Things were supposed to be different. This year was supposed to be their year, after all the struggles of the past three. They came to Pullman to make a difference, to be a part of something bigger. Travis Long and Jeff Tuel were supposed to be the core of a group with change in its eyes, the leaders and the glue that kept the team together and moving towards a goal of putting Washington State back on the map.
To no fault of their own, it hasn't happened. Instead, a senior season with plenty of promise has been a struggle. Heading into the Apple Cup, Washington State has a grand total of two wins -- one over UNLV and the other over Eastern Washington. A bowl was never even in sight.
Still, these two have been head and shoulders above the rest. They led by example, fought through adversity and pain, and made it to the end. Things didn't turn out the way they expected, though, and that's a damn shame. Both deserved better than this.
The hobbled leader
From the moment Jeff Tuel stepped onto campus, it was clear there was something special about him. In the fall of his freshman year, he stood out from the rest of the quarterbacks, jumping into the mix like he'd been in Pullman for years. He was a vocal leader, a guy whose abilities immediately opened eyes.
He was going to start. The whole redshirt argument was, in hindsight, kind of funny. If not for circumstances out of his control, odds were Tuel would've led the team out of the tunnel for its first game. As a freshman. He was that good.
Instead, his time had to wait a few games, which may have been for the best. His "hello world" moment came at, perhaps, the worst possible time: On the road against USC, behind an offensive line that struggled to win any battles. Even still, he had fans in awe of his talent -- especially his legs, which came in handy as he ran for his life. There was excitement in the air. It was Tuel Time.
His freshman year ended abruptly as he suffered a knee injury against Arizona. Looking back, it may have been a sign of things to come. Despite the injury, though, there was hope.
Somehow, Tuel made it through his sophomore season healthy -- this as he took a pounding and an incredible amount of sacks. He finished the season with 2,780 yards passing and 18 touchdowns, along with 12 interceptions, and had everyone projecting big things to come. That is, until the first game of his junior campaign, a game in which a freak play resulted in a broken collarbone.
Last year was a wash for Tuel in many ways. The broken collarbone kept him out for four weeks, and when he returned he struggled to get into the flow of the offense. Things seemed to click a game later as Tuel completed 11-of-13 passes in the first half against Oregon State. And then he suffered Acute Compartment Syndrome -- an injury we've become all too familiar with. That was it for his season, and the possibility of a medical redshirt -- because he played in the second half of the season -- seems rather unlikely.
Under Mike Leach, we expected Tuel to flourish. We expected big numbers and a draft stock shooting through the roof. But it's taken Tuel time to get the feel of the offense, and just when he seemed to be getting the hang of it the bad luck struck again. A knee injury sidelined him, allowing Connor Halliday to take the wheel and drive. Though Tuel regained the starting spot after Halliday struggled, he's never truly strung together consistent performances.
Throughout his career, Tuel has been a model leader. There's no fighting or drama in the quarterback meeting room -- Tuel, Halliday and the rest of the quarterbacks are like brothers. They joke and stay loose during practice, with Tuel setting the tone for everything. He's been the heart and soul of the offense, healthy or not.
Tuel is everything one could ask for from a leader on the offensive side of the ball. And while there's still a chance he ends up with a medical hardship waiver for last year, odds are this is his last game in a Cougar uniform. He'll be missed, both in ways you see and some you don't.
The quiet warrior
In a year that Mike Leach and the new coaching staff questioned the effort of the players, Travis Long stayed above criticism. As Leach was calling out the rest of the team, he praised Long and continued to praise him -- a player that needed no extra prodding, nor who let kind words get to his head. He never let off the gas.
As the team fought through those now infamous grass drills on Sunday after the Utah game -- the ones Marquess Wilson walked out of -- Long screamed for more. The next day, those who were there said he was asking if that was all the coaches had, wanting more and more. He was vocal and determined, just like he always is. You cannot break him.
Off the field, Long is quiet and reserved. Get him in a one-on-one setting and he'll talk in a fairly open manner. Put him in front of cameras, though, and he's reserved, speaking in a measured way with great care. It's always surprising that a player who can be quite shy off the field is vocal and loud on it, but that's Long.
Throughout his career, Long has played with an unmatched fire and intensity. He's played through just about every injury imaginable, at one time basically battling in the trenches without full use of either arm. Long has been bruised, battered and beaten, but has never complained. He's always out there, giving it everything he has.
In a cruel twist of fate, Long suffered an apparent knee injury last weekend. One game before taking the field at Martin Stadium for the final time, he suffered an injury that may actually keep him off the field. He hasn't practiced this week, which would seem to signal his career at Washington State is over, ending without that final game, that final Apple Cup.
And that, well ... it's pretty terrible. It may not mean much in the scheme of it all, but Long deserves better than this. He deserves to be healthy and ready for one last game in front of the home crowd. Hell, he deserved a better team, a bowl and a senior season that wasn't a disappointment on a team level.
On an individual level, though, Long has been nothing short of superb. He put in the work this offseason -- as he always does -- to slim down and become an outside linebacker, working as a sort of hybrid end/backer. He's excelled at the spot, racking up stats along the way. And he has a future there. As expected, Long was the key cog on the defensive side of the ball, the heart and soul of the unit.
I'm going to miss seeing him take the field in a Washington State uniform. I'll miss his talent and tendency to come up with the right play at the right time. I'll miss his leadership and determination, just as the team will. I'll just miss being able to watch a special player suit up and go to work every weekend. He's been an absolute joy to watch.
If you're in Martin Stadium on Friday, get up, get loud and welcome these two young men onto the field the right way, one final time. Yell, scream, cheer, do whatever you need to do. Make sure they know how much they're appreciated, and keep it rolling for the coin toss. If you're at home, get off the couch and make some noise in you living room for all I care.
Long and Tuel have earned every ounce of your respect and every bit of your admiration. One more time for the seniors.