1992 Apple Cup conjures snowdust memories

At the 44-yard line, Drew Bledsoe retreated, looked downfield into an endless sea of snowflakes and cocked his arm. He looked and he looked, and finally he launched a long, hopeful parabola to the west.

Two Washington State teammates, C.J. Davis and Philip Bobo, seemed to be running symmetrical routes that would bring them to the exact same destination, at a snowbank in the end zone. Davis stretched for the football, came down and had nothing but air. He looked up, dazed, to see Bobo clutching the ball.

"The crazy thing is," Bledsoe says, "I was actually throwing the damn thing to C.J. I don't know if I 'fessed up to it then or not."

Then Bledsoe was running, running toward his teammates in the end zone. They were all laughing and giggling, and suddenly, they were back in fourth grade again, kids frolicking in a pale paradise. They were having the time of their lives.

Says Bledsoe, "That's still my most favorite game I've played in."

A few other Cougars remember it fondly, too.

• • •

Nobody who was at Pullman's Martin Stadium that day, Nov. 21, 1992, will ever forget it. The Apple Cup drips with lore, but it is quite possible there has never been another game in the Washington-Washington State series so imbedded in the collective memory.

Not that there was anything momentous at stake, although WSU's 42-23 victory bumped its record to 8-3 and earned it a bid to the Copper Bowl, now extinct. The Huskies, 9-1 at game time, already had clinched a Rose Bowl berth.

This was the day weather interceded, wrapping a football game in its arms and shaking it violently.

So forceful is the imprint of that game, that the first notion anybody has about an Apple Cup played in Pullman is: Will it snow? Never mind that snow is a rare occurrence for the game, aside from flurries. Statistically, the National Weather Service says the chance of 2 inches or more of snow in Pullman on Nov. 21 is only 6 percent.

"You know what?" says Mike Levenseller, the 45-year-old WSU offensive coordinator who played for the Cougars, then in the Canadian Football League. "In all my years of playing and coaching, that's the only game I've ever played in the snow."

It came so innocently. In the local paper the day before the game, there was a vague mention of possible snow "late in the day" on Saturday. But this was a 12:30 p.m. game on ABC-TV, and late snow would only hinder travelers, not linebackers.

By mid-morning on game day, it began to snow lightly. The Cougars, staying at a motel in Moscow, Idaho, hooted at the sight.

"The kids began to rock the bus," Levenseller said. "They were all fired up."

At WSU's pregame breakfast at the Compton Union Building, the snow grew thicker. On the short walk to Bohler Gym, Bledsoe's anticipation grew.

"I just knew no matter what," Bledsoe said from Buffalo, where he is a 10th-year NFL standout, "it was going to be a fun game."

Torey Hunter, a WSU cornerback who now coaches at Western Washington, has a different recollection.

"We were looking for a little bit of payback," he said, referring to lopsided losses the Huskies had inflicted in 1990 and 1991. "We didn't want to hear anything about any circumstances that wouldn't allow them to perform at their best."

The Huskies were bemused. They were also wounded, having lost a No. 1 ranking two weeks earlier at Arizona, amid a furor over the revelation that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert had accepted an improper loan.

"The Cougars were probably more ready to play than the Huskies were," says Chris Tormey, the Nevada coach who handled the UW secondary then.

In the UW locker room, Jamal Fountaine, a defensive end who is now a Huskies graduate assistant, plotted sartorial strategy with linemate D'Marco Farr.

"We're all excited," Fountaine said. "We decided to go out there with no sleeves and Vaseline on our arms. I just remember all the guys looking at us like we were crazy.

"I guess maybe we were."

In the early pregame warmup, Bledsoe tossed footballs to future NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who was a commentator for the TV broadcast. Plows pushed aside snow, only to have more of it obscure the yard-lines.

The Cougars scored first but missed the extra point. The Huskies answered, converted, and led 7-6 at halftime.

Then the day's second-biggest blizzard began, ignited after that misbegotten touchdown completion on which Bobo ran the wrong route. The Cougars poured across 29 points in the third quarter.

Bledsoe, in his signature performance in a three-year career at WSU, was magnificent. Somehow, he fired missiles into the UW secondary, and receivers such as Davis and Deron Pointer hardly missed one. Bledsoe was 18 of 30 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.

"The ball was a little wet from time to time," Bledsoe said. "But my hands were able to stay warm. I had pockets in my jersey."

Shaumbe Wright-Fair, a quality running back, rumbled for 193 yards and three touchdowns, mostly on trap plays. The misdirection worked perfectly, as the Huskies couldn't reverse momentum on the treacherous turf.

After one of his touchdowns, Wright-Fair, in furious delight, flopped backward in the white stuff. Had the game been a year later, when the NCAA had adopted its excessive-celebration rule, Wright-Fair probably would have been the first player in history to be flagged for making a snow angel.

The Huskies, who had an excellent, quick defense, never seemed to be able to gain enough traction to be a factor. The Cougars, meanwhile, also quick and cranky on defense, had no trouble running and hitting.

Could it have been the shoes?

"They (the Huskies) were wearing Converse at the time, and Converse didn't have the special-traction shoe," said Wendell Neal, WSU's equipment manager then.

"We went out for pregame in regular turf shoes. Then we came in, and we changed 40-some pairs of shoes. We had considerably better footing. Obviously, it's still slippery, but it was like they (the Huskies) were on roller skates."

Tony Piro, the UW equipment manager, confirms Neal's story. The Cougars switched to Nike's "Destroyer" model shoes; the Huskies had no answer. In the final regular-season game for Washington's legendary coach, Don James, it's hard to imagine that detail left uncovered.

"Don't forget to mention," Neal said, "I think the best team won that day."

With the fourth quarter academic, there was time for such trash talk.

"At the end of the game, that's what we started to hear — it was the snow," said Hunter, who could yap with the best of them. "I was like, 'You guys were lucky it was snowing. We would have put a 60-spot on you.' "

In the west end zone, a small knot of faithful Huskies fans huddled as the wind whipped flakes in their faces. They must have felt like needles. At 2 p.m., the merciless east wind was 22 miles per hour.

Then the damnedest thing happened. Within about an hour after the game ended, it began warming. Snow turned to rain, clearing the roads. Fans who figured themselves stranded for the night exited on clear highways. It was as though the ghost of Babe Hollingbery, WSU's coaching icon of generations earlier, raised a hand and said, "That's enough."

When Tormey got home that night, he thought he would find sanctuary with his 3-year-old daughter, Leah.

"Daddy's boys were bad today," Tormey said to her.

"I heard that," Leah shot back.

Quite a cast of players graced that storm-swept field: Bledsoe, Robbie Tobeck, Brett Carolan, Hunter. For the Huskies, Mark Brunell, Napoleon Kaufman, Mark Bruener, Farr.

Some of them, you could even see.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com