The ever-mushrooming legend of Jake Locker begins at Ferndale High School.
A near-upset of Bellevue in the 2004 Class 3A football state finals. The magical undefeated senior season that claimed the school’s first championship. A 37-4 record in three years as quarterback. And 95-mph fastballs.
Ferndale is mighty proud of all that. The town of 12,000 near the Canadian border sees something bigger in its favorite son, too. While many judge the University of Washington’s quarterback on his completion percentage, total touchdown passes and victories, Ferndale has a different measuring stick.
“Take all his athletic ability,” said Ferndale football coach Jamie Plenkovich, “and he’s still a better person.”
“Jake’s one of the guys,” childhood friend Jesse Young said. “His ego isn’t big. He doesn’t think he’s above anyone else.”
Two weeks ago, Ferndale mayor Gary Jensen placed Locker on a pedestal – make that the back of a fire truck, actually – when he declared July 24 to be “Jake Locker Day” with Locker acting as the grand marshal of the Old Settlers Days parade in Ferndale. Locker has received countless accolades and honors, but this one was particularly meaningful.
“Growing up there, having the experience I’ve had there as a young kid and now in college and going back, it’s awesome to go there and have the support I do,” he said. “It makes it really enjoyable, going home and being in the community, because you are so well-accepted. Not just because you can play football, but because you didn’t stop talking to them once you got to school.”
With his All-American boy image, good-guy status and Heisman Trophy-hopeful candidacy, Locker might appear to be too good to be true. Looks can be deceiving.
“I guess if you look at him from the outside you might think so,” Plenkovich said. “But if you know him, he’s the real deal. Nothing fake about him.”
Locker’s ability was indisputable, too. He made an immediate impact at Ferndale, earning first-team all-Northwest League honors at defensive back as a freshman. He became the starting quarterback as a sophomore and took the Golden Eagles to the state quarterfinals. Locker was still widely unknown outside of Whatcom County until the end of his junior season when he led Ferndale into the Class 3A state championship game at the Tacoma Dome. The Golden Eagles faced mighty Bellevue, winner of three consecutive titles. Few outsiders gave the unranked Golden Eagles a chance. When Bellevue surged to a 24-7 halftime lead, it appeared that Ferndale’s magical run was over. Locker wouldn’t have it. He ran for a pair of touchdowns and then fired a 40-yard score to Rocki Sandusky that pulled the Golden Eagles to 31-28 with 1 minute, 46 seconds to play. Only a tipped pass on fourth-and-9 from the Bellevue 43 kept Ferndale from stunning the Wolverines.
Locker’s second-half performance thrust him into the consciousness of even casual football fans. The legend was growing, but not even those closest to Locker understood its magnitude.
“A lot of the attention started at an early age,” Young said, “and I don’t think it sunk in for any us exactly how big everything was getting.”
Locker got his first taste of the national spotlight a few months later at the prestigious Elite 11 quarterbacks camp. One of 12 players invited to California, he received instruction alongside future first-round draft picks Tim Tebow, Matt Stafford and Josh Freeman. By then, Locker had received scholarship offers from 17 schools. He turned down offers from Southern California, Tennessee, Michigan and others and announced in late July 2005 that he would attend UW. He would join a Huskies team that had fallen on hard times and was, perhaps unfairly, called the program’s “savior.”
With choosing a college out of the way, Locker was free to focus on his senior season. Though Ferndale had other standouts – three teammates earned all-state honors – Locker was the reason the team had a state title in its sights. With Locker at the helm, the Golden Eagles trounced their opponents, winning by an average of more than 40 points per game.
The Golden Eagles enjoyed rock-star status in their hometown. Home games were packed with standing-room only crowds. For its rivalry game against Lynden, Ferndale brought in an additional 10 sets of portable bleachers. At playoff games at Civic Stadium in Bellingham, spectators lined up outside the gates for hours to ensure they would get in to the 5,000-seat facility.
Everything was building to a return to the title game. Instead of getting the desired rematch with Bellevue, though, Ferndale faced Prosser and record-setting quarterback Kellen Moore in the final. The Mustangs’ high-powered passing attack was no match for Ferndale. Locker ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 106 yards and two more scores. The Golden Eagles’ 47-12 win capped a 14-0 season.
“He’s the real deal,” Moore told The News Tribune after the game. “He made plays all over the field. He’s going to be great at the University of Washington.”
The legend of Locker was at an all-time high. Washington fans were salivating at what he could bring to a team that went 2-9 in 2005. There was one hitch – football wasn’t his only option. Locker was projected to be a top pick in the Major League Baseball draft. Pro scouts saw his mid-90s fastball and watched him play center field. Scouts talked of offering multi-million dollar signing bonuses.
Scott Locker sat his son down, took pencil to paper and showed Jake how many years it would take him hanging drywall, his occupation, to earn $2 million. Locker had already made up his mind. He was a football player.
CAN HE DELIVER?
Four years later, Locker is among a handful of preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, and some pro scouts think he’s good enough to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He’s also in position to lead Washington to its first bowl game since 2002, completing the turnaround of a once proud program.
The Huskies’ success will hinge, in large part, on Locker’s performance. The expectations placed on him will be monumental. He faced a similar situation as a high school senior. Only now, the stage is much larger.
Locker delivered in 2005. He’s preparing as if there’s no other option in 2010.
“We want this program to be what it used to be,” Locker said. “That is what our focus is and what our goal is, and we’re working as hard as we can toward that.”
Doug Pacey: 253-597-8271 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports