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The Monday After: Thanks, Gardner. For *everything*

It’s hard to articulate what this season meant, but I’m going to try, anyway.

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NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Iowa State vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You probably didn’t notice, but I mostly stayed away from writing very much about Gardner Minshew II in this weekly space during the season. That was on purpose. Partly because lots of other people already were heaping well-deserved praise on him; partly because it seemed ... too easy. I try and challenge myself to look for ways that are maybe just slightly off the beaten path to lend insight to the season, and everyone else was writing about the man with the mustache — again, deservedly so.

There was this other thing, though, that also was always in the back of my mind.

Mark and Kym Hilinski are my friends. And when Tyler died, I was suddenly in this strange place of trying to console people whose son had died in the most gut-wrenching way possible while also writing about the team and school that was left behind. I still remember the first time someone asked me — just a few weeks after Tyler’s death — about the quarterback situation. “So, who do you think is going to start now? Do they need to recruit another guy?” All I could think was ... are you f***ing serious? That’s what’s concerning you right now? Someone’s kid just died and you want to know who I think is going to start a football game in nine months?

NCAA Football: Boise State at Washington State
Never far from my mind, even now.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

I mumbled something about not really being ready to think about that yet, which was indicative of the mental calculus I’d be doing for the next 11 months as I tried to balance my love for my friends who had lost their son with my fandom for my alma mater. How do I write about the 2018 Cougs while also honoring the memory of Tyler? How much do I keep writing about him? At what point do we move forward? Can I ever get past the fact that it was supposed to be Tyler’s team?

And: Do I even want to keep writing about something as trivial and stupid as games while my friends continue to suffer immeasurably?

Because I never was lucky enough to meet Tyler, my dilemma was minor compared to what the team itself went through, as players were forced to answer much more personal variations of the questions that were swimming in my brain. This was their friend who died, and the football season was coming no matter how sad they were. And the guy who was supposed to be leading them through the preparation was the guy who was gone.

I don’t have a lot of insight into how the players worked their way through all that. Cougfan wrote about it a bit, and as the season approached, there was a standard party line — or maybe it was a rallying cry? — about honoring Tyler by being the best team they could be. However, beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot of pulling back the curtain. My understanding is that was by design.

But somewhere in there, this guy from Mississippi showed up. And somehow, he won over Tyler’s friends and teammates before he ever played in a game at WSU.

I’m certain we don’t know as much as we think we do about how that came about. Yeah, we know about the mustache, and the aviator sunglasses, and the jorts, and the personality. That’s stuff we can see. We got to read about jockstrap cannonballs and naked stretches and laugh. But I suspect that stuff doesn’t get real far in a locker room without a lot of substance behind it, to speak nothing of a locker room where that player is attempting to step into a leadership role vacated by someone who died.

Clearly, there was substance. A week ago, Dale Grummert of the Lewiston Morning Tribune offered a little insight:

“I just had to come in and be myself,” Minshew told him. “Just be respectful of the loss that everybody had suffered. I had no clue what I was going to walk into, how it was going to be. The last thing I wanted to do was be the guy who was really trying to replace somebody. I was going to try to come in and be myself and earn everybody’s respect. And do it my own way.”

As the story details, his way was to be a workout warrior — to lead by example in the parts of being a college football player that are decidedly less sexy than throwing the ball all over the yard and barking at teammates: Lifting and sprints.

“That’s where you earn your respect,” Minshew said. “I was coming in as a freshman. When we’re lifting, I’m going to lift heavy, I’m going to lead the way, by example. When we hit the field and run, I’m going to win that way, just be the best leader I can be, by example, until you earn enough respect and credibility to where you can take on the verbal leadership role.”

Obviously, it worked. And as I wrestled with how to approach the season, there came a point where I started to simply take my cue from the team: If they were cool with Minshew’s role in moving forward, then I was cool with it, too.

But I could not have foresaw how that would play out. Nobody did.

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Washington State
Hunter Dale wore this shirt under his pads all season.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Amazingly, Tyler’s memory clearly was with the team but not overshadowing it. It was a heck of a thing to watch unfold, and while I don’t know how much of that to ascribe to Minshew, it sure seems like he had a lot to do with it, given the way his teammates talk about him.

Kyle Sweet: ”It’s got to be tough, coming into the circumstances he came into. It wasn’t ideal, but he handled it better than I thought anybody ever could in his position. We’re all so happy and proud of him, to call him a Coug and be one of us. He’s done a helluva job this year, so we’re very thankful he came to play here.”

Peyton Pelluer: “When Gardner came for summer workouts and he was trying to step up, I really hoped he would end up being the guy because I really thought he would be the best fit for the team. I mean, I love all the quarterbacks on our team. But I knew right away that if he won the job, it would be the best for us.”

