He never cried. Not at the news that nobody knew where his mom was. Not at the weekend expeditions when his cousins would drive out into...

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PULLMAN — He never cried.

Not at the news that nobody knew where his mom was. Not at the weekend expeditions when his cousins would drive out into the Northern California farmland, digging for the woman who disappeared.

Paul Wulff never cried, not when he went through junior high as somebody different, the kid with the bizarre family tragedy in his background. Not when he grew to man size, dedicating himself to weightlifting and getting better and bigger and stronger. He never cried, not through the newspaper stories and all the lingering questions, not through an entire adolescence growing up without a mom, and really, a dad.

He never cried.

There would be plenty of time for tears later.

Trying to dig up a body somewhere

So much to do, so little time. Paul Wulff strides into a motel lobby, straight and tall, trimmed down now considerably from a generation ago, when he played center at Washington State on the best offensive line in the school’s history.

He needs to recruit. He needs to rebuild a sagging culture. And oh yes, he needs to go just up the hill with his wife, Sherry, to their new house and decide on interior paint colors.

Tuesday, he begins his first fall camp as coach of the Cougars. Who knew that when he was hunched over, cradling a ball he’d snap to Timm Rosenbach on the 1988 Aloha Bowl team that effectively ignited Dennis Erickson’s coaching career, that Wulff would someday be back here, making it his team?

“The odds are so far out there,” Wulff says reflectively. “I knew if it ever came to this, there’d be so many people interested.”

But there wasn’t anybody quite like Wulff, no other candidate who embodied what it meant to be a Cougar. Nobody else who had lived in a trailer in the early days of working up the road coaching at Eastern Washington, or won as much while given as little as he was at Eastern.

Nobody else who had been to hell and back.

He was the last of four kids of Carl and Dolores Wulff, who got married in the mid-1950s. Carl Wulff had come west from Minnesota and become an insurance man in Woodland, Calif., west of Sacramento. Dolores was second-generation Portuguese, a girl who grew up in Northern California, attended community college and become a secretary at Woodland High School.

So tight were the three brothers that Anna, Paul’s older sister, says, “I wish I could be a boy. Their bond has just been amazing.”

But so, too, were the brothers close to their cousins, particularly the sons of Mathew and Janet Rocha of nearby Davis. Their boys Mat and David were roughly the same age as Tom and Paul Wulff, and every couple of weekends, one set of kids would spend the night at the Wulffs and the other at the Rochas.

They did it all — Nerfball, Wiffle ball, Atari, Ping-Pong, tennis, billiards with cues nailed and duct-taped together.

“There wasn’t a game we didn’t play,” Wulff says, “from jumping bikes over hay bales, to throwing cow crap at each other through the corrals, to riding on pigs.”

If it seemed idyllic, it only served to mask the declining marriage of his parents. Carl Wulff Sr. seemed frustrated at the limits of his finances and perhaps jealous of his wife’s close family.

He turned to alcoholism, visiting those horrors on his kids. Before Little League games, Paul would be shagging baseballs and his father would be talking to the coach, shirtless and drunk. On the bench, Paul would look over to see his dad, stealing off to the parking lot for a bottle. Afterward, Carl Wulff Sr. might struggle to insert the car key into the ignition.

Meanwhile, Dolores Wulff doted on her last child.

“I was her baby,” he says. “I was very spoiled.

“You’re talking about a lady that spoke only Portuguese growing up, that came over from the Azore Islands. When she and my dad weren’t going well for three or four years, she would migrate to me.”

In a different era, bound by old strictures, the Wulffs didn’t get divorced. Carl Sr. was determined not to undercut his money. Dolores’ Portuguese heritage and strong Catholicism dictated one way: Make it work.

Then came the night of July 31, 1979. The weekend was over, and his mom didn’t pick Paul up at his cousins’ home. His Aunt Janet sat him down and said, “She’s disappeared. We don’t know where she is.”

Carl Wulff Sr. told police investigators he had gone to bed early that night and when he woke up, she was gone. All of her possessions — rings, wallet, purse, credit cards — were left behind.

In the Wulffs’ car, police found a blanket stained with blood, and traces of blood in the car and on an earring. But they couldn’t find a body.

Immediately, family members suspected Carl Wulff Sr. His attorneys would contend that his wife left to escape a bad marriage and assume a new identity.

Paul moved in with the Rochas. With no body found, no charges were filed against Carl Sr., and the fury grew inside his wife’s extended family. They punctured his tires. They poured paint thinner on his car. They splashed paint on his house.

