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Football’s forgotten efforts

Although the sun has long since ducked under the horizon, the final remnants of a fall afternoon linger in the air at PGE Park. The dusky twilight plays off the facade of the buildings outside the stadium where fans in black and green sweatshirts mill about, their conversation punctuated with short blasts of steam in the October air. Gulls circle on the crisp breeze as the last of the afternoon clouds stretch west toward the ocean. It is a day for college football in Oregon.

Spectators congregate before the upcoming contest between the Portland State Vikings and the Weber State Wildcats at a beer garden just outside the stadium. Thick smoke billows from a grill loaded with sausage. Pabst Blue Ribbon goes for $2.25, and the takers are many. Large speakers broadcast the Seattle Mariners’ playoff drubbing of the World Champion Yankees, and on a Saturday afternoon in Northwest Portland, all accounts in the world seem squared, if only for a few hours.

Inside the park, however, the atmosphere is one of anticipation. The Vikings’ inability to generate offensive momentum early in games has contributed to their slow start in Big Sky Conference play, and as the players go through drills before the game, the sense of urgency is palpable. Rap music pulses over the stadium’s sound system. The scoreboard counts down the seconds to kickoff and as the bleachers slowly fill with fans, the air is charged with an undercurrent of electricity.

For the average college football fan, the package comes together nicely. Max trains deposit waves of revelers outside the stadium walls three times an hour as busses lumber up and down Burnside.

PSU track and cross-country athletes sell programs throughout the park and vendors meander up and down the rows of bleachers, hawking candy and soda. PGE Park staff members deliver chilled glasses of chardonnay and Northwest micro-brews to the seats for those who arrive early. Viewing major college football in an urban venue never seemed so easy, right?

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of many, the answer to that question, for most, is yes.

In the weeks, days and hours leading up to the 6:05 p.m. kickoff, an immeasurable quantity of energy and resource has been expended in the staging of a PSU football game at PGE Park. From promotions and media relations to sports medicine and coaching, from game and business operations to equipment preparation and NCAA compliance, from term papers and chemistry tests to cut-blocks and post-patterns, literally hundreds of people have had a hand in the genesis of a local major college football contest.

Because the season begins in mid-August and stretches into November, it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise place to begin. For the sake of the following look at PSU Viking football, we’ll start at the foot of Mike Cajal-Willis.

First QuarterThe fans rise in unison and the pep band launches into a horn-heavy rendition of Louie Louie. Nightfall has descended on Portland and the weather is markedly cooler. Weber State lines up in a return formation as the PSU Vikings trot out for the kickoff. Cajal-Willis raises his hand to signal the kickoff and the pep band builds to a furious crescendo that culminates with a 60-yard boot. The kick is returned by Weber State to the 16-yard line where the team’s prolific offense, led by National Player of the Year candidate Johnnie Gray, takes the field. Fans remain standing, exhorting the PSU defense to hold the line, and after an early first down, the defense does just that. It’s a good omen against a team that punted only once in their previous game against Northern Arizona.

In its first possession on offense, however, PSU struggles to move the ball and is forced to kick it away. Both teams have come out of the gate slowly on offense, an anomaly for two of the highest scoring units in the Big Sky.

PSU’s defense again takes the field to a rousing ovation. However, the sentiment is short-lived as Gray scores after three plays, showing a burst of speed that turns heads in the press box.

The teams trade turnovers over the next few possessions with PSU taking over deep in its own territory, down by seven points with 10 minutes to go in the first quarter. They line up in a pro-set formation. In true Big Sky fashion, both teams have begun to show signs of life on offense and on this possession, it’s PSU’s turn to shine. Offensive coordinator Dave Telford, searching for a balanced attack, mixes a short pass in with three run plays for a first down. Then the onslaught begins. Quarterback Juston Wood hits Terry Charles, the Vikings’ 6-foot-4, 205 lb. senior receiver along the left sideline for seven yards. Charles has drawn attention from NFL scouts for his size, speed and play-making ability. The next play is a crossing pattern to Charles for 12 yards and he jogs back to the huddle with a swagger in his step. The crowd is in to it. After a short run, Wood looks for Charles deep and the athletic wideout makes a diving grab for a 46-yard completion. The consensus in the press box is that this Charles kid is for real. In a fitting end to an impressive drive, Wood connects with Charles on a 13-yard touchdown. After the crowd makes a collective gasp of disbelief, Charles has to contort his body to shield a defender off the ball while diving out-stretched on the play. Fans tear the roof off of PGE Park. Following the extra point, Portland State has tied the score at seven.

