Arrow-right Camera
Sports

John Blanchette: Football finishes a distant second

The fan had crumpled at the bottom of the steps that bisect sections D and E of the main grandstand at Roos Field, and almost instantly everything stopped.

The game. The scoreboard clock. The noise for a comeback by the home team that still seemed halfway possible, and the slow leave-taking of those who had reluctantly given up on that possibility.

Everything stopped.

Everything, of course, except the civilian Samaritans who were first to the fan’s side, and then the paramedics who worked with a fixed and fierce determination. And the prayers and tears and more prayers that always attend a private crisis in a public venue.

Those never stop.

Not 50 feet away, the players and staff on Eastern Washington’s sideline watched in numb silence, their backs turned to the field and the 100 seconds that remained of their 2014 football season. Behind them, out at the far hashmarks, the day’s opponent in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals – the Illinois State Redbirds – had taken a respectful knee, their joy delayed.

“I was just praying to the Lord, ‘Let this guy be OK,’ ” said Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams. “It’s already a bad day for everybody. Please let it not be something so much worse.”

An ambulance pulled around the red track and alongside the stands, and in the moments before the fallen fan was put on the gurney a uniformed man made his way toward the Eagle players and asked, “Where’s 65?”

“And that’s when everybody lost it,” Adams remembered.

Because that meant it was one of their own.

No. 65 is senior Jake Rodgers, the Eagles’ giant right tackle, a Spokane kid who once started at Washington State before finding a happier fit at Eastern. He is the team’s most reliable blocker, All-Big Sky, a likely All-American – all of which had nothing to do with why his teammates swarmed to his side when the news came that it was Rodgers’ father, John, receiving CPR in the stands and their friend dropped to his knees.

“You just think, ‘This can’t possibly be happening,’ ” said Jase Butorac, another senior lineman who counts Rodgers among his best friends.

First they surrounded him in a massive, communal hug, and then they embraced, one by virtually every one. They watched as John Rodgers was loaded into the ambulance and Jake and other family members climbed in beside him. And before they resumed the business of football they kneeled for one more prayer, as the siren wailed away on Washington Street.

By mid-evening, word had come down that John Rodgers was in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

But the disbelief – the fog of unreality – remained, a product both of the season coming to a crushing end and the awful moment that tore their hearts out anew.

Coach Beau Baldwin would confess later that, as the ambulance sped away, he was at something of a loss.

“There’s no handbook on how you do that – how you just kind of keep going forward,” he said.

So you just do.

“When I gathered them together I just said let’s play for Jake and his family, and we prayed together,” Baldwin said. “No matter how this finishes – this last 1:40 – Jake would be the first one to say, ‘Let’s put our helmets on and finish it right.’ ”

And so the Eagles made one last stab with a pooch kickoff that the visitors recovered, and that was good enough. Illinois State then began the most subdued winners’ celebration in football history, and Eastern tried to make sense of the day.

“I’m still in shock,” Butorac said.

Since their national championship in 2010 and a year to regroup, the Eagles have made three unrequited playoff runs that have ended on their treasured red turf. This was the first time, however, that the Eagles got, well, worked – which will happen when a more physical team with similar balance, plays what Baldwin characterized as a “cleaner” game.

Still, he’d like to gaze at the bigger picture – three straight Big Sky titles – a little longer.

“You know, that used to be the benchmark here,” he said.

Then again, Butorac noted that there would have been some sadness had the season ended next month in Frisco with a victory.

“It’s not the loss,” he said. “It’s the fact you’re done being a part of this brotherhood. I mean, I’ll be back – I’ll be that guy ‘who used to be here.’

“But it’ll be different. It always is.”

There were many allowances afterward how the scary circumstances of the day’s end put the game of football in “perspective,” though frankly if we need such reminders our perspective is forever skewed. But surely everyone left Roos Field with a good thought for the Rodgers family, and not consumed by the disappointment – or in ISU’s case, the triumph – of the final score.

We wrote it down here somewhere. But it doesn’t seem to be that important now.

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.

You have been successfully subscribed!
There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email webteam@spokesman.com

Powered by Fastenall