They searched. They hired psychics. They organized digs around rural Yolo County.

“On the weekend, we’re going out with shovels,” recalls Mat Rocha. “I’m 16 years old, and we’re going out and trying to dig a body up somewhere.”

Aircraft with infrared-sensor technology scoured the countryside. All they turned up were cow carcasses.

The lead detective for the Yolo County sheriff’s office, Ron Heilaman, is long retired. He believes Carl Wulff Sr. murdered his wife.

Heilaman found a female witness whom he says was on the phone with Wulff the last night anybody saw Dolores Wulff alive. Says Heilaman, “I have a feeling Mrs. Wulff might have walked in on him and all hell broke loose.”

Desperate, the family tried everything. There was a ruse in which somebody phoned Wulff, saying it was the local morgue, we think we might have found your wife’s body, and could you come down to identify it? Mat Rocha says their suspicion was confirmed: Wulff sped off in a different direction — toward the gravesite, perhaps? — but he lost his family pursuers and the mystery deepened.

Nothing stuck, not a wrongful-death civil lawsuit filed in Paul’s name, nor a murder charge finally filed in 1985 against his father.

“We had enough probable cause to make the arrest,” says Heilaman. “We went ahead and did it, mainly to satisfy the family. [But] we knew that wasn’t going to fly.”

Some eight months later, a judge dismissed the charge, and Wulff was free.”Being a Christian, I know my mom has been in a better place for a long time,” says Paul Wulff. “I think I’m at peace with that. The fact that closure and physical remains aren’t with us is obviously a concern.”

Perhaps the secret of his mother’s fate is in those sprawling miles of California farmland. To date, they’ve yielded nothing.

“How I was going to survive”

Even at 12, Paul Wulff was the stoic, shielding the void in his life from the world. His extended family was a godsend, but suddenly, he was without parents.

“I knew I wasn’t the average kid walking around campus,” he says. “I had to think how I was going to survive and make it work, and try to be a normal seventh- and eighth-grader as much as I could.

“It forced me to process: What am I going to do? How am I going to live day to day? It became a survival piece for me.”

“He internalized it,” says his cousin, Mat. “He became very introspective. He didn’t cry. My brother and he shared a room, and he said [Paul] never cried.”

Instead, Paul threw himself into football at Davis High. He dedicated himself to weightlifting. At the suggestion of his coach, Dave Whitmire, he cut open a football and filled it with sand, the better to steel himself for deep-snapping to punters.

Wulff accepted a scholarship offer to Arizona State, then backtracked with Whitmire’s counsel and decided the small-town atmosphere of Pullman, its agriculture program and coach Jim Walden’s homey approach suited him best.

At WSU, Wulff became part of a line that Erickson, who would succeed Walden, calls the best among the collegians he has coached.

Wulff was dependable and he was tough. Once, guard John Husby turned an ankle, rendering him unable to deal with a stunt from USC’s feared linebacker, Junior Seau.

“Paul, did you pick up that stunt?” a frantic Husby asked Wulff after the play.

“Oh yeah, I got it,” Wulff reassured him.

Later in that 1989 season, he was hospitalized with appendicitis. Eighteen days after, he was playing in the Apple Cup against Washington.

“How you doing, man?” Husby asked him after the first series.

“I’ve felt better,” Wulff said.

“He played the whole game,” Husby recalls.

As the ’80s wound down, Wulff would go months, a year, without talking to his father. Then one winter night, they had a disjointed, desperate phone conversation. The father had been drinking. He mumbled something about a possible job with the CIA, about maybe leaving the country. Paul told him he felt empty with the lack of closure to his mother’s disappearance.

They hung up. It was the last time Paul Wulff would speak with his father. Sixteen years later, after living out a troubled life with heart problems, Carl Wulff Sr. died in 2005.

Another burden to endure

Paul Wulff’s life had blossomed at WSU, thanks to the night of Sept. 3, 1988. The Cougars flew back from Illinois, jubilant after a 44-7 victory, and Husby introduced Wulff to a grad student in psychology from Bainbridge Island. Tammy Allen was a strong, energetic person with a zest for life.

They hit it off. Says Doug Wellsandt, a former Wulff teammate, “Those two were inseparable.”

Wulff had a short career in the World League of American Football, and in 1993, he and Tammy were married. Wulff had decided to become a coach, and “hired” on as a volunteer assistant at Eastern Washington — no money, just experience.

