The old hardware store in Seattle’s Rainier Valley is gone. The memories Ron Petersen made there have been rekindled.
Kids these days have Saturday morning cartoons. In the early 1950s, Petersen had Saturday mornings at the hardware store. There he sat on the floor and watched broadcasts of Washington Huskies games on “a little round tube.”
On another Saturday morning more than six decades later, Petersen described the recurring scene of his childhood, remembering that he would “ooh and aah” at the talents of star running back Hugh McElhenny.
“You could say I’ve been vicariously a Husky fan,” Petersen, 74, said, all these years later.
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Petersen, raised from age 2 through seventh grade in Rainier Valley, went on to a 22-year career as a football coach at the high-school and junior-college level in northern California. His intensely competitive 49-year-old son, named Friday the 26th head coach of the Washington Huskies, never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps.
You want to know what kept Chris Petersen at Boise State for 13 years? What made him turn his back on some of the biggest coaching jobs in college football?
His father has an answer: family.
Just before the start of the 1999 season in Eugene, Ore., Chris Petersen’s 13-month-old son, Sam, fell and hit his head while playing in the bleachers with his older brother, Jack. Chris was coaching Oregon’s receivers during a scrimmage on the field below.
A team trainer told Chris and Barbara Petersen that their youngest son might have a concussion, and when Sam vomited in the parking lot, the Petersens rushed him to the hospital.
At the Eugene hospital, doctors wanted to keep Sam overnight. The next day, they delivered the news to the Petersens: Sam had a cancerous brain tumor, and he needed to be taken to Portland immediately for surgery.
There, the tumor was removed, but the cancer had spread to Sam’s spine. Sam would recover, but not before years of treatment and rehabilitation.
Ron Petersen said the family came to believe that if Sam hadn’t fallen and hit his head, it’s unlikely the tumor would have been detected as soon as it was.
“Barb was convinced an angel had pushed him,” Chris Petersen told The Idaho Statesman years later.
Sam is 15 now and will start high school next fall. His older brother, Jack, is a freshman at Santa Clara University (after strongly considering attending the University of Washington).
“It just puts everything in perspective when a tragedy happens like that,” Ron Petersen said. “Most people probably hear about things like that, but unless you go through it you can’t realize how important things are … other than sports.”
Dan Hawkins, after accepting the Boise State head-coaching job after the 2000 season, offered to make his good friend Petersen the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. Petersen balked initially, but “I was relentless,” Hawkins recalled.
Hawkins knew the Petersens’ biggest concern at the time was Sam. After connecting with the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Boise, the Petersens decided to make the move from Eugene.
The family feel of Boise suited the Petersens perfectly.
Then on Friday, after 13 years there, including eight seasons of unprecedented success as Hawkins’ successor, “Coach Pete,” as he became affectionately known in Boise, formally agreed to leave, lured away by a job that had long interested him. He agreed to a reported five-year deal worth $18 million with Washington.
The start of a career
Much of Chris Petersen’s youth was spent in Yuba City in northern California, where the family lived near a health club at which father and son would walk to play tennis.
On the court, Chris’ competitive fire burned.
“As the years went by, he became very good and very competitive,” Ron Petersen said. “And as he got older, if I beat him, we had to walk home separately.”
Eventually, Chris Petersen became the region’s top quarterback with the Yuba City High Honkers, and he went on to post a 19-3 record in his two seasons as the starter at UC Davis in 1985 and ’86.
Even then, he told his dad he didn’t want to be a coach.
“He was the typical coach’s kid who gets exposed to all those things, so it was second nature to him,” Ron Petersen said. “(But) he didn’t want to have 18- to 22-year-olds determining his happiness. So he said he was not going to coach.”
That changed after a deal to play in the Canadian Football League fell through, because the Montreal club he was supposed to play for folded. He instead returned to UC Davis to finish his bachelor’s degree in psychology. One of his Davis coaches, Bob Foster, persuaded him to coach the freshman team, and an elite coaching career began to blossom.
Since that 1987 season, Chris Petersen has been a part of one losing season (3-8) in his career — in 1992, when he was the quarterbacks coach on Paul Hackett’s staff at Pittsburgh.
Since then, he hasn’t coached a team located east of the Mountain time zone and many believe UW could be Petersen’s last coaching stop.
“He really is a unique guy and a special guy — a guy that’s just trying to be better all the time,” Hawkins said. “That’s what he’s all about: to get better all the time. He’s a real stickler for details. He’s an awesome friend, always been great to me, and he just totally gets it.
“You guys will see, Pete’s special. He’s special.”
Ties to Seattle
During December breaks from school, young Chris Petersen would come to Seattle to spend time with his grandparents here.
On Saturday, “Coach Pete” was back, meeting with his new team for the first time at the Husky Stadium offices.
“He was ready,” Ron Petersen said. “(There) probably wasn’t much more that he could accomplish at Boise. They loved the city, and the city has loved them. …
“I told Chris, ‘I’m always going to be a Boise fan. I love the city, the program, the whole thing.’ He said, ‘Well, Dad, I’m going to love them too — except when we play them in two years.”
Indeed, the Huskies are scheduled to play in Boise on Sept. 19, 2015. There’s a good bet Ron Petersen will be there.
He plans to attend a few games at Husky Stadium next season, too. He did return to Seattle this past August, making the ride from Yuba City on his Honda motorcycle, cruising up the coast and heading back to his old neighborhood in Rainier Valley. He was surprised to find his old elementary school building still standing.
The hardware store was gone.
The memories remain, and new ones with UW will be made. But if Ron Petersen is being honest, he still prefers to watch games on television.
All these years later, with his son now leading the way, Ron Petersen has reason to expect the “oohs and aahs” to continue when he’s watching the Huskies.
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.