Some students finish school and never take the time to look back. The same goes, perhaps even more so, for student athletes, who often return to their home states or get caught up in either pursuing pro careers or lives outside of sports.
This year, though, one football player made a special effort to reconnect athletes whose names were once synonymous with WSU.
Wanting to give back to the school that gave him a college career, Derek Sparks ’95 approached the WSU Athletic Department and asked if he could be of use in some way. Someone tossed out the idea of his reaching out to his teammates and bringing them back for Homecoming. It had been too long since he had seen some of his old friends, so he jumped on the notion. “I just got out my phonebook and started calling,” says Sparks. “I reached out to guys who hadn’t been back in 10 years, 15, years, 20 years.”
And they came—from Washington, California, and around the west. Some came by plane, some drove with their families—among them, many of the men who made up the Palouse Posse, the legendary 1990s defense secondary players. The homecoming efforts also drew athletes from other sports, including track and basketball.
DeWayne Patterson flew in from Oakland, returning to Pullman for the first time since 1995. Though he didn’t really bring it up over the weekend, the trip was particularly poignant to him because it was the 20th anniversary of him breaking the single season sack record, with 17 in 1993. He set the career record for WSU, too, with 37.5 sacks from 1991 to 1994.
It was great to relive some great memories, but the best part was catching up with everyone, says Patterson. “And the old-time guys got to meet up with the new faces around Pullman.”
Shaumbe Wright-Fair ’92, the running back who sprinted into history during the 1992 Apple Cup, drove from central California with his three teenaged sons. “My kids have heard stories and watched videos of me. But this was different,” he says. Showing them his old dorm room, visiting the field, and driving by the apartment where he and his wife Kelly lived during school meant so much more.
“When you’re living it, you’re just getting through it,” says Wright-Fair. “But now you realize the work you put in and how few people get the opportunities that we had.”
When Sparks was on campus a week earlier, he ran into former WSU football coach Mike Price and convinced him to alter his schedule to be in town and see some of the players who went with him to the 1992 Copper Bowl and the 1994 Alamo Bowl. The coach agreed. Having a flexible schedule is one of the benefits of being retired, says Price.
What made this reunion particularly special, says Price, was that it was “really kind of a grassroots experience,” with a former player doing most of the work reaching out to his teammates and coordinating the weekend. “We just had a blast. It was so much fun seeing everyone.” Price relished hearing the stories of what the players had done since leaving WSU, and meeting their wives and children. “It’s a special group of people. It’s gratifying to see how they’ve grown up to be fine men.”
They met up at the Hilltop Inn on Friday to share food and stories about their college days. To everyone’s amusement, former defensive back Torey Hunter, who now coaches at the University of Idaho, performed impersonations of their old coaches. More than 50 former WSU athletes came for the weekend. There were Cougs who had competed in the ’60s and ’70s, and some who had graduated after 2000. And from the 1990s: Chris Jackson, who went on to play in the NFL, cornerback John Diggs, defensive tackle Chad Eaton, running back Michael Black, and retired Seahawk Robbie Tobeck, to name a few.
Some went on to play professionally, one owns a gym, and others became coaches and athletic directors; still others found jobs in law enforcement, finance, and teaching. Whether they are a paid coach or a volunteer, all have found ways to keep sports in their lives, says Sparks.
And not all the returning alumni had worn helmets and pads. Basketball player Isaac Fontaine ’97 and many other men and women who wore the Cougar uniform joined in. “It wasn’t just about football,” says Sparks. “It was about our bond as student athletes.”
Sparks put his energies into organizing the event because he was looking for ways to give back to the school that gave him a college football career and an education. As a high school student, Sparks had been plucked from his childhood home in Wharton, Texas, to play football at a private school in California where college recruiters might find him. He and his family believed that his talent and skill would lead him to a career with the National Football League.
But instead of an all-American high school experience, he was caught up in the manipulations of family members, coaches, and administrators. Sparks found that his simple dream of wanting to play football, finish high school, and move on to college was not an easy one.
“I was just a 17-year-old high school football player who had already taken cash, accepted gifts, and lived in homes provided by two different schools in as many years,” he wrote about the experience in his autobiography Lessons of the Game: the untold story of high school football.
Rumors about his family’s meddling and misinformation about his academic standing spread through Southern California and Sparks was snubbed by USC and UCLA. One school that was interested, even with his low SAT results, was Washington State. The school agreed to take him, and would sit him out until he raised his scores and became eligible.
Today Sparks has a nonprofit youth outreach organization and speaks at corporate events, sports camps and clinics, and high schools and universities, sharing his experiences with audiences, athletes and non-athletes alike. “I never set out to be a motivational speaker,” he says. “I don’t like that title.” He sees himself more as a coach, sometimes a mentor to students, and always a friend to his fellow players. That is why he hopes that this year’s reunion will be repeated next year and the year after. He hopes to get more athlete alumni to reconnect with the Gray W and with athletics as a whole.
This year the returning players toured the new facilities, wandered through the new stadium and stands, and even took some time to envy what the student athletes have now. “Even the new uniforms are beautiful,” says Patterson.
They also got to experience the game as fans—a first for many of them. “It was my first time being part of a tailgate,” says Patterson, who is already planning a return to Pullman next year. “It was great. Not only did I see other players, I ran into people who remember me from 20 years ago.”