Weber State quickly scores on its next possession, feeding the PSU defense a steady diet of Johnnie Gray. The elusive back makes a nice cut inside and scores from 15 yards out to silence the crowd. PSU’s defense is arm-tackling and failing to wrap men up. The coaching staff grows increasingly frustrated with each blown tackle, and the defensive unit gets a tongue lashing on the sideline after Gray’s second score of the game. The clock ticks off the last seconds of the quarter and PSU trails by seven points. As the PSU cheerleading squad slings rolled up T-shirts into the bleachers and the pep band launches into another rousing fight number, the event rolls along smoothly, and a look at the efforts of those that work hard to present the contest comes into focus.

Sunday, Monday, TuesdayThe life of a college football coach is hectic. It’s a profession that begs sacrifice from those not only in the coaching ranks, but also from the extended groups of family and friends that support them.

Coaching is a stress-filled job in which success is demanded and only rarely recognized, but failure is widely publicized and can follow a coach over the course of his professional life. Head coach Tim Walsh’s eight-year tenure at PSU is remarkable in a climate of free agency for coaches at the major college football level. For that success, he has been nominated for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award and his teams have made the playoffs at both Divisions II and I-AA levels.

Walsh can credit a hard-working staff and a systemic approach to coaching that places a premium on dedication and preparation.

The coaching staff, team trainers, equipment personnel and various assistant directors inside the athletic department put in extensive hours over a seven-day work week during the football season.

From the second week in August, there are no days off. The preparation for the upcoming opponent begins mid-day Sunday.

“On Sunday mornings I try to give some time to my coaching staff, so they have the opportunity to spend three or four hours with their families,” Walsh said. “We usually begin our preparation for the upcoming game around noon on Sundays.”

The first responsibility for the coaching staff is to grade the passing game, in which the coaches assign a value to every pass thrown by Wood in the previous night’s contest, assessing the plays in terms of execution and success.

Meanwhile the athletes report to training room at 1 p.m. at the Peter Stott Center. There, team athletic trainer Ariko Iso tends to injured players and oversees rehabilitation assignments. She treats anywhere from 10 to 20 players the day after a game.

“Some just need maintenance, icing and stretching, while others need x-rays or testing for the following week,” Iso said. “It usually takes a few hours.”

At three o’clock the coaching staff convenes for a meeting in which topics for discussion include everything from the previous night’s contest and the manner in which it was run, to upcoming travel arrangements and player personnel briefings. For the coaching staff, it’s a time to speak freely about the way Walsh manages the team.

“We talk about my job, from the standpoint of making sure that I ran the game in a way that gave our players the opportunity to win,” Walsh said. “Because I manage the coaches and the play selection and all of those areas, we want to make sure we’re on the same page and then correct any mistakes that need to be addressed.”

Iso gets the injury report to the coaching staff prior to the meeting so the coaches know who will be available for practice in the upcoming week. The staff discusses the players of the week for offense, defense and special teams and begins to formulate a game plan for the next opponent. Walsh informs his staff of his personal commitments for the upcoming week, goes over the schedule for practice and meetings, and at around 4 p.m. the focus is shifted solely to the upcoming game.

The conference mandates that information be readily accessible for all of its member institutions. PSU sends a film of its last game, compiled by video coordinator Travis Martinsen, to its next opponent and receives one in exchange hours after the conclusion of the games. The PSU coaching staff then begins the arduous task of editing the game tape; in essence chopping the film into pieces to analyze each play individually. By the time the information has been edited and compiled for review, using digital video equipment and computer technology, it’s now 10 p.m. and the coaches are settling in for a long night of film study. Coaches from the offense and defense collect bundles of isolated plays and code them by formation and situation distance to go and down. For example if PSU plans to line up on offense in the I-formation, a tape is made of every way in which the upcoming opponent’s defense lined up against the I-formation over its last five weeks of play. The work is tedious, and the staff scrutinizes the film in search of any minuscule tendency that might be exploited on Saturday. Brian Harris, running backs coach, has the responsibility of compiling the tapes for the offense. He works until 5 a.m. Monday and spends the night in the athletic department.

