PULLMAN – An offensive tackle trotted off to see a trainer, so it was left to the callow freshman walk-on to block Travis Long, the best player on the team. Good luck.
Gunnar Eklund says he’s not sure whether Long slipped or got his feet tangled in that drill two years ago.
“But I put him on his back,” Eklund says.
“Congratulations,” said the offensive-line coach, Steve Morton. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
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Long said this week he doesn’t remember it, and it really doesn’t matter. What matters is Eklund began to grow confidence that he could play Division I football, and if he needed a template on how to go about it, he got it from somebody on the other side of the ball in Long.
“I love how Travis played, with a lot of aggressiveness,” says Eklund.
Two years later, Eklund, a Lake Stevens High School grad, appears entrenched as WSU’s left tackle, and the ethic left by Long still resonates.
Referring to coach Mike Leach and offensive-line assistant Clay McGuire, Eklund says: “I know they like my toughness. That’s why Travis is kind of my role model. He played physically.”
As a young player at Lake Stevens, Eklund played fullback and tight end, but without glimpsing a future in the sport.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep playing football as a sophomore.” But he got moved to the offensive line, grew to love it, and drew some feelers, though nothing firm, from Pac-12 schools.
He was going to go to Wyoming, but that fell through. Finally, he decided he’d act on a suspicion — that he could play and prosper at WSU, which had recruited him consistently but offered no scholarship.
After a redshirt season, a new coaching staff arrived, and Eklund took it as an opening.
“These coaches had no clue who I was,” he said. “They had no clue who anybody was.”
They soon began expressing surprise that Eklund wasn’t a scholarship recruit.
“When he got on the field,” says McGuire, “he was explosive off the ball, tough, and he played with good pad level. He never played like a walk-on. He came here with a purpose.”
He started seven games in 2012, played most of the Utah game with a broken bone in his wrist, and then got marched out for postgame questioning along with his line mates in a Leach-inspired move.
“We deserved to get called in,” said Eklund. “Some of us out there, in my opinion, didn’t really want it like we should.”
The wrist put Eklund down for the end of 2012, albeit in less heart-wrenching fashion than the teammate he admired. Long, who had started all 47 games of his career at Washington State, tore a knee ligament at Arizona State and missed the Apple Cup.
Long had hoped to be drafted but wasn’t; his knee wasn’t cleared for a return. Finally, having missed all the organized offseason work, he got a call from the Philadelphia Eagles late in July, was signed and is trying to win a spot at outside linebacker while contributing on kickoff- and punt-return teams.
“I’m just trying to learn the whole defensive scheme in such a short period of time,” Long said from Philadelphia. “That’s giving me a bit of trouble. I’m not playing as fast as I probably should be.”
The day of Long’s last college game, the Apple Cup he missed, defensive end Xavier Cooper ducked into the locker room and emerged with Long’s jersey, and they held it on the podium during the victory ceremony.
“I just wish I could have been on the field to experience that,” Long says. “I’m very happy they won the game. A part of that was, they won it for me.”
Not only for him, Eklund might tell you, but a little bit because of him.