Blitz the Sound
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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In the last few months Keith Price has tied a 92-year-old Huskies record with seven touchdowns in an astounding Alamo Bowl. He has rested his banged-up knees this offseason and is now healthier than he's been since before his record-breaking 2011. He's already some national people's under-the-radar candidate for the Heisman Trophy this fall.
But as wondrous as Washington's redshirt junior quarterback has been in the last year, for all he has done since replacing Jake Locker as the smiling face of Husky football, Price couldn't conquer the genuine, giddy preschoolers at UW's Experimental Education Unit last week.
"You gonna tackle me?" Price asked with mock disdain as the 4- and 5-year-olds spotted him holding a bright orange Nerf football in the far corner of this remarkable EEU. The comprehensive early childhood education center for children with and without disabilities is tucked between the UW Medical Center and the Montake Cut.
Price, wearing his purple Huskies No. 17 game jersey, then got swarmed and gang-tackled by a gaggle of the preschoolers. The kids jumped on his shoulders. They hung from his neck. The quarterback bent over at the waist -- from laughing so hard.
More kids began pouring out of the center's door onto the play space. It looked like a kiddie version of fans storming the field to celebrate a Huskies' home win over USC.
Price was there last Wednesday morning at the EEU as part of the Huskies' "Blitz the Sound" campaign. The football team's annual tour of schools in the Seattle area had Dawgs fanned out across town last week.
As we stood on the pulsating playground of the EEU, I asked Price what he was getting out of his visit. He smiled and looked around with widening eyes.
"Oh, man," Price said. "A lot of energy."
"IT'S ABOUT INCLUSION"
There was more energy and more smiles than kids on that playground within UW's Haring Center for Applied Research and Training in Education.
Children carrying gold and white "Go Huskies!" signs formed a cordon along each wall of a main hallway before the Huskies arrived. Minutes later Price, running back Bishop Sankey, defensive tackle Danny Shelton, fullbackJonathan Amosa, guard Colin Tanigawa, and backup quarterback Thomas Vincent passed through trading low fives and laughs with the cheering throng, which included the center's staffers and some gawking parents.
It had to be the best spring pep rally of these Dawgs' careers.
Outside, children chased, tugged on, tapped and ran from the Huskies on the playground. They came in waves filled with the most genuine joy.
So did the players.
"We had a castle over there," Vincent said, pointing to the play structure. "I'm still trying to figure out the rules. I was chasing the kid in the green shirt. Good times."
The mammoth Shelton marveled that "we were playing hide-and-seek - and they couldn't find me!"
At one point Amosa, who has done many community events with kids in his Rainier Beach home area of Seattle, looked as if he'd just run for a 99-yard touchdown.
"Man, the rules for freeze tag sure have changed since I was in elementary school," he said, huffing a bit.
Vincent and the others had also done school visits before, as recently as last year for "Blitz the Sound." They had read to elementary school classes and led students in a "hype session" of team chants and cheers.
"But this," Vincent said, marveling next to Price as the next batch of thrilled kids spilled onto the EEU's playground, "this is straight recess."
Amid all the smiles, few were beaming more brightly than little Lilly Kindred.
Wearing a white, purple and gold Huskies cheerleader uniform, she giggled, jogged past the sliding board and smiled some more. Lilly has an extremely rare genetic disorder, 9p minus syndrome (also known as Monosomy 9 or Alfi's syndrome). It causes physical and mental defects such craniofacial anomalies and mild to severe cognitive delays, according to WebMD and other medical sources. It's estimated there are 250 or fewer cases of 9p minus syndrome in the United States. It's so rare scant research exists on it.
This is Lilly's third and final year at the EEU, before she heads off to kindergarten.
Her new school will be hard-pressed to match her experience at her current one.
Her parents, Kathy and Jack Kindred, are long-time Husky football season-ticket holders who live in the Montlake neighborhood around Husky Stadium. They remember when Locker came to the EEU a few years ago, when their older daughter Grace, now in first grade, was attending the center.
Jack Kindred, whom his wife, a Seattle attorney, jokingly describes as a "reformed attorney," calls the EEU a "cocoon."
"They have every service imaginable here," he said, as children squealed and Huskies ran around us. "And there's no sadness to it. It's like this every day. This is such a happy place."
Especially for Lilly.
"She's just blossomed," Kathy said as Lilly gleefully ran away from Price, Amosa and Shelton - yet again. "She has friends here, typical friends and non-typical friends. She's learned that people are caring and can be compassionate.
"She's learned so much here. She's physically stronger and so independent. She's holding a pen. She's sharing at lunch. She's going to the bathroom on her own."
