Ex-UW WR Gaines makes up for lost time
Seattle Times staff reporter
Courtesy of University of Washington
THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
If history means anything, maybe there's hope for an exciting Apple Cup on Saturday. The 1975, 1985 and 1995 games also featured fairly nondescript matchups and those games were each decided in the final minutes.
1985: If 1992 was the Snow Bowl then this was the Ice Bowl. An unusual cold spell gripped Seattle and turned the Husky Stadium field into something resembling a hockey rink. A WSU team that came in 3-7 led much of the game, thanks to three TD passes by Mark Rypien in his final college game. Washington cut the gap to 21-20 on a Chris Chandler-to-Lonzell Hill TD pass with 2:25 left. But Don James decided it wasn't worth settling for a tie and ordered Chandler to pass for the two-point conversion. However, Chandler's pass to Hill was thrown out of the end zone and WSU held on. UW finished 7-5 after beating Colorado in the Freedom Bowl.
1995: The Cougars again came in 3-7 against a bowl-bound UW squad. But in Ryan Leaf's first start, WSU almost pulled off an upset. The Cougars led 22-15 heading into the fourth quarter before UW roared back to take a 30-22 lead with 5:03 left. But a quick 80-yard drive and a two-point pass by Leaf tied it with 2:17 remaining. Jerome Pathon returned the ensuing kickoff to WSU's 46-yard line and John Wales kicked a 21-yard field goal to give UW the winning points with 1:15 remaining.
Thirty years after helping Washington pull off one of the most improbable comebacks in Apple Cup history, Spider Gaines is taking on an even more unlikely reclamation project — himself.
"I've found a purpose for my life," says Gaines, whose 78-yard touchdown catch of a tipped pass with less than two minutes to play gave the Huskies a 28-27 win over the Cougars in 1975 in what might be the most memorable finish in the series.
He found it only after years of drug and alcohol abuse, inconsistent employment and estrangement from his daughter, a descent that began when he left Washington in 1978, sure that NFL riches awaited him. Instead, his plans were derailed when he suffered a knee injury the week before he was to report to the Kansas City Chiefs.
"That's when his life started to spiral out of control," said friend Warren Moon, the former Huskies quarterback who threw the pass in 1975 that made Gaines a household name in Seattle.
But it's here at Washington where Gaines is beginning to get it back in order, having returned to school to finish a degree in sociology he began that same fall of 1975. He's on track to finish it this spring and then hopes to pursue jobs in coaching or counseling.
As Gaines, now 48 years old, talks with a reporter, he sits in the HUB, the student union building on campus, watching soap operas while eating lunch between classes — a habit he says he picked up when he was in the hospital having his knee fixed in 1978.
He's taking three sociology classes and shows up daily for tutoring and counseling sessions offered through the athletic department.
"You wouldn't believe the dedication he has," said Rod Jones, a former Huskies player and an academic coordinator in the athletic department. "Most men his age, who have gone through what he's gone through with the alcohol and the other things, are not trying to go back to school. They are dead or in jail."
12:15 p.m. at Husky Stadium, Saturday
TV: FSN Radio: 850 AM, 950 AM, 1090 AM, 1380 AM The line: Washington State by 3
Gaines, whose given name is Robert, says he has been arrested a few times for crimes related to his drug and alcohol abuse, though he says he has never been convicted of anything more serious than DUI. But he also says, "I could have gotten killed a couple of times doing the things I was doing."
Friends believe Gaines has finally turned his life around.
"I think he's got it back under control this time and he's taking advantage of the opportunities he has," Moon said.
This isn't the first time, however, Gaines has come back to Washington with plans to finish his degree and get on with his life.
In 1989 he was named a student assistant by his old coach, Don James. That came after a few troubled years in Vancouver, following the end of his playing career with the B.C. Lions.
But Gaines said, "I wasn't ready yet" for such an opportunity and was soon dismissed by James when he returned to drinking, having taken a security job at a club against the judgment of many of his friends.
"I put myself in an environment I shouldn't have been in," Gaines said. "He [James] did the right thing."
And now, Gaines says, he's trying to do the right thing.
The biggest motivator, he said, was attempting to re-establish contact with his daughter Breianna, now a sophomore on the Shoreline Community College basketball team.
Breianna Gaines was one of the stars of the Roosevelt High School team that won the 2004 Class 4A state girls title and is the focus of the documentary "Heart of the Game."
A Seattle Times story that season detailed the rocky relationship between father and daughter and that they basically didn't see each other for about 10 years while Spider was living and working in his native Richmond, Calif. He had returned there after being let go by James and splitting up with his wife.
