One evening in the early 1970s, a young Samoan-born quarterback sat in a room of the now-defunct hotel at the Compton Union Building in Pullman and waited for the recruiting process to begin.
Specifically, he waited for a member of the Washington State football team to show up and escort him to dinner. It never happened. For all Jack Thompson knew, the fellow pocketed the $40 he’d been given and spent it on a date.
Instead of sulking, Thompson decided to venture out and tour the campus. He figures he must have looked slightly lost, because people kept asking if he was OK. Upon learning he was a first-time visitor, they tried to get him oriented — pointed out well-known buildings like Bryan tower and The Bookie. Their casual friendliness began to sell him on the place.
From that moment, the WSU football program has enjoyed a distinctive relationship with the Polynesian football world. It didn’t matter that Thompson had actually lived in Seattle since he was 4. The young man, who would become known as the Throwin’ Samoan and break a national career passing record for the Cougars, was proud of his island heritage and, when his playing days were done, he helped nurture the Cougars’ rapport with South Pacific football.
The strength of that rapport has ebbed and flowed over the decades, and it hit an especially low ebb a few years ago through a few off-the-field incidents involving Samoan players that elicited more hand-wringing than they deserved. But the rapport has endured. It’s as if the ocean waves of Polynesian beaches had found an echo in the rolling hills of the Palouse.
On Saturday night in Corvallis, Ore., the Cougars seemed to begin a new chapter in the story of this relationship.
A freshman quarterback from Hawaii, playing for a first-year coach with deep roots to the islands, acquitted himself with striking self-assurance in his collegiate debut, leading the Cougars to a season-opening 38-28 win against Oregon State that felt both surprising and somehow ordained by the gods of narrative.
Jayden de Laura, his name evocative of the rich ethnic mix of Honolulu, didn’t pull off this feat with consistently pinpoint passes and shrewd decisions. At times he looked like the first true freshman in school history to start a season opener — which he was. He twice overthrew a streaking Jamire Calvin, the second time resulting in an end-zone interception.
During the Cougars’ mysterious (i.e. closed) preseason workouts in Pullman, as de Laura battled older teammates Camm Cooper and Gunner Cruz for the starting job, observers hinted that the kid veered back and forth between positive and negative moments. That’s what he did in Corvallis.
But, as FS1 commentator Petros Papadakis said at one point, making sure he nailed the Yiddish pronunciation, de Laura played with “chutzpah.” The former USC fullback was especially struck by the emphatic nature — the “violence,” he said — of his throwing motion, not only on his actual passes but on his pump-fakes. The Cougars’ recent standard-bearer for QB chutzpah, Gardner Minshew, specialized in subtle pump-fakes that played with defenders’ brain synapses. One of de Laura’s pump-fakes actually induced All-American linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. to leave his feet like a gullible post in the key.
The Cougars’ preseason practices had been closed to spectators as well as reporters, so the TV broadcast of this game, in front of cardboard fans in an otherwise empty Reser Stadium, provided many fans’ first glimpse of de Laura. Removing his helmet as he gazed at Jumbotron replays on the sideline, he revealed a pandemic dark mane, frosted blond at the ends. All night, his eyes seemed to feast on the scene before him, yet he never seemed wide-eyed.
Late in the first quarter, Oregon State linebacker John McCartan got overanxious on a blitz and hopped over the line of scrimmage before the snap. De Laura realized he had a free play and seized on it, faking a handoff to Deon McIntosh and firing 29 yards to the end zone and a diving Travell Harris. The put the Cougars up 7-0 and probably assured de Laura that, yes, he belongs on this stage.
Nick Rolovich ate this stuff up.
As head coach at the University of Hawaii the past four years, he’d been closely monitoring de Laura’s progress at storied St. Louis High in Honolulu, probably hoping he didn’t improve so quickly that Power Five recruiters caught on. They did anyway. To be specific, then-WSU coach Mike Leach did, and others followed, from places like Ohio State and USC. There would be no de Laura for Rolo.
But wait. Leach, after signing the kid in December, absconded for Mississippi State in January and, within weeks, the Cougars hired Rolovich. So he got his prize recruit anyway.
Now they’ll try to rise in the world together, at a school that really digs stories from the South Pacific.
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.