for the first time, not really knowing what I was doing. I was like them, a freshman, in a way. Only my playing field was journalism. I knew sports, but covering them was a different level than sports fandom. They knew football, but college was a different level than high school.
Me, the players, we all watched and learned quickly early on. We participated, practiced, made mistakes, relished in victories, but we always desired to improve.
And, improve we did.
As the years have gone on, we became more involved in the entire process. While injuries or other circumstances prevented some from playing as much as they would have liked through the years, they were still helping teammates, asking questions, encouraging others and being ready when opportunities arose.
Injuries weren’t part of my field, thankfully, I still grew in my role. I observed, asked questions that others wouldn’t or didn’t know how to, encouraged others and was ready for every opportunity that came my way.
We grew up around the red turf.
I’ve covered these young men, but not in the way that some would think. I couldn’t travel to away games nor attend practices. Real life – a paying job – prevented that. But, I still felt like I knew them.
I’d read the stories, watch them whether they were on the field or not. As those around me would talk about them, I listened. I asked questions of them or about them.
And some, I even interviewed.
Miquiyah Zamora was a unique name on the Eastern Washington roster. Because one cannot and should not ever assume anything based solely on a name, I asked the EWU Sports Information department if Zamora was Hispanic. The answer was yes.
Most folks in football view the sport in black-and-white terms. A quick look at the NFL shows a measley 0.8% of players are Latino, 1.9% Asian and 0.2% identify as Other, according to T.I.D.E.S. Easy to see why media and fans view it with black-and-white glasses, no?
When I found out Zamora was Hispanic, I began following him more closely. In 2014, I was able to do a story on him for The Sporting Nation. Back then, he was a shy, nervous kid around the media, including me, despite our shared Latino heritage.
We talked about football, his teammates and his grandpa, who raised him. We talked about him again after last night’s win. “That guy, bar none, one of the hardest, toughest working guys,” said Zamora. “When he was raising me, that rubbed off on me.”
The memories these seniors have of their time at Eastern Washington will last a lifetime. For me, I remember watching Shaq Hill take a kick at or near the end zone (hard to remember these days), and running up the sideline – taking it all the way to the house. Kind of like freshman running back Antoine Carter, Jr did last night.
— No. 6 EWU Football (@EWUFootball) November 13, 2016
Then, there’s Kendrick Bourne putting moves on hapless defensive backs, making guy after guy miss.
How about Jabari Wilson refusing to go down with two defenders grasping at his uniform, trying to get one extra yard.
Last night, there was Zach Wimberly getting an opportunity to score a touchdown after a costly third-quarter fumble – a play that looked as though Wimberly wanted to hurdle a defender. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, Zach.)
I remember this guy below – a photo I’m grateful for being in the right place and the right time that day. Samson Ebukam intercepted a Southern Utah pass and sprinted – yes, sprinted – in for the touchdown…as a freshman.
I’ll remember last night too, not for what Jerrod Jones did on the field. Wait, then again, he did do something memorable on the field last night. He proposed to his girlfriend during the senior walk-out.
— Keith Osso (@OssoKXLY) November 13, 2016
She said yes.
Nikko Hayes of the Idaho State Bengals was hurt. The young man I wrote about that checked on him was none other than Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp. The record-setting and reigning FCS Player of the Year, was concerned about his opponent.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen Kupp check on an opponent on the field. It was in that moment, I knew I couldn’t write a regular game story.
For all the records and accolades that have and will come Cooper Kupp’s way, one thing remains – who he is as a young man.
Kupp is a young man that has a genuine, caring heart. He cares about teammates, opponents – just people in general. “It’s a blessing to play with him,” said Zamora. “Even when I’m…kind of mad, he can calm a guy like me down.”
You want Cooper Kupp for an interview, it’s hard for him to say no. Especially after setting the record for most receptions in FCS history last night with his 396th, a pass tossed by his good friend and fellow senior, Jordan West. He will give you his time…unless, of course, Coach says otherwise.
“It’s been an amazing five years here,” said Kupp, post-game. “Being able to learn from some of the best players, who I think have been some of the best in the nation, year in and year out – guys that just challenged me and pushed me to be the best that I can be.”
Kupp checking on Nikko Hayes is Cooper Kupp in a nutshell. He cares about every part of the game, not just the game itself, but the people in it. All of the people.
Kupp will go down as one of the greatest players in history not just at Eastern Washington but in FCS. He and his fellow seniors have left a legacy of resiliency, passion and focus. Their efforts won’t soon be forgotten.
I hope that I find myself in Frisco, Texas in early January covering their final game ever as Eastern Washington Eagles. That is where the FCS National Championship game is played every year.
I don’t hope that in the sense that I am cheering for the team. Far from it. As a journalist, I don’t root for teams that I cover. I do, however, cheer for stories. Having been a mom for 30 years, it’s hard for this mother’s heart to not cheer for young people.
I cheer for them to find success in life. In every relationship, that they would find joy. In every venture, they find growth. In every opportunity, they find knowledge. In every loss or failure, they would find strength to get up and get going again. In every challenge, they find confidence. In every victory, they find satisfaction in the process.
Finally, along every path, I pray they find belief – a belief in themselves and others.
Still, there’s a great deal of football left to play this season. It’s a long way to Frisco from here on November 13, 2016. But, these Eastern Washington Eagle seniors know this. Yet, it’s hard for them not to realize the fruits of their labor and struggles from previous years playing out now.
Perhaps that’s what I am cheering, or praying, for most. Whatever positives come out of their experience at Eastern Washington, I pray they pass that along to others. Determination, effort, hard work and most importantly, belief.
Thank you Shaq, Jabari, Samson, Miquiyah, Jordan, Zach, Cooper, Kendrick, J.J., Zach, Jerrod and Matthew.
I cheer not for your victory on the field, but in life.