In June 2004, Spider attended Breianna's graduation from Roosevelt in his most serious attempt at a reconciliation. But his daughter "really didn't want to be around him" when he was drinking.
That convinced Spider to return to Seattle for good and attempt to get straight again.
"I was determined to get clean this time because of my daughter," he said. "I wanted to be a good father and change my life at the same time. It was important for me to get my life together to help her."
He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly and moved into a boarding house at a Lutheran church in Seattle. A few months later, he approached officials at Washington about coming back to school and receives aid through an NCAA post-eligibility program. Gaines began attending classes last summer.
"I've seen a big change in him," said Breianna Gaines, his only child. "He's more into God and doing things right, and he's trying to help me as much as he can and trying to be there for me and making up for lost time."
The counseling he received, Gaines said, made him understand why he had turned to drinking and drugs.
His father, he said, also was alcoholic, and Spider began drinking around the age of 12. But he said it only became a real problem after his NFL career didn't work out.
"I wasn't happy with myself, so I tried to medicate myself," he said. "I was supposed to have been a pro. People would see me and ask me what happened. I had a lot of baggage left over from that. I didn't really know how bad it was."
Said Moon: "It was a very depressing time for him because of all the expectations people had for him. That was his meal ticket."
Gaines was part of James' first recruiting class and helped turn around the program. As a freshman in 1975 he made his name on special teams blocking kicks. He swatted two against Stanford that year to help Washington to a 24-21 win.
James said last week he thinks Gaines' kick-blocking ability is one reason Cougars coach Jim Sweeney passed up a chance at a field goal in the 1975 Apple Cup when WSU had a 27-14 lead and the ball at the UW 14-yard line, facing a fourth-and-one with 3:01 to play.
At the urging of his players, Sweeney called a pass that was picked off by Al Burleson and returned 93 yards for a touchdown. WSU's offense then went three-and-out and Washington got the ball back at its own 22 with 1:56 left. Moon lofted a pass to the middle of the field intended for Scott Phillips. The ball was batted around, and Gaines, who had followed the play, grabbed it and ran into the end zone for the winning score.
Gaines recalls mostly "how cold and wet it was that day" and seems slightly annoyed that people seem to remember him primarily for that play and forget about the rest of his career. In fact, he also was an Olympic-caliber sprinter — he still says he might have made the 1976 Olympic team had James not insisted he play spring ball — and his 17 career receiving touchdowns were the most in UW history when he left. He had four catches for 122 yards in Washington's 27-20 win over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl.
"That guy was unbelievable," said Mike Rohrbach, a captain on that Rose Bowl team and now UW's team chaplain. "I remember him running 100-yard sprints and he would turn at the 50-yard line and run backwards and still beat everybody."
But after suffering a freak knee injury while playing a pickup basketball game a week or so before his first training camp with the Chiefs, who had drafted him in the sixth round, Gaines was never the same. He said he was merely trying to stay in shape and that it was the type of injury that today would probably be fixed easily.
He said he's finally realized "I can't change what happened."
But he can change his future, and he hopes that of others who might fall into the same trap of assuming he'd become a rich and famous pro athlete and having little to fall back on when it didn't happen.
He has spoken to current Washington athletes during seminars the past few years and has come to know some from his frequent appearances at practices and games (he watched the BCA Classic final Tuesday night in the seats of Lorenzo Romar, a friend from their days together at UW).
"I wanted to show young people that it's never too late to graduate," he said. "Plus, I wanted to show my daughter to not be like me, and have options."
Breianna Gaines, who told the Times in 2004 that it bothered her to be recognized as the daughter of Spider Gaines, said she thinks her father is finally on the right path.
"He just has to stay with what he's doing," she said.
Asked how much they talk, Breianna says it's sometimes simply hard to find the time these days.
"He's always doing his homework," she said. "And I'm always doing mine."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Cats vs. DawgsFight song lyrics
WSU: A good, solid fight song: "Win the day for the Crimson and Gray!"
UW: "Bow Down to Washington" includes this line — "It's harder to push them over the line than pass the Dardenelles." The Dardenelles is the strait controlled by Turkey in World War I battles.
Rotten Apples1954, WSU, 26-7
The teams had a combined record of 5-13 led by two of the more forgettable coaches in each school's history — John Cherberg for UW and Al Kircher for WSU. Cherberg later became better-known as Washington's longest-serving lieutenant governor. WSU dominated before 15,000 — the smallest crowd in 63 years.
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