Doug Martin said, with emotion, “If I was a million miles away, there’s no way I would not be here.”
Kevin Richardson, who lives in Folsom, Calif., didn’t hesitate to hop on a Seattle-bound plane and hustle over to Husky Stadium.
“DJ was a dear friend, and I had to come up for this thing,’’ he said.
Randy Van Divier surveyed his old teammates, reunited in support of their beloved coach.
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“I’m going to see guys I haven’t seen for a long time,’’ he said. “I may not see some of these guys again, so it’s very meaningful.”
From far and wide they have amassed this weekend, the Husky players molded by Don James. In the wake of his death, they felt drawn back to the stadium, where close to 150 were in attendance Saturday for the California game — about 50 of them from out of state. Even more will attend James’ memorial service Sunday at the Alaska Airlines Arena.
They saw the Husky band poignantly lower the flag to half-mast in James’ honor during their formation for The Star-Spangled Banner. Even more poignantly, they watched James’ widow, Carol, lead a procession of their three children, 10 grandchildren and extended family to midfield for the coin toss.
They watched a moving halftime tribute to James, which included a video montage of James’ Husky legacy, a band performance in his honor, plus footage of the James family raising a “DJ” flag at the Space Needle earlier in the day. At the end, his former players in attendance gathered on the field, forming a tunnel for the current players running out for the second half.
“It’s something we all need as players,’’ Cary Bailey, a defensive tackle from James’ first three Rose Bowl teams, said of the weekend gathering. “This is a big part of our lives that just left us.”
And what better place to begin to celebrate James than in the remodeled version of the stadium he ruled for nearly two decades. John Otness, the director of the Big W Club at Washington, spent the past few days getting the word out to 170 former Don James players. Each call resonated with the deep connection they still felt to the coach.
“Every single conversation I’ve had with these guys over the last three days, it’s emotional right away,’’ Otness said. “It is speaking to the kind of impact he had on their lives … It’s not football. It’s just who they are as a man. He changed them more off the field, and it carried over with them to their daily lives. Every single guy has said that.”
Just ask Martin, a Husky defensive lineman from 1976 to 1979, who went on to have a 10-year NFL career.
“To sum up what he meant to me, I am who I am because of Don James,’’ he said.
Or ask Van Divier, a UW offensive tackle from the late 1970s who turned first to James when his pro career ended.
“I was injured, not wanted,’’ he recalled. “I picked up the phone and called Coach James at his home. Nervous — I’m 31 years old. Carol picks up, said Coach James is going to be so excited to talk to you.
“He picks up the phone and greets me like a long-lost son. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I asked him for a letter of recommendation. He had it FedEx’ed to me the next day.”
That helped lead to Van Divier’s 25-year career with, appropriately, FedEx. Van Divier has kept the letter to this day.
Every player has a story like that. When Richardson — a defensive tackle on James’ first Husky team — went to work on a book chronicling his personal journey at Washington, James pledged to help any way he could.
Richardson can still recall James’ quote about him to reporters at the Skywriters preseason media event: “He’s so strong he could probably pick up this end of the building. We’re expecting great things from him.”
Bailey said, “I’ve always told people, Don was like a second father. A lot of what makes me the man I am today, I attribute to my time here at Washington, under Don and the tutelage of him and his coaches.”
As he processed James’ death, Richardson said he told his wife this week, “It’s amazing how one man’s pebble in a pond can ripple out and affect so many lives.”
And that’s what this weekend is about for the former Huskies — a needed opportunity to share the vast positive impact of the coach they revered, and in so doing help quell their grief.
“He’s a pretty special dude,’’ Van Divier said. “When you peel the onion back on what Coach James meant to different players, he left such a legacy. He was much more than just the disciplinarian coach. He was much more than that.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.