“I don’t get much sleep on Sunday evenings,” Harris said with a chuckle. “It takes hours to prepare the information we need to formulate an offensive philosophy over the course of the week, and we have to start that as early as we can in order to get a solid week of work done in practice.”

Walsh estimates that defensive backs coach Randy Hanson gets a total of six hours of sleep between Sunday and Tuesday.

“Randy Hanson is very thorough, and takes each printout by hand for analysis. He looks it over and then reports to our defensive coordinator Greg Lupfer all of the tendencies he sees,” Walsh said. “For instance he might tell Greg, ‘When they’re in zebra right, and the safety is playing up on the line, they like to throw it out on a screen.'”

Does the coaching staff do its homework?


Do they have healthy rest patterns?

“Sleep’s not in our vocabulary,” Walsh said, smiling. “We take a lot of quick naps and that’s about it. If you came in here after all of the player-coaches meetings and the coaches are done with meetings and it’s 1:45 a.m. Monday morning, you’d see a lot of guys napping in chairs and putting their feet up.”

Media relations director Mike Lund is busy in the hours just following a game as well. Lund packages all of the information relevant to the night’s contest for issue to the media. He updates the sports ticker over the course of the game so PSU scores can be aired on national cable channels on features such as ESPN’s Bottom Line. Lund pulls players and coaches aside for post-game interviews and accompanies Walsh to the post-game show broadcast on Sports Radio 910 AM.

Lund gets into the office early on Sunday also, communicating with the offices of the Big Sky Conference in nominating players for conference honors. He begins to compile and organize copy for the game notes publication put out each week for the local media. For Lund, participating in the supply and demand of information on PSU athletics is a job that begins with the first whistle of the first event in the fall quarter, not unlike the work of Rick McReynolds.

McReynolds and his assistant, Arnold Alcantar, clean, maintain and manage the equipment for every varsity athletic sport at PSU. The two work over 60 hours per week, beginning each day at 7:30 a.m., Sunday through Saturday, from their office in the basement of the Stott Center.

At 7 a.m. Monday, the coaching staff begins evaluating the compiled information for both offense and defense. Afternoons are occupied by practice and conditioning on the athletic field and in the Stott Center, with athletes running on Mondays and working out in full pads on Tuesdays. Players have team meetings to review film on Monday afternoons and throughout the week. Based on information from the video sessions, Martinsen films the practices for further review. The coaching staff spends Monday and Tuesday evenings scripting the upcoming workouts so that each play run in practice is pertinent to the upcoming game.

Iso arrives before 9 a.m. each day of the week and works until practice is through and the athletes have received treatment, usually in the early evening. On Monday mornings her time is tied up with paperwork and stocking the travel trunk for the next game. Her staff must “travel” with the kit each week, either to PGE or to an away game. She is on the field for each practice, and also sees athletes from other varsity sports.

In the athletic department, Lund and his staff are working on publishing the game notes, a 15-page leaflet containing information on every game in which the Vikings have participated over the season and all of the relevant team news and statistical information. The finished packet is distributed to a pool of media that averages around 50 in size. Lund also receives the injury report from Iso, concerning the availability of the players for the upcoming game, and prepares a press release for local media.

Molly Moore, event operations coordinator, begins composing the itinerary for Saturday’s game. Moore has to coordinate every aspect of the event, from parking and pre-game tailgates to promotions and seating. She oversees a meeting of the athletic department and representatives of PGE Park on the Tuesday morning before a home game. The four-page itinerary she compiles for the meeting addresses details ranging in scope from coordinating parking for the visiting team’s buses and securing the catering for the press box to verifying the schedule for the game’s radio broadcast and organizing half-time activities. Those in attendance are given a comprehensive checklist of responsibilities and duties for the event.

With over 80 student-athletes on the team to coach, outfit and treat, weeks of film to review and critique, countless loose ends to tie down at PGE Park and a steady stream of information to generate and issue from the athletic department, the first half of the week is a crucial period in the program’s pursuit of success.

Second QuarterPortland State begins the second quarter with guns blazing. Wood shows good poise standing in the pocket and going through his reads. He spreads the ball around, hitting wideouts Antonio Jackson for 14 yards, Jesse Levin for 16 yards, and then Charles for a 17-yard strike in the end zone. Charles has electrified the crowd with his play. The extra point is good and the game is tied at 14.

