You know, I’m probably too busy to be writing this.
Graduation is in less than two weeks, I have two major projects to finish in that time, three tests and some quizzes sprinkled in as well. Not to mention finals week after graduation. Plus, my coaching job, practice squad duties with the women’s basketball team, writing game previews, keeping the apartment clean to avoid judgment from my future in-laws, etc. Basically, I’m slammed. I’m being irresponsible to take the time out of the day to write some silly little reflection on life that no one wants to read.
But here I am.
Maybe it’s just because I love writing. Or maybe it’s the snow coming down outside my window that brings that strange winter melancholy along with it. Whatever it is, I’m writing when I shouldn’t be, about a non-sports subject, for a site about sports that has been the outlet for my passion for the past two years. I hope you’ll indulge me.
I’ve been a Coug my whole life. There are baby pictures of me in WSU gear, sitting in Martin Stadium on my grandma’s lap. My dad went to school in Pullman twice, once before I was born and once after. He went back because his first degree left him with a job that forced him to work nights and holidays. He went back to get a degree that would allow him to spend more time with me.
My dad was the first of his family to go to college, and thus WSU has always held that extra special place in the Hendricks household because there is no school that competed for its affection. There's no uncle who went to Oregon and a Beaver-loving cousin. It's just the Cougs.
My earliest memories were watching the Ken Bone led basketball team make an NIT run and watching the Paul Wulff football teams do, well, not much worth discussing. Pullman was a place we visited often when I was young and I memorized its pathways long before coming to school here.
While being a Coug felt inevitable at times, I was encouraged to branch out and see if there were other fits. I considered trying to play community college basketball, I toured the likes of Denver, UCLA, UC Davis, and Arizona with my dad, but my heart always came back to Pullman.
It’s hard to put into words what it is about Pullman that tugs at the heartstrings. It’s a small town with hard winters and exhausting summers, and the surrounding miles of hills and wheat is not immediately appealing to the eye. Whatever it is, it is inherent to my very being. Something that has grown within my soul since I was little, and even with the open mind I tried to keep, I could not help but be a Coug.
It is probably no surprise to anyone familiar with my work that basketball is the monolith around which I have built my life. From playing, to watching, to training, and now to writing, basketball has been my north star for awhile now. My first memory of the sport came from Pullman.
In early 2011, around my 9th birthday, we went to Pullman to watch Klay Thompson and the Cougs play. I don’t remember the opponent, but I do remember a specific moment. Through some series of events, Thompson found himself at the free throw line. I turned to my grandmother and said,
“It’s all right, Klay never misses free throws.”
He proceeded to miss both shots.
That small interaction defines much of my relationship to WSU sports growing up. I was too young to remember the fun, early 2000s football teams or the Bennett-led basketball teams. Most of my memories of WSU sports were of us being garbage in just about every way.
That struggles, however frustrating, led me to appreciate the little things though. Sure, Ernie Kent might be an awful coach, but I love how animated he is on the sidelines. Yeah, the football team might be horrible, but it’s really cool that our kicker is a chubby guy with a vaguely funny name. This, alongside being a Mariners fan born in 2002, made me a true lover of the underdog. There was never a time that I rooted for the favorite, the expected victor.
There is a certain relationship that fans of consistent winners have to sports that I will never have. Wins are not something to be celebrated, to be basked in. Instead, wins are simply the absence of disappointment. Growing up a Coug fan during the worst time to ever be a fan of WSU sports taught me that losing was temporary, not disappointing, and that winning was revelatory.
Growing up a Coug taught me that there’s beauty in the struggle. When you always lose, it’s rarely about the results. Instead, there’s comfort in the little improvements and the potential for a better tomorrow. Starting from the bottom means that things can always get better, and when they do, the pain of past losses will be tinted with joy. Losing is just a stepping stone.
As a kid, my relationship to WSU was purely through the lens of sport and, in smaller doses, through the locale of Pullman. As I entered my senior year of high school, I realized all too suddenly that WSU was a school, one where I am supposed to learn and do homework and socialize and prepare for the future and pay for and deal with the implications of taking on massive debt and…
Well, fair enough to say it felt like a lot.
Being 18 is one of those feelings that is hard to capture in writing because it is so specific. You feel like you know everything but there is also a subconscious understanding that the world is about to chew you up and spit you out.
The one benefit of being 18, at least in my situation, is that you still had a solid grasp on what was next. I had already been accepted to WSU, I was taking running start classes at WSU Tri-Cities, and I knew Pullman well from all my time there as a kid. The uncertainty was more distant and abstract than it would eventually become.
