The road curves left, away from the rolling wheat fields and red barns, toward a sign for Eastern Washington University that instructs those...
CHENEY — The road curves left, away from the rolling wheat fields and red barns, toward a sign for Eastern Washington University that instructs those passing through to “Have a Pleasant Visit.”
An empty parking lot greets visitors Sunday morning. The athletic fields that held Seahawks training camp for the past decade and for 20 of the past 31 years are lined with portable toilets, blocking sleds and bleachers, but lack bodies. The tennis courts that housed inflatable slides for kids are overgrown with weeds.
The sounds that announce the first day of another football season — whistles and air horns and large men colliding into one another at half speed — are gone now, replaced by silence. But pause long enough, look hard enough, and the fields come to life. Time stands still.
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Ron Sperber steps out of a gray van. He played football for Eastern in the 1950s and later served as a liaison between the Seahawks and the university.
“What a beautiful day,” he says, gesturing toward the cloudless sky. “It just makes me sad. It’s an empty feeling. The Seahawks were like family.”
He trails off and turns his attention back to the empty field. So many memories. Former receiver Darrell Jackson jogging by, shouting, “Hello, Mr. Ron!” The grass lush and trimmed and painted, instead of covered in dry patches. The fans lining the fence, looking for autographs. Time stands still.
Gary Wright, Seahawks vice president of administration, remembers the first time he pulled off Interstate 90 at the Cheney exit. It was 1976. Wright was a city boy from Los Angeles, driving down a dirt road without a stoplight, thinking, “This is it?”
As Cheney grew into a small town, adding fast-food joints and a hotel, the Seahawks became its summer fixture. The team spent its first 10 training camps here, before an 11-year stint at its headquarters in Kirkland.
The coaches missed the isolation. And when Paul Allen purchased the negotiating rights to buy the Seahawks, the football stadium that became Qwest Field required a statewide referendum. Whether by coincidence or politics, the Seahawks returned in 1997.
“They brought a lot of stimulation to a college campus in July,” says Paul Wulff, Eastern’s football coach. “Nowadays everything is so high tech, so computerized. Those camps brought you back to some semblance of the older days of playing football.”
Especially early on. Former coach Jack Patera refused his players water during practice, so quarterback Jim Zorn would ask ball boys to sneak him ice wrapped in a towel. One time, after six consecutive 100-degree days, the coaches brought banana popsicles.
It was a different era then. Players went into town, eating pizza and drinking beer with locals. Teams didn’t facilitate year-round conditioning, so players who scattered across the country used training camp to get reacquainted and back in shape.
So many memories. Steve Raible, former receiver and current broadcaster, used to sneak down to the local tavern, fill a glass with ice and beer and then eat dinner in the training hall. Joe Nash, a defensive tackle, once drove a teammate’s convertible back to Seattle, into the sun, frying his skin lobster red.
Zorn coaches the Seahawks quarterbacks now, and between his coaching and his playing days, he has spent more than a year of his life in Cheney. He will miss the bike trails and Zip’s, the local burger joint. He won’t miss the up-down drills or the allergies or the heat, all the usual grumblings from players.
“It’s exactly what a camp should be like,” Zorn says. “Hard work and labor and isolation. Cheney is not a vacation memory.”
Barking dogs interrupt the silence Sunday morning. Time stands still no longer.
Gene Daspit, a 62-year-old from Spokane Valley, stands where fans lined the field a year earlier. His blue polo shirt reads “Spokane Dog Training Club,” and he’s here for variable surface tracking, where dogs track scents.
He’s more a college football fan than pro, and he won’t miss the Seahawks’ annual summer stop in Cheney. Neither will local businesses, according to Mayor Allan Gainer, because the Seahawks didn’t account for much revenue.
The mayor will miss the team, however. He played football for Cheney High School back in the 1970s and still has a Zorn autograph from the first training camp. He hopes the team will reconsider, maybe come back later.
“It gave us something to look forward to,” Gainer says. “It gave us attention as a city. It’s more personable when they come here, a different feeling. I’m disappointed. It kept them connected with this side of the state. Now that connection is gone.”
Gainer says more locals booked vacations this August, moving on. Others called Dave Meany, who works in media relations for the university, asking when camp started. He informed them the Seahawks were staying in Kirkland this year. Each time, silence followed on the phone.
“People wanted a farewell,” he says, “a final goodbye.”
Meany grew up in Kirkland, graduated from Seattle’s O’Dea High School, and the bus he took there went by the Seahawks’ practice facility. When the team went back to training camp, he always wondered where the heck Cheney was. Then he took a job at Eastern. His first assignment? Informing local media the Seahawks weren’t coming back.
Sunday morning felt so strange. The dorms that housed the players were empty. Wulff notes that he hasn’t seen a single chrome rim all summer. The cafeteria door is locked. The sign outside reads: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” No Seahawks, either.
“It’s an opportunity that a lot of colleges never had,” Meany says. “There are no bitter feelings, no angst, no anything. The marketing, elevating our name, putting Eastern on the map. That is invaluable. You can’t put a price on it. But if you have any sentimental feelings, you drive on campus today and say, ‘Wow, this is different.’ “
He does wonder about the next generation. Meany won’t be able to bring his daughters to the Seahawks’ training camp. Neither will 2,500 other people who came out here every day. Folks on this side of the state won’t be able to watch games and say, “I saw that guy at training camp.”
Sperber, the former liaison between the Seahawks and Eastern, looks past the empty field, two goal posts pointing to the heavens, rolling wheat fields looming beyond. He met coach Mike Holmgren here, asked running back Shaun Alexander about his kids, marveled on mornings like this when his work led to another season starting. Time stops once more.
“The Seahawks are a part of us,” he says proudly, “a part of the university.”
That’s just it. More than 20 years of training camps, facility upgrades and trips to Zip’s, Cheney and Eastern Washington University carved a place in Seahawks history. And vice versa. Over the years, Wright says, “The place just grows on you.”
“To this day, I can walk from the dorm to the dining hall, almost blindly, cutting the same paths I did 30 years ago,” Raible says. “I can see the trees. I remember those days. I was younger and in much better shape, and during that time in my life, there was nothing better than being a member of an NFL team.”
A train rumbles in the distance, headed, like the Seahawks, out of town. What’s left is an empty field that’s somehow full.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org