The teams swap punts over the next few minutes and battle for field possession. With 8:49 to go in the half, PSU freshman tailback Ryan Fuqua slashes to the outside and shows good speed on a 44-yard touchdown run. Cajal-Willis makes the extra point and PSU leads 21-14, but WSU quickly answers the Vikings with some offense of its own.

Weber State’s mobile quarterback Tyler Gladwell is elusive behind the line of scrimmage, evading would-be tacklers as he marches the Wildcats into PSU territory. With 6:13 to play, he lofts the ball with just the requisite measure of touch into the arms of wide receiver Justin DeFour. WSU ties the score and no fans are willing to give up their seats for a trip to the restroom or a beer-run.

The remainder of the half is a defensive stalemate and the second quarter ends on a deep hail-mary pass by WSU. The fans stream toward the concourse for refreshments at the midpoint of a very exciting football game.

The cheerleading squad takes the field and performs a dance number. Moore stands near the sideline, radio in hand, communicating with various members of the athletic department as she works to ensure the smooth presentation of halftime activity. At the conclusion of the dance routine, the public address announcer directs the attention of the fans toward the field, where the latest inductees of PSU’s Hall of Fame will be recognized for their accomplishments in sport. Seven former athletes and coaches receive hearty rounds of applause at midfield. A number of other promotions, including a raffle and footrace, are conducted during the half, and in the press box, members of the media scribble furiously on notepads and peck at laptop computers. The intermission concludes with a rousing number from the pep band and the players take the field, PSU receiving the kick this time.

Wednesday and ThursdayFootball players at Portland State are forced to become proficient in time management over the course of the season. Class in the morning, followed by meetings, practice, treatments and weight training in the afternoons, and then homework at night. Walsh and his staff allow the athletes a degree of latitude on completing their weight training, but scholarship and game preparation are strictly regimented for the players. Athletes are required to attend study sessions at the academic support center in the Stott Center. Throughout the week the athletes log long hours in preparation and then dedicate their weekends to competition.

For the coaching staff, the middle of the week presents an opportunity to acutely focus their game plans and tweak any areas that need fine tuning. Practices are filmed, and the scout teams run the opposition’s offense at the first team defense, and vice versa.

Lund and his staff work in the athletic department and at PGE Park to ensure that the press box is equipped with the proper technology to produce the weekend’s game. He makes arrangements for guests on the various radio broadcasts and issues press releases. It’s an excellent time to hype the product in the local media.

“On Thursdays and Fridays we hope to get some of the local media, maybe someone in TV or radio, to come out and do a preview, maybe do a report from practice, so that people will start thinking about the game a day or two in advance,” Lund said.

Moore spends his time hammering down the final details for the game and staying in close contact with PGE Park. Orders are placed for ice on the sidelines and in the locker rooms for both teams, usually around 800 pounds of it, and tickets for players from PSU and the visiting opponent are verified at the park and with the box office. Officials, ball boys and chain gangs are contacted and confirmed for the game.

Iso, McReynolds and Alcantar tend to the needs of the athletes and coaching staff. As game day approaches and kickoff looms on the horizon, anticipation surrounding the upcoming game escalates.

Third QuarterHaving exhibited offensive proficiency early in the ballgame and entering the second half tied with Weber State, PSU appears optimistic in a game that will be a good indicator of the team’s ability to compete this year in Big Sky Conference play. The third quarter of play is vital in dictating a tempo for the remainder of the game, and the Vikings look confident as they take the field.

As it turns out, their posture is altogether justified. Following six minutes of lackluster play by both teams, PSU turns the contest into a track meet. Wood, showing uncanny accuracy while standing in the pocket, dissects the Weber State secondary with the precision of a surgeon. He and Levin hook up for touchdowns of 67 and 70 yards and, with a 9-yard touchdown scamper by Fuqua thrown in for good measure, the Vikings score three times in just over seven minutes.

Weber State nets only a field goal in the third quarter. The Vikings lead 41-24 going into the final period of play, and while the coaching staff and athletic department appear a fraction more relaxed on the sideline, full attention must still be paid to Weber State in a conference where scores are as common as January steelhead in the Deschutes River.