To be clear, Minshew’s role in this season didn’t and doesn’t magically make everything OK. The Hilinskis will never be “OK,” and I’m certain that also goes for some of Tyler’s friends on the team. Even now, I sit here and think, “Damn, I know Tyler could have done that. It was supposed to be him.”

But it wasn’t, and it never will be, and that sucks beyond belief. I guess I just have to file it under the heartbreak of this life, alongside the parents I know whose kids have died of cancer. It doesn’t make any sense, it will never make sense, and the pain will never go away.

Somehow, though, Minshew helped us get from there to here, to a point where most of us could smile and have something ranging from a little to a lot of joy in the midst of our sorrow. And it wasn’t just because he was really, really good at throwing a football. It was his approach, the way he simultaneously walked alongside his teammates and led them forward. The way he just said “screw it” and decided that if there was going to be a season, we might as well win all the games. (They came close.)

Even now, I struggle with how to answer all those questions that confronted me 11 months ago. That’s why you’re reading “The Monday After” on a Friday morning, a full week after the game it’s supposed to be about. Even though I would guess a lot of you have moved on from Tyler’s death (which I understand — no judgment here), this is still messy for me. I often had a hard time reconciling the emotional highs of the season with my love for the Hilinskis, whose pain I feel deeply — both as a friend who has seen their struggle firsthand and as a father who nearly lost a son to cancer and thus got the smallest glimpse of what they might be experiencing.

This was never going to be a tidy process. Grief is terrible like that. But, like the team, I’m really grateful that Minshew came along when he did.

So thanks, Gardner, for being you, and somehow navigating all of this about as flawlessly as one could ever hope to. Thanks for the moments of magic that reminded those of us that are still here that we have to keep living. You helped shine some light on some dark places and gave us memories we’ll never forget.

What We Liked

My former high school journalism teacher had a saying he’d start repeating ad nauseam around the middle of May: “Finish strong. You deserve it.” With graduation on the horizon, it was always delivered with direct gaze at the students most likely to suffer from the eternal temptation to start checking out. (Not that any of you would know anything about “senioritis,” right?)

The implication was clear: We would be cheapening all the awesome work we had done all year if we produced something less than our best at the end.

This obviously isn’t a perfect anecdote when it comes to the 2018 Cougs, as sports are a little different than making a newspaper — there can only be one winner in any given contest, and the other team has something to say about whether you come out victorious.

But the general idea applies, especially in the context of the two previous WSU seasons. Despite all their successes, both 2016 and 2017 are somewhat sullied in our memories, given that both ended with lopsided Apple Cup losses and a stinker of a bowl performance in San Diego.

This season had been so much danged fun, it seemed like it would be a travesty to end a third consecutive season in that fashion. I wanted to remember this season for the good times, not with the caveat of another disappointing ending.

But mostly, I wanted that for them. In the context of everything I wrote in the first 1,500 words of this column, the players deserved to finish strong. They deserved to end this season with a win. They deserved to go down in the conversation of best teams ever at WSU.

And they did. Bowl games might be weird exhibitions full of randomness that don’t have a whole lot of predictive value, but they’re certainly not meaningless. The smiles in these images tell you everything you need to know about what it meant to put W number 11 on the board:

Who Impressed?

Let’s be honest: Unlike virtually every other win this season, the Cougs won this one not with statistical domination but thanks to a handful of timely plays that thwarted the Iowa St. Cyclones and tipped the scales in favor of WSU. (Side note: Kinda nice to be on the other side of one of those, yeah?)

So, rather than focus on a standout, let’s give a shoutout to the people who made the key plays in quasi-chronological order.

Valero Alamo Bowl - Iowa State v Washington State Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images
  • Marcus Strong, for his interception that ended what was looking like it could become ISU’s first scoring drive. He drew the toughest assignment of the night, against Hakeem Butler, and he battled his butt off. Don’t even care that he picked up a taunting penalty — it’s a stupid rule among many stupid football rules and I, for one, refuse to kill a kid for getting excited about a big play in a big game. Don’t @ me.
  • Mike Leach, for calling basically the same play twice in a row to open up Renard Bell for the game’s first touchdown.
  • Strong, again, for coming up with a huge sack that both took ISU out of field goal range and avoided a targeting penalty. (See, Cyclones fans, it’s possible!)
  • Peyton Pelluer for somehow ripping the ball out of David Montgomery’s hands and giving WSU the short field it needed to get a little breathing room.
  • Max Borghi for giving WSU that breathing room with a beastly run to the end zone on a day when it was really tough to gain yards on the ground.
  • Minshew, for being his ridiculous self.
  • Dezmon Patmon, for making a beautiful touchdown catch, then somehow pulling in the ball that sealed the win.

In a lot of ways, the game was symbolic of the season: It was never about one person. It was about a group of young men coming together to scratch and claw and fight for each other.

What Needs Work

Nothing. Go Cougs!

Up Next!

Crimson And Gray Game in April. See y’all in Pullman. Come find me.