If the Apple Cup was Jeff Tuel's final game, he went out with style.
About five years ago, Brian Anderson and I sat in his room and watched the highlight tape of a quarterback from California. We watched him run around and make plays, wondered about his arm strength and got excite recruitd for the future of Washington State football. Something about Jeff Tuel stood out -- not necessarily his stats, but just the way he carried himself. He just seemed to have it -- that extra something that made him special.
From the moment Tuel stepped onto campus, it was clear he was going to be something. At the very least, he was going to be a leader. He led by example, dazzling during fall camp. He led with his voice, exhorting his teammates to give their full effort in practice. And along the way, over the past four years, he's grown up and become one hell of a man.
His career didn't quite go as planned, derailed by injuries and littered with tough losses. The Cougars never quite turned the corner as he expected, but he kept plugging away. Even as Tuel's body looked like a poster in a doctor's office -- you know, the one with countless injuries magnified and explained -- he continued to lead.
Last year was difficult in many ways -- a junior year that was supposed to build off a sophomore campaign went off the rails right away. Something wasn't right from the beginning, when Tuel came down with the flu and was late getting onto the field. When he did, he only lasted a few plays before breaking his collarbone on what seemed like a routine hit.
Tuel was out at practice the next day. It shouldn't be a surprise, but there he was, lending words of encouragement and pacing back-and-forth behind the offense as it went through drills. It took just a few short days for Tuel to get the itch and start throwing lightly, and a few weeks before he was ready to get back on the field. And in a cruel twist of fate, it took only three halves for Tuel to be sidelined for the rest of the season following another freak injury, leading to a bout with Acute Compartment Syndrome.
Even as Tuel suffered an MCL strain this year, losing his job in the process, he kept grinding. He kept his head up and encouraged Connor Halliday, continuing to lead from the sideline and in practice. Truth be told, I was rooting for Tuel to succeed the whole time. He'd been through enough in his career at Washington State, and I wanted to see him rewarded during his senior year. He deserved it.
For the last four years, Jeff Tuel has given his body up for the Cougars. Every time he steps on the field, he lays it all on the line. He plays with heart, emotion and guts, setting the tone for everyone else. He's been an exemplary player, and someone all Washington State fans should be proud of.
No play epitomizes Tuel more than the one in the fourth quarter on Friday. You know the one. He spun away from two defenders, nearly went down, looked up and found Isiah Myers for a big game. He took a shot to the head just after he released the ball, an all-too-familiar feeling for Tuel. The play gave Washington State a spark, leading to another touchdown, and was Jeff Tuel in a nutshell.
Friday reminded me of Tuel's first game, his coming out party. It was Tuel Time at USC, and he needed every ounce of energy, every bit of strength he had to evade the USC pass rush. He spent four years running for his life, taking hit after hit. Why would his final Apple Cup be any different?
Remember the Oregon State game his sophomore year? The game that Tuel laid everything out on the field and almost single-handedly willed the Cougars to win? The one that left him battered and bruised, nearly sidelining him before halftime? That was Jeff Tuel, just as the Apple Cup was on Friday. That was a player who won't quit, won't give up, and will do whatever it takes to help his team. That's just how he is.
As I walked through the tunnel and into Bohler, I found Tuel's father standing just outside the building and taking in the scene. Chants of "Go Cougs!" filled the air as the students filed out, and Tuel's father had a grin from ear-to-ear. He was incredibly proud, and rightfully so.
Just like he has countless times in the past, Tuel limped into the media room one final time, where his proud family was waiting for him. His wonderful parents have been in Pullman for every game I can recall, and each time they greet him with hugs and smiles. This time was different, though. They didn't need to offer words of encouragement, nor did they need to cheer him up as they've done countless times in the past.
After just about every game he's played in, Tuel's routine has been the same: Take a pounding on the field, limp into the media room, and face reporters. He's done so without complaint, without outburst. Even as an underclassman, Tuel displayed poise and leadership, wisdom beyond his years. He had a huge smile and eyeblack running down his cheeks this time, instead of a solemn face. He was in pain and limping, but shrugged it off as he always has. This was his game.
I said last night that if this was it for Tuel, he dropped the mic as he walked off stage. The chances of Tuel getting a fifth year seem slim, and as he talked last night it felt like the end. Though it wasn't a bowl game or the success he had been hoping for when he arrived four years ago, Tuel gave the fans one final game to remember.
Thanks for the memories, Jeff. It's been an absolute pleasure.