Tammy and Paul Wulff were broke, but they were happy. They lived in trailers. His ride was an ’84 VW Rabbit. After a year of working for nothing, he got a job at Eastern as offensive-line coach.

And then in January 1997, their world was shattered. Tammy was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.

They tried everything, including a radical alternative form of drug treatment. It cost six figures, and it wasn’t covered by insurance. They despaired over her condition — “eight or nine months of, I don’t know, blows,” Wulff calls it. “Complete floundering and shock.”

In a print shop in Cheney one day, Wulff bumped into the Rev. Bob Elfers, who runs Chi Alpha, a Christian-based campus ministry at Eastern Washington. Soon, Elfers was trying to help the Wulffs manage their emotional abyss.

Elfers baptized them — in a swimming pool at the university. One night found the three of them, lying in a queen-sized bed, staring into space, trying to become one with Psalm 23:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil … “

“I never heard her discouraged,” says Elfers. “I never heard her complain.”

Tammy got better. And in 2000, Paul was named head coach at Eastern. In Wellsandt’s living room one day in Coeur d’Alene, they talked about how she appeared to be cancer-free, how they wanted to have kids.

Cruelly, the tumor returned with a vengeance in the late summer of 2001. She went to San Francisco for surgery and a new clinical trial, and he tried to do the impossible — be a a head football coach to 75 players and a husband. He made four trips to San Francisco in less than three weeks, and his staff plugged the gaps.

“The thing that’s so vivid in my mind was the devotion Paul had to Tammy,” says former Eastern athletic director Scott Barnes. And yet, Barnes says, “He would come back, and he had great passion for the kids he was coaching. He would be right back in the middle of it at a very high level.”

Football was its own unforgiving exercise; Eastern lost close games to Montana and Montana State. Tammy, her right side virtually paralyzed from surgery, watched the MSU game from the press box. That day, Mike Kramer, the Montana State coach — for whom Wulff had worked at Eastern — started his postgame news conference, stopped and broke down.

Wracked with pain in her last days, Tammy Wulff died at 39 on March 12, 2002.

A new beginning

She was always giving, and Tammy had one more gift for her husband. She hated the thought that Paul might be left alone, and when Mat Rocha would accompany her to treatments in San Francisco, she fretted that Paul would need a wife and family.

As a cancer patient back in Spokane, Tammy did volunteer work at an oncology clinic run by a nurse named Sherry Roberg. Tammy wanted Paul to meet her.

“I didn’t think much of him, to tell you the truth,” Sherry says today. “He seemed like a real stuffed-shirt person.”

Sherry would call to check on Tammy, and Paul would answer the phone and sound irritated. So many people were calling.

But now Tammy had died, and Paul Wulff loaded up a box of benefit cookbooks that had gone unsold, and stopped by the clinic to get rid of them. By chance, Sherry was there; she usually worked at home.

In a parking lot, exchanging boxes, they stood and talked for an hour.

“I knew something was different,” she says.

They met for coffee a week later. Within a month, they knew. Six months after, they were married, their paths connected first by Tammy’s selflessness.

“We can talk about her, and it’s not weird,” Sherry says. “I know who she is. God has really kind of laid all this out.”

So on a Thursday night last December, there was Sherry, lying in bed on the eve of Paul’s interview for the Washington State football job, reading the introductory booklet he had prepared. It seemed so convincing.

WSU, meanwhile, was hearing from supporters of Wulff who believed he was perfectly cast for the job, an underdog at an underdog school, forged in the crucible of tragedy. Was this a guy who was going to go sideways if he lost out to Arizona on a recruit? If the punter shanked a ball out of bounds, wasn’t this somebody who could keep it in perspective?

As his old linemate Husby puts it, “For Paul to sit in a room one-on-one with a young man, or a group of kids in a meeting room, and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been through tough times, and tough times don’t last, but tough people do … ‘ “

A few days after his interview, Paul and Sherry Wulff were antsy. He was supposed to have heard from WSU but hadn’t. Stir-crazy, he left his office in the late afternoon. She was going to duck out and beat a deadline to give blood.

His cellphone rang, and he gave her an ecstatic thumbs-up, and they were overwhelmed. And six hours later, they were all in the living room — his brothers Carl and Tom, their wives; Anna, his sister; his cousin Mat, his uncle Mathew.

Somebody uncapped a bottle of Crown Royal and they had a toast: To the power of family. To faith. To perseverance.

To Dolores Wulff’s baby, who did OK for himself.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com