WSU players of diverse backgrounds mix at preseason camp

August 14, 2016 GMT

LEWISTON—For those fans looking for a behind-the-pads look at the life of a full-time football player, Marcellus Pippins’ Snapchat story scratches the itch until the next episode of “Hard Knocks.”

While Pippins’ public, unedited social media storytelling lacks the narrative development and polish of the HBO documentary series, it is not entirely abstract.

In 10-second increments an observer is given just a whiff of the complex social dynamics at play during Washington State’s preseason camp in Lewiston, Idaho. The jerky, inconstant nature of Pippins’ preferred medium cuts the fat from the experience and leaves the viewer to find meaning in a series of semi-related vignettes.

As a director, Pippins is Christopher Nolan with a dash of Woody Allen’s humor.

The assortment adequately illustrates the diversity of WSU’s football team. On one post-practice bus ride we get a glimpse of the mixture of characters who play for the Cougars.

In the first scene, Pippins deadpans for the camera, drolly complaining about the “white boy” country music playing over the loudspeakers, thus drawing a severe glance from offensive lineman Cole Madison.

Flash forward and the music situation has been rectified; we get a rap soundtrack as the camera zooms in on a white wide receiver with an arm covered in ink.

What we are seeing is the most important part of WSU’s preseason camp and why Mike Leach holds a week or two of practices every August at Sacajawea Junior High. More specifically, it’s why he forces players from dissimilar backgrounds to share dorms at Lewis-Clark State College.

It’s the Mike Leach Diversity Experiment, and the Cougars are proof that it’s working.

For example, Gabe Marks and Parker Henry started hanging out in the summer of 2013. Marks is a half-black sort-of-Jewish wide receiver from the Venice part of Los Angeles, who was the first prominent recruit to sign with Mike Leach’s nascent program.

Henry, then a walk-on, was a white kid from Vancouver, which is essentially a massive suburb of Portland and is more than 80 percent white.

“Brett (Bartolone) brought Gabe over one Friday, and he pretty much never left,” said Henry.

Two kids from different backgrounds meeting and becoming friends is a fairly typical college experience. But Marks credits it as a seminal moment in building what would eventually become a chic preseason Top-25 program heading into the 2016 season.

“I think that was the beginning of the team moving away from what it was when I got here – just a bunch of different groups of people who hung out together but just happened to put on the same uniform – and now it’s like we all hang out,” Marks said.

Now the Cougars are rife with such stories. Just look at the close friendship between wide receivers Kyle Sweet and Tavares Martin. Sweet is a white kid from a Catholic school in Rancho Santa Margarita, whereas Martin is a black kid with a thick accent who grew up in the Florida swamps.

Paris Taylor is an African-American linebacker from Florida who has been known to hunt with his white teammates on the offensive line.

Players’ roommates only sometimes overlap with their position groups.

If America is a melting pot, then a football team is what happens when the pot gets stirred. In most communities, the majority of people live among people who mostly grew up with the same cultural rites and norms. Those who are willing to can paper over what differences do exist because of shared regional experiences.

The ability to play or coach football for a Pac-12 football team is such a selective trait, however, that building a roster or coaching staff requires creating a group full of people who may have little more than a language in common.

Special teams coordinator Eric Mele is a Jersey boy, whose brothers are cops and he worries about what East Coast machine politics will do to their pensions. Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a was born in Leone, American Samoa, which is just over 8,000 miles Southwest of New Jersey.

Leach uses the team’s preseason camp to encourage players from overlapping backgrounds to hang out, and it usually happens in the game room. American Samoan Daniel Ekuale faced off against Sweet on the ping pong table the other day, while Aaron Porter challenged Hunter Dale on the pool table.

Players of all shapes, sizes and colors line up to take on Riley Sorenson at the video game console.

To Leach, it probably still isn’t as pretty a sight as a perfectly run vertical route. But he believes the ability to blend cultures is one best things about sports.

“Really, sports and war is where (diversity) all started,” Leach said. “More than any of the politicians ever did, that’s where people really started mixing and working together and realizing they had more in common than they thought.”