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Originally published Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 8:04 PM

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Jack Thompson connection pays off for linebacker Cyrus Coen, Washington State

Cyrus Coen was not highly recruited as a Hawaiian high schooler but a family connection to former Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson led to Coen earning a scholarship with the Cougars.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The story of how Cyrus Coen became a promising linebacker at Washington State doesn't begin with his high school career in Honolulu. It goes back a couple of generations, to an old familiar name in WSU football lore.

When Jack Thompson, the Throwin' Samoan, was coming up as a prospect in south Seattle, he fixed his gaze on two competitive role models.

"I had two heroes," Thompson says. "Sonny Sixkiller and John Coen."

Sixkiller, you know about. His passing for Washington in 1970-72 ushered in a new era of UW football and helped steady a failing program.

But John Coen?

Coen is Thompson's first cousin, son of Thompson's mother's sister. Coen, 63 now to Thompson's 56, played high school football at McKinley in Honolulu.

"My first game as a child was when we drove what appeared to be the other side of the country," Thompson says, laughing, "to watch McKinley High School take on Borah High School in Boise."

John Coen went to Wenatchee Valley Junior College and on to Central Washington, where, in 1972, he threw for 25 touchdowns. His average yards per pass attempt (8.0) and per completion (14.9) are No. 1 and 2 in CWU career history, and he's in the Wildcats' Hall of Fame.

"He could have played safety; he was a phenomenal athlete," says Thompson. "The guy who plays most like him is Russell Wilson."

Now it was 2010, two generations after John Coen's heyday, and Thompson gets a phone call from a cousin in Hawaii. Much of the Coen family had moved to Washington, but many remained behind in Honolulu, including a running back/safety whom the caller said was "a heck of a player."

But Cyrus Coen wasn't that big, at 6 feet, and besides, he had a foot injury late in his senior year that required surgery and implantation of screws, so "after that, recruiters pretty much looked away," he says.

Thompson talked to him about walking on at Washington State, and he tipped Paul Wulff's staff about Coen's availability. There wasn't unanimity that Coen could play at that level, so Wulff made it a point himself to explore Coen on a trip to Hawaii, and he became an invited walk-on.

"At first, it was really hard to adjust," Coen says. "It's so much different weather. My first year here, it was tough, but I went through it. I definitely got used to it and got in my groove."

With good speed and quickness, he showed he could play. He got in all 12 games as a freshman in 2011, played on special teams and was on a clear course to a scholarship.

Then Wulff's staff was dismissed, a setback for a walk-on who lost most of the capital he had earned with the old coaches. After the spring session under Mike Leach's staff, Coen was hearing that he'd be in line for a scholarship elsewhere, and was tempted to go. About then, the new staff awarded him a scholarship, and it's been a mutually beneficial relationship.

Coen has started the past three games and has 10 tackles, two for losses, and an interception. At a smallish 215 pounds, he's a key figure in WSU's frequent blitzes.

"He's got a heck of a motor and no one's going to outwork him," said Thompson, who could have predicted it. He describes Coen as somebody who got up before dawn to work at a pig farm managed by his father in Hawaii, then went to school.

"He's one of those kids that you wish you had 10,000 of them," says his high school coach, Kai Kamaka of Pearl City. "It's hard to get a conversation out of him, he's so humble."

Kamaka says Coen had excellent SAT scores and a 3.6 GPA, and "he'd carry a paper with him, where he wrote where he'd want to be in three to four years, and every time he'd fall off track, he'd pull that paper out."

Now it's Thompson's job to come up with 25 or so tickets for Coen family members coming from Hawaii to WSU's game with Oregon on Saturday night in Seattle. Another branch of the family will come west from Wenatchee, where John Coen settled.

"I'm very proud," John Coen said of his nephew. "He has a big heart and he's very humble. I really love him."

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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