Friday and SaturdayFriday and Saturday present additional labor and preparation for McReynolds and Alcantar.

Equipment must be loaded and transported to PGE Park for the team’s Friday workout session. The athletes wear their game jerseys in the afternoon walk through, and it’s up to McReynolds and Alcantar to ensure that all of the necessary equipment is present at the stadium.

“On Friday, we set aside all of the athletes’ game gear to bring down to the park,” McReynolds said. “We have to also pack medical and equipment trucks, towels and pop, grease boards-basically anything we need for Saturday, we load up on Friday.”

The men return to the stadium Saturday morning to prepare the locker room.

“On Saturday, we head to the park at 10 to set everything up. It takes a few hours just to set the locker room up for the athletes,” McReynolds said.

McReynolds and Alcantar post nameplates above the athletes’ lockers. They arrange each locker in a standardized layout, hanging the jerseys on the left and folding the pants and socks neatly, looking to create an atmosphere of professionalism for the student-athletes.

“We try to make the athletes feel excited about the game they’re about to play, and in setting the locker room up to look nice, we hope that’ll help them play a good game on the field,” McReynolds said.

Meanwhile Moore spends Friday morning clearing any hurdles for staff accessibility at the park. “I try to have time schedules and pass lists done by Friday morning so that I can get those out to PGE park,” Moore said, “and they can inform their staff Saturday morning about who we’ll be bringing to the game and which areas of the park they’ll need access to.”

Moore and her staff arrive mid-day Saturday in preparation for the game.

“The set-up for the pre-game tailgate usually begins around noon, and that’s the kickoff of our day over at PGE Park,” Moore said.

She stays in contact via radio with staff from PSU and PGE Park throughout the night and until after the conclusion of the contest, typically after 9 p.m.

Athletes are required to be at the stadium by 3:45 on Saturday. Some players go to chapel while others begin to dress early for the game. Those athletes requiring taped wrists and ankles have already met with Iso and the trainers, who have been busy since 1 p.m. before heading to the park.

“We usually get to PGE Park by two in the afternoon for a home game,” Iso said. “We split the staff and one crew heads to PGE Park to set up the field while the other half stays here and works with the athletes, for things like taping.”

Employees of PGE Park arrive long before noon to accommodate the needs of the Portland State entourage. Maintenance crews and janitorial staff work hours before the gates open at 4 p.m. to prepare the stadium for the public. The pieces fall into place, sometimes easily, other times not, but all in all the week has progressed as scheduled and things are shaping up for a football game.

Fourth QuarterWeber State scores first in the fourth quarter on a short field goal by Jason Zur. The Vikings charge back with Wood throwing a 27-yard touchdown to Jackson. Wood has thrown five TDs on the day, two apiece to Levin and Charles, and is making it tough to select an offensive MVP. Fuqua scores another touchdown and goes over the 200-yard rushing mark on the evening, further muddling the decision. With 1:32 left in the ballgame and PSU leading by a score of 58-35, and keystrokes exploding in the press box like fireworks on the fourth of July as writers try to keep pace with the scoring, lightning strikes. Hashim “The Dream” Hall, from Portland’s Central Catholic high school, lines up in the backfield. A large contingency of family and friends are on hand to see Hall play and the crowd is as loud in the final minutes of a blow-out as it has been all game. Hall takes the handoff and bounces around the left side of the tackles, turns up field and sprints for the end zone.

The crowd reaction is at its loudest as the players bounce in jubilation on the sideline.

A smile finds its way onto Walsh’s usually stoic face and he slides his headphones down around his neck.

A cold fog has crept into PGE Park and the throngs of fans begin their exodus toward the stadium exits. Those who linger near the field, however, bear witness to the distinct joy that exists in the satisfaction of victory. Players exchange handshakes and hugs on the sidelines as coaches provide reaction to sideline radio reporters, smiling toward microphones. Clusters of family and friends wait patiently for their loved ones near the stadium railing, shouting congratulations onto the field. Lights dim in the stadium, but the atmosphere on the field burns bright.

There is much work to be done for the staff at Portland State and PGE Park, but for a few fleeting moments those intimately involved with the night’s contest take the opportunity to catch a breath. In a long season of unending effort, it is a hard-earned liberty.