My excitement for my freshman year in Pullman was high. My girlfriend and I had both been accepted, we knew other people going but we were excited about meeting new people as well. Of course, that excitement began to dwindle in March of 2020.
COVID was an isolating experience for everyone, and I’m lucky enough to say that I lost no one to the pandemic, but we all have our own trauma from that event and mine came in the form of a weird, depressing, and extraordinarily long freshman year in Pullman. That freshman year was made worse by earlier participation in Running Start, meaning that I was a sophomore in credits despite being a freshman in age.
There were some moments of joy in that weird freshman year. I watched the basketball games on Zoom with my dad and I’ll never forget Noah Williams’ electric moments that won him national player of the week, our first taste of the Pullman snow came in mid-October, and the women’s basketball team’s quest for the NCAA tournament that ended in rousing success.
Things got more normal my sophomore year. I worked the summer in between and made enough scratch to make sure we could eat at a restaurant every once in a while and I felt ready to actually socialize again. I made some lifetime friends that year, not the least of which was the CougCenter staff I worked with.
Getting the job at CougCenter was a fun process. I had wanted to reach out to them about being a potential sponsor for a class project I had, but I instead ended up trying to become a writer for the site. I annoyed the Twitter admin enough that he gave me Jeff’s email. Then Jeff and I had a zoom call and he invited me on to write. I’m sure the whole thing felt informal and inconsequential, but it meant the world to me.
Writing at CougCenter spurred a lot of things into motion for me. I became more social, making friends on campus quickly; my work with the Women’s Basketball team gave me another outlet for the sport; and I was excelling in school. There were still rough patches and low moments, but I truly felt like I was getting the college experience.
Perhaps the most rewarding thing was seeing my girlfriend grow to love Pullman. Unlike me, she did not grow up a Coug. She was a first generation college student who had an uphill climb to get into and afford college in the first place, but she did it. That struggle made the COVID year all the more frustrating, as her reward was hours laid up in bed staring at a tiny zoom screen with no real interaction outside the apartment.
My second year in Pullman was a success and I decided to stay in town over the summer to prepare for my senior year. I enjoyed the quiet Pullman summer and spent a lot of time working on myself, mentally and physically. I got into better shape (though I am still working on that) and I felt prepared for what would be my last year in Pullman.
Remember that existential dread I mentioned that exists in the abstract when you’re 18? Suddenly, the abstract became vivid, and the understanding that this was it set in.
So, graduation is less than two weeks out for me and I’m faced with a future where I’m not in Pullman. One where I’m not a student anymore.
This was, obviously, an inevitability, but it’s still so odd to face it head on like this. Every year of the first 20 ½ years of my life, I’ve known what the next year would hold. Now, I have no idea where I’ll be in 6 months — and that’s terrifying.
I still technically have one semester as a student despite my commencement taking place in December, but it’s an internship semester and I’ll hardly feel like a student outside of living in Pullman.
There's a fear with leaving this place because it's felt like home for so long. Even before I lived here, I felt like I belonged here. Whenever I leave Pullman for the holidays at home, I feel it draw me back. Over the past three years, this town has been my life. It's where my love has blossomed, it's where I found outlets for my passions, and it's where I've met my best friends. To leave it behind feels like leaving a piece of me too.
There’s a certain sense of eternity when it comes to being a Coug. In 50 years, when the Earth is dry, I’ll still be a Coug. Same as I was the day I was born.
Being a Coug has brought me a lot in life, from more time with my dad to lifelong friends, but it will also leave an unfillable hole. No place can ever be Pullman, no feeling can ever match the one we share with fellow Cougs, and no win will ever be as sweet as an improbable WSU victory.
As I leave Pullman, I can’t help but I feel like I’m the underdog I always rooted for. My dream is to work in basketball as a coach or a scout, but I lack a wealth of connections or college playing experience. Instead, I have a degree that guarantees little, a used year of college eligibility thanks to being on the practice squad, and a collection of silly little writings.
Maybe that’s enough. Maybe in 30 years you’ll see me on a bench somewhere and think, “hey, I used to read what he wrote,” or maybe I’ll just call into a background chorus of life, finding a niche as a teacher or something. The future is more uncertain for me than it’s ever been, but there is one thing that’s for sure. Whether I “make it” or I don’t, I’ll have been made by the cold Pullman winters, the years of horrible WSU sports, and the fellow Cougs who I’ve grown to love.
This place is special, these people are special. I don't know how much longer I'll write for you, I don't know how much longer I'll pursue this silly dream of working in basketball. But I do know one thing ...
Once a Coug, always a Coug.