Principal Chris Matsumoto says he has a waitlist of 100 typically-abled kids trying to enroll with disabled students at the EEU that have autism, Down's syndrome or rare birth defects such as Lilly's. About half of the EEU's 220 students are typically-abled kids aged birth to kindergarten.
"It's always been about inclusion," Matsumoto said of his school's unique program and student body.
The EEU has a staff of 30 that includes occupational and speech therapists. There are 30 graduate students from UW's College of Education also working at the center, and Matsumoto says 16 research projects are going on at the EEU presently.
"Everyone's going through a time here," Kathy Kindred said of the students. "They really have a great support system.
"Here, they let Lilly be a kid."
A REMARKABLE MONTH
To the outside, May is a relatively quiet month for Husky football. Spring practice just ended. Players are finishing the spring academic quarter. Training on their own for preseason camp that this year begins on August 9. The season opener is still four months away.
Yet this might be the team's most remarkable and overlooked month of the year.
This is the Huskies' annual education month. Liz Reyes of UW's renowned Student Athlete Academic Services department explained that two weeks ago players went through mock job interviews for the real world, doing role play among themselves and with SAAS staff.
This Wednesday morning they listened as a team to Seattle Seahawks director of player development Maurice "Mo" Kelly. The former defensive back, who played for the local NFL team in 2000 and '01, shared how he helps young Seahawks finish college degrees and manage their lives during and after their football careers.
Earlier this month Price, Desmond Trufant, Kevin Smith, Travis Feeney and others also visited Seattle Children's Hospital for about three hours. The hospital's inpatient playroom was, as one Seattle Children's staffer put it, "standing-room only" as the Dawgs entertained kids whose days are normally far darker.
"We painted T-shirts. It was pretty cool," Price said. "Painted T-shirts and played with the kids for a minute."
Parents of patients at Children's that day commented to UW staffers that "you don't know what this means to my child. Having the players play and paint with them has made their dreams come true."
Another said: "I haven't seen her smile since she's been here. Thank you."
One hospital volunteer, who sees visitors trying to lift patients' spirits all the time, was moved to tears watching how compassionately Price, Trufant, Smith, Feeney and the others were with the kids inside Children's.
The players ran Jamie Matthews' classes like the coolest PE teachers on the planet. They stayed outside in the grass and warm morning sun and led the pumped kids through some of the same warm-up drills the Huskies do before practices: high-knee jogs, backpedaling, karaoke (the stretching kind, not the singing one). When they led a class in singing Happy Birthday to a third grader, Shamburger scored extra cool points for adding the grade-school chic "Cha, cha, cha" to his verses.
The Huskies captained teams in relay races with Nerf footballs. They were all-time quarterbacks for two-hand touch football games.
One of the first games pitted Shamburger's "Flaming Nachos" against Glenn's "Flaming Huskies." In another, Tupou overthrew a wide-open fourth grader that had sneaked down the far sideline to the end zone.
"Sorry," the 275-pound redshirt freshman from Archbishop Murphy High School north of Seattle yelled to the kid, sheepishly. "I'm not a quarterback. I'm on the D-line."
At one point a fourth-grader named Liam got inadvertently poked in the eye while running with the ball.
"When you play football, sometimes that happens," an attentive Glenn said, after verifying the boy was OK.
"But," Liam responded with a smile, "you are wearing a facemask when you play."
"THIS IS PRETTY COOL"
I don't know how these Huskies are going to do at LSU in September... But I do know the quality of the players that are in the program.
They were involved. They were genuinely fun. They were compassionate.
They were impressive.
Heck, I didn't even see a single smart phone employed during five-plus hours with nine college kids over two days.
"I'm REALLY EXCITED to do this," the 330-plus-pound Shelton, who mashes ball carriers on the field, gushed to his teammates as they arrived at the EEU.
When the morning ended, a reluctantly departing group of final preschoolers yelled to the Huskies, "We'll miss you!" One of the kids was crying.
"We are going to miss you, too," Amosa yelled back.
I don't know how these Huskies are going to do at LSU in September. We'll see how much their program continues to rise this season as they again take on powerful USC, Oregon and Stanford.
But I do know the quality of the players that are in the program. I watched it wow kids, parents and caregivers across Seattle, citizens that probably saw these guys merely as football players -- until last week.
Price grew up in Compton, Calif. He lived part time with his grandmother to avoid gun shots around his parents' home, near south-central Los Angeles.
"Oh, yeah, I was a big sports fan growing up. But I never had players come to our school," Price said.
He then waved his hand across the Experimental Education Unit's buzzing playground and flashed his ever-present smile again.
"This," he said, "is pretty cool."
Yes, Keith. Way pretty cool.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
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