Finally, after four years of frustration, football is fun again for Kris Rongen.
He grins instead of grimacing at the thought of putting on his University of Washington gear and going through spring drills, which conclude this Saturday with the annual spring game. Rongen, a fifth-year senior-to-be guard out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Federal Way, at long last has found a home with the No. 1 offensive unit, and is happy about it.
"There's a lot of added pressure, but I've accepted it and I've had fun," he said. "It's probably really the first time I've had fun going out to practice. I look forward to it. It's not a big drag to suit up and go to practice.
"It used to be, when people found out I was on the football team, they'd say, `You must have a lot of fun.' And I'd reply, `No, I don't even like football that much. But I've got a scholarship, so that's why I do it. I'm not having the fun I was in high school."
At Jefferson, Rongen was a regular, receiving numerous awards including honorable mention as an All-America candidate. At Washington, his name was rarely mentioned at all. He red-shirted his first year, the common practice, then spun his wheels for the next three seasons. In fact, last spring he went in reverse.
Rongen often felt rotten. One of his biggest supporters has been close friend Jeff Pahukoa, who came to Washington the same year as Rongen, but developed much quicker. Pahukoa, a tackle. didn't even redshirt and was one of the top players on last year's squad.
"I'd talk to him about it (his frustration)," Rongen said, "and he always told me, Keep on trying. It'll come. You'll get your chance.' "
Rongen's parents have been supportive as well.
"They were there when I'd packed my bags and was ready to walk away," he said. "They'd push me back in it and tell me, `If you feel like that, just use your scholarship for your education.' "
And Rongen has. He is pursuing a career in law enforcement, although he is still a year away from getting his degree.
Still, it hasn't been much fun at Washington, although Rongen said the lack of playing time wasn't the only reason.
"It partly was because I wasn't playing, but I just didn't have the interest," he said. "I was definitely burned out on the sport."
His mind was elsewhere last spring.
"I came in second (on the depth chart), and I think I ended up third," Rongen said. "I was expected to move up to No. 1. But my dad had a brain aneurysm, and I wasn't thinking much about football all spring. He was in the hospital (having a successful operation), and I was more worried about him than about football . . . I was really hoping to move up to No. 1, not expecting it, but all I did was move backward. Basically, I didn't develop at all. Spring ball is the time for developing."
He basically didn't play at all last season either, although he did make the Rose Bowl trip and get in to the game for a few downs. Still, he failed to earn his first letter. During his spotty career, Rongen has played all five positions on the offensive line. With the exit of four key linemen following the 1990 season, however, he was optimistic about finally finding a home at weakside guard.
"I kind of thought I might have a chance, being a senior," he said.
Shortly after the Rose Bowl, Husky Coach Don James let Rongen know he indeed had a shot.
"He brought up that this is my time," Rongen said, "that he was giving me my chance, but it wasn't going to be easy to keep (the No. 1 spot). It was going to be a lot of work."
Rongen, 6 feet 5 and 280 pounds, worked hard in the weight room during the winter. The biggest change, though, has been brain, not brawn.
"I've really matured a lot on the field," he said. "I know what's expected. I know the offense really well. I've always had the size and strength. I just never had the mental part of it."
James has given Rongen high marks thus far.
"I feel real good about him right now," James said. "I think the biggest thing is he's been here for four years. He's experienced. He's strong and he's got good ability. He's taken on the responsibility of being a No. 1 offensive player and he's done a good job."
Keith Gilbertson, the offensive line coach, is also pleased.
"I think he's had a very good spring," Gilbertson said. "He's been a real pleasant surprise."
The biggest improvement has been in Rongen's confidence level, he added.
"No. 1, he's much more confident in what he's doing," Gilbertson said. "The second thing is he understands what we're doing on offense. He's just gotten better within the system, knowing what to do. And third, he has more of a focus. He's more focused on football. In the past, he thought of himself as a backup player. Now, he knows he has to be a player and he's got to contribute right now.
"I'm more confident in him than I was a year ago. Now he has to have a great summer and stay in shape. He has to work on every aspect of of his conditioning, strength and quickness so he comes back in the fall ready to go."
James said the major reason Rongen didn't play more earlier in his career was largely due to the talented players ahead of him.
"A lot of times, it's just the competition," James said. "We had four guards graduate who were ahead of him. Once you get ahead, you usually stay ahead. You've got a good chance of being up there and not being caught from behind. He's been close. He's helped us. Now, he's got the capabilities of being as good as anyone we've had."