The last time Washington played Boise State in Las Vegas, Bishop Sankey earned MVP honors in a game he didn’t win.

It was Dec. 22, 2012 — a sunny Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium — and Sankey was spectacular. The sophomore from Spokane rushed for 205 yards, a Washington bowl game record. He added a rushing touchdown, six catches and 74 receiving yards. He told The Times in a phone interview this week that “the game, in itself, kind of just opened up. We were able to get things going on the ground.”

So much so that, despite a 28-26 defeat, Sankey became the first player in the game’s history to win MVP honors in a losing effort. (Seven years later, the Huskies and Broncos will meet again in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21.)

“He’s fearless. I mean, that’s how he’s been running all season,” former UW tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said after the game. “He’s the most underrated running back in the Pac-12.

“The guy does everything. He catches. He pass-blocks. And obviously he can run.”

In three distinguished seasons in Seattle, Sankey ran the show. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane piled up 1,688 scrimmage yards, 5.0 yards per carry and 16 rushing scores in his sophomore season, then added 2,174 total yards, 5.7 yards per carry and 21 total touchdowns as a junior in 2013. The one-time Washington State commit said this week that “I de-committed and went to UW, and that was the best decision of my life. Everything worked out. It was probably my best time playing football in my life, ever.”

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Everything worked out — for a while. Sankey declared for the 2014 NFL Draft and was the first running back off the board, selected by the Tennessee Titans in the second round with the 54th-overall selection. The plan was to succeed three-time Pro Bowler Chris Johnson, who was released by the Titans barely a month before the draft.

Instead, Sankey sputtered. He played sparingly in 29 games across two seasons in Tennessee, rushing for 762 yards and 3.8 yards per carry with as many fumbles (4) as touchdowns. He was released in September 2016, and spent that season on practice squads with the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. In the first game of Minnesota’s 2017 preseason, he tore his ACL and was sidelined indefinitely.

Suddenly, Sankey’s football future was alarmingly uncertain.

But he’d been working every offseason to plow a different path.

“I knew it was important to my family and also to myself to finish my degree,” Sankey said. “That was one thing that was instilled through the football program when I was at UW, was the fact that life goes on and football ends and you’ve got to start planning for your future and investing in yourself in ways that go beyond the football field.

“So for me, I always knew that when football was over, education was a vehicle that would allow me to make an easier transition from the game.”

Every offseason, Sankey enrolled in the winter quarter at the University of Washington. After his rookie year, he took online classes. Following his second and third seasons, he trained in Seattle and attended classes on campus. In a weird way, the ACL injury afforded Sankey extra time to finish his degree.

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The return trips to UW also allowed Sankey, who played under Steve Sarkisian, to grow close with Washington’s current coaches — many of whom stood on the opposite sideline a few years earlier while he bulldozed their Boise State Broncos for 205 rushing yards.

Washington’s Bishop Sankey dragged Boise State defenders for 205 yards of rushing offense in being named the game’s most valuable player.  Sankey pulls J.C. Percy (48) and Jeremy Ioane for yardage. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Washington’s Bishop Sankey dragged Boise State defenders for 205 yards of rushing offense in being named the game’s most valuable player. Sankey pulls J.C. Percy (48) and Jeremy Ioane for yardage. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

“It’s always welcoming,” Sankey said of the feeling around UW’s football facilities. “It’s almost like they coached me, even though they didn’t. It always feels like home.”

The ultimate homecoming came in June 2018, when Sankey finally graduated with a communications degree from the University of Washington. His parents, who currently live in Tennessee, flew in for the ceremony. He sat with UW’s outgoing seniors — most notably, JoJo McIntosh and Greg Gaines — and several generations of Husky football players walked the same stage.

“It was a special, special day,” Sankey said. “I felt accomplished. I felt like I set myself up. It was just an investment in myself.”

It was an investment in Sankey’s future. But football also wasn’t over just yet. In September 2018, Sankey signed with the San Diego Fleet of the Alliance of American Football. He rushed for 119 yards in four games, before the league abruptly folded.

“Just really the way that the Alliance league ended, I didn’t imagine football ending that way for me,” Sankey said. “For a second I was having thoughts about whether I should just move on completely from the game and try to transition into something else.”

For Sankey, that “something else” was law school. The UW alum took the LSATs and was accepted into several universities, before ultimately settling on Villanova. He was set to enroll for the fall semester in 2019. The plan, per Sankey, was to earn a Juris Doctor degree, and use it to carve out a second career in college athletics — specializing either in compliance or athletic administration.

The only problem: Sankey’s heart was still in the huddle.

“As I was going through it, I was just having different thoughts about, ‘Should I still pursue football? Am I moving on too soon?’” Sankey said. “I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really allow myself to miss football enough. I didn’t give myself enough time to miss the game.

“So that’s what kind of led me to turn back around and pursue football one last time and give it one last shot and see what comes out of it.”

So that’s what Sankey is doing. Last week, the 27-year-old Husky alum signed with the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts. He’s currently living in Raleigh, N.C. and training at a sports performance facility called Athletic Lab, to “keep my fast twitch muscles firing.” He says that he hasn’t felt this healthy since prior to the ACL injury in September 2017.

“This is the most excited I’ve felt in a while, having the opportunity to play in the CFL,” Sankey said. “Right now I’ve just been training and getting prepared for that, and I’m really excited to get back on the field and make some plays and run in some touchdowns.”

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And, whenever football ends, Sankey will be excited for whatever comes next. He says that law school is still an option. He’s also considering pairing his communications degree with a Master’s degree in journalism. (“I’ve always enjoyed writing and reading and telling stories. So that was another idea.”)

One thing is certain: Sankey’s story won’t end when his football career does.

On a sunny Saturday in Las Vegas, Bishop Sankey earned MVP honors in a game he didn’t win. And in the seven years since, the UW alum has earned a whole lot more.

Washington’s Bishop Sankey galloped for 205 yards on 30 carries to be named the game’s most valuable player in a loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Washington’s Bishop Sankey galloped for 205 yards on 30 carries to be named the game’s most valuable player in a loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)