A knee injury threatens to end Travis Long's streak of starts at 47, one short of the regular-season maximum over four years.
In a perfect world, Travis Long is returning in 2013 to the Washington State football team. Coming back to continue as its best defensive leader, coming back a year older at his new position, coming back to reap some rewards rather than assess damage.
Of course, in a perfect world, Long also doesn’t have his life turned upside down by an injury last week against Arizona State, possibly ending a streak of starts at 47, one short of the regular-season maximum over four years.
Word is that Long, who seemed nigh indestructible since he stepped on campus in 2009, injured a knee, possibly seriously, against the Sun Devils and likely won’t play in Friday’s Apple Cup. (Washington State doesn’t discuss injury information.)
No comment, either, from Long, so we’ll have to let his mother, Kathleen Cronquist, speak for him. A few days before her son’s injury at ASU, she said, “He has not one single regret about coming to WSU and becoming a Cougar. He truly loves being a Coug.”
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So much, in fact, that two years ago in fall camp, he wrenched his shoulder out of place and needed surgery for a torn labrum. He decided to play the season and have it fixed afterward. So no redshirt season that would extend his stay to five years, no final year of maturation.
“I think (immediate) surgery was brought up for like a millisecond,” says his mother. “That was not going to be an option. He was not going to sit out and not be a part of the team for that season.”
So he did what Long does — get out on the field without a lot of commentary. The shoulder would pop out in practice or a game, and Long would occasionally have to trot off, get his shoulder pads removed and have a brace tightened.
“You talk about a tough human being,” says Chris Ball, the Arizona State assistant who recruited Long to WSU as a member of Paul Wulff’s staff. “He’s what Cougar football is all about.”
Long grew up competing against uncles in Cronquist’s family, burning to win at anything. Later, he played basketball at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, earning a 3.95 grade-point average and becoming good friends with David Stockton, the guard now at Gonzaga.
He could have gone to Boise State, and that would have gained him about 40 more college victories, but he somehow seemed predestined for WSU. He called Ball on Christmas Day, 2008, and told him he was coming.
“I still tease him about that,” Ball says. “He made me work my butt off, even though I thought he was always coming.
“I probably recruited him as hard as anybody. The thing we needed most was character.”
In a lot of programs, Long would have redshirted as a freshman, but WSU wasn’t like most programs. He played immediately, and he said last summer he never regretted getting on the field early.
He stayed there through the painful sophomore year, when, says Cronquist, “For his mother, it was very excruciating to have him play with that kind of pain. Dr. Tingstad (WSU team doctor Ed Tingstad) told him it was a much worse tear than even we could see on the MRI.”
A year later came the arrival of Mike Leach, who has said he wishes he had inherited more Longs. The Cougars changed defenses, turning to a 3-4 that put Long up as an outside linebacker who played all over the place.
“We sat down in my office and closed the door,” said defensive coordinator Mike Breske. “I said, ‘This is the plan,’ and laid it out to him. He said, ‘Let’s do it, coach.’ “
Long responded with 9.5 sacks, and the position switch seems to have helped showcase his potential as a pro. But that option is cloudier if he has a long rehab from the knee injury.
One scout says he sees some influence of linebackers coach Jeff Choate, who came from Boise State, where Shea McClellin played a similar position and in a surprise, went No. 19 in the first round to the Bears last spring.
“(Long) has some talent,” the scout said before the injury. “He’s obviously smart, but he hasn’t had a lot of support around him. I tell you what, you watch tape, and he’s rarely out of the game. Just the endurance the kid shows is impressive.”
Long’s starting streak is believed longest in school history. Tuesday, he added another distinction, being named to the All-Academic Pac-12 second team.
It was Long’s misfortune to have a class schedule where a break coincided with WSU’s weekly Monday press conferences, so he was frequently a designee to answer for what has become a dreadful season. The man of many starts is also one of few words.
“He’s really been a role model,” said teammate Jeff Tuel. “He doesn’t take crap from anyone, he’ll stand up for his beliefs to anyone. I wish we had more guys like him on this team.”
And now they probably don’t have him Friday, either, a cruel twist for a guy whose biggest failing was an inability to get more people to compete like he does.
“I feel bad for him,” said Ball. “He’s left a legacy, starting all those games. He deserves a lot better.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org