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Originally published August 28, 2010 at 10:08 PM | Page modified August 29, 2010 at 9:12 AM

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Huskies QB Jake Locker lives, plays by hometown rules

Washington quarterback Jake Locker is no longer just a kid from Ferndale — he's a Heisman Trophy candidate who is expected to guide Huskies to a bowl game this season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Huskies in the Heisman vote

Washington has had six players finish in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting:

1951

RB Hugh McElhenny, 8th

The King probably was better in 1950, when he didn't finish in the top 10. He ran for 936 yards and a school-record 13 rushing touchdowns as a senior in 1951.

Winner: Dick Kazmaier, Princeton.

1952

QB Don Heinrich, 9th

Heinrich was UW's first great passing quarterback.

Winner: Billy Vessels, Oklahoma.

1990

RB Greg Lewis, 7th

Rushed for school-record 1,407 yards as Huskies stormed to Pac-10 title.

Winner: Ty Detmer, Brigham Young.

1991

DT Steve Emtman, 4th

One of the highest recent finishes by a lineman. Emtman was the leader of a dominating defense as Huskies were co-national champions.

Winner: Desmond Howard, Michigan.

1994

RB Napoleon Kaufman, 9th

Recipient of an avid promotion by UW, and seen as a favorite after some big games early. But a late-season injury knocked him out of the running. He finished with 1,390 yards.

Winner: Rashaan Salaam, Colorado.

2000

QB Marques Tuiasosopo, 8th

Tui didn't put up big numbers, but got on some ballots due to leadership in guiding Huskies to 11-1 season and Rose Bowl title.

Winner: Chris Weinke, Florida State.

Bob Condotta

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Jake Locker is pretty sure how his story will end. It's what happens next that is the real mystery.

The kid who put Ferndale, Wash. — population 11,300 — on the athletic map says it will always be a permanent address.

"It's a great place to grow up and raise a family," he says. "I would definitely plan on being back there."

But when he returns for good, a decade or so from now, will he have a Heisman Trophy in tow? It's an inevitable story line to this Washington football season, even if it's one that Locker greets a little begrudgingly.

"He doesn't want this thing to be about him, but to be about the team," says his father, Scott. "He's always been that way."

And what he really hopes he carries back to Ferndale is a memento of a UW bowl game.

A Heisman victory in December? Hearing his name called as the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft next April? Right now, a Holiday Bowl appearance — heck, even a Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl bid — sounds just as good.

Locker cites returning UW to the postseason for the first time since 2002 as a major reason he decided to stay in college instead of already enjoying the benefits of a big-money NFL contract.

But just as big a factor, he says, is simply being a hometown college kid for another year.

"I made that decision because of a lot of things," he says. "I get my degree. I spend another year in college with friends that I will be friends with the rest of my life. And [I] get to experience another season of college football, which I have said time and time again is the greatest sport in America at any level. ...

"I am happy with the decision I made. I don't regret it, I won't ever regret it, and I won't second-guess my decision no matter what happens."

The only thing he might come to regret is having to answer the same questions over and over again about why he came back for another season.

To many, it still seems an unfathomable decision.

Money isn't everything

Former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, who was taken by the St. Louis Rams with the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL draft — the spot many figured would have gone to Locker had he declared — signed a six-year, $78 million contract, of which $50 million is guaranteed.

Locker, meanwhile, is spending this fall in a rental house in Northgate with Huskies right tackle Cody Habben, former teammate Tony Chidiac and a friend from high school.

"I don't ever want to live in a mansion," Locker says, adding that where he lives is "a great house. A great location. It's simple and I enjoy that."

Locker has heard often since the December day that he walked into UW coach Steve Sarkisian's office and declared simply, "I'm staying," that he's a fool.

"You run into people who say, 'Good luck, but you're crazy not to take the money,' " he says.

But those who look at Locker's decision and think mostly of draft slotting and whether the NFL will have a lockout next season miss the point, he says. In fact, he says now he was guilty of placing too much emphasis on some of those factors.

"I looked at it as a harder decision than it really was," Locker says, explaining he worried about "too many of the unimportant things," such as whether getting hurt might have an impact on his draft status.

"I'm glad I was able to get to a point where I was really able to step back and look at it for what it was."

He arrived at that conclusion during weekend drives through the streets of Ferndale with his father in mid-December.

Those were the same streets he rode through a few months later when he was honored by the town, which decided to turn its annual summer festival into Jake Locker Day, a symbol of just how revered he is in his hometown.

And those who've looked at Locker's decision and concluded that he represents all that can still be good about college sports aren't necessarily far off.

"He's never really done anything wrong," says Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen, a longtime family friend. "It's almost kind of weird."

That doesn't mean he's perfect.

Locker admits with a sheepish smile that when he was 14, he used to take his father's van and just "drive up and down the street because I thought it was fun."

Then one day, while parking the van back in the garage, he stepped on the gas while in drive when he should have been in reverse and clobbered his dad's refrigerator.

"To say the least, I stopped driving around until it was legal to do that," Locker says.

Since then, he has confined himself to running over linebackers and defensive backs.

This summer, however, he also found himself running around the country, flying twice to the New York area for media meet-and-greets with ESPN and other college football movers and shakers.

A natural athlete

To the national media, Locker is one of the potential breakout stars of this season: a 6-foot-3, 230-pound quarterback who can run a 4.4 40, all the physical attributes that so entice the NFL.

Stories often mention that his father, Scott, was a running back at Western Washington. And that his grandfather, Hugh, was a star high-school player at Ballard High.

The family laughs sometimes that the real secret to Jake Locker's physical prowess is his mom, Anita.

"We are all kind of short and stocky on the Locker side," says Scott Locker. "My wife's side, they are all real tall."

Until Jake Locker led Ferndale to the 2005 state football title, it was Anita who had the only championship ring in the family, leading Ferndale's volleyball team to a state title.

Jake was special from the start, the kind of kid who was good at everything athletically. Scott, though, didn't let him play tackle football until the sixth grade. And he played on a team coached by Scott, who hangs drywall for a living.

Scott Locker says if there's someone to blame for the tag that has been affixed to his son forever — that he's "raw" when it comes to the basics of quarterbacking — you can start with him. Instead of immediately trying to forge an NFL quarterback out of his son, Scott looked at Jake and saw a kid who had all the makings of a running back.

"He always could throw the ball," Scott Locker said. "But ... when a kid can run like that, I thought it was just as easy to pitch it to him and let him go."

It wasn't until Jake Locker got to Ferndale High that he was switched to quarterback by coach Vic Randall. He was talented enough to make the varsity as a freshman at cornerback, then became quarterback the next season, expertly running Ferndale's Wing-T.

Washington fans know what happened next — a state runner-up finish in a closer-than-expected game against Bellevue as a junior, then a state title romp over Prosser as a senior.

In between, he quietly committed to UW, becoming the centerpiece of Tyrone Willingham's first full recruiting class in 2006. Instead of a news conference or a school assembly, Locker decided one July Sunday to make his commitment and let people know he was available via phone at home to talk about it.

Locker could have gone just about anywhere, but foreshadowing the decision he would make four years later, he ultimately decided to stay close to home.

Jensen — who employs Anita Locker as the office manager at his plumbing company in Ferndale — said he never had any doubt Locker would become a Husky.

"I just don't think people understand," Jensen says. "People now are like, 'Why didn't he take the money?' They don't get it that, to Jake, family is a really big deal."

A savior in Montlake

Alternately dubbed "The Savior" and "Montlake Jake," Locker was almost rushed into duty that first season after a midyear injury to Isaiah Stanback.

But in a controversial decision at the time that UW fans can thank Willingham for today, the coach resisted the urge to play him, thinking he needed the year to develop.

All the hype appeared ready to come to fruition when Locker led the Huskies to wins in his first two starts in 2007, against Syracuse and Boise State, but defensive issues killed the rest of the season. Then in 2008, Locker broke his thumb four games into a season heading for an 0-12 finish, and Willingham was soon fired.

Steve Sarkisian arrived last season, and Washington went 5-7 in the proverbial rebuilding year. Locker's decision to return allows him one more chance to redefine his UW legacy, which still stands as full of promise yet to be fulfilled.

Off the field, though, there has been nothing to complain about. He'll finish the final nine credits for a degree in history this fall, and he remains in a solid relationship with girlfriend Lauren Greer, a former Huskies softball player. And he has had the chance to share it all with the 30 to 40 members of the Locker clan that make the weekly trips from Ferndale down to Husky Stadium in Scott Locker's RV, affectionately dubbed "the FernDawg."

Scott Locker says he has never sensed an ounce of regret from Jake about his college decision.

"I'd say he'd be willing to do it all over again," Scott Locker says. "He'd take his chances that this season will turn out the way we all hope it does."

Heightened expectations

Locker's return boosted expectations for this Huskies football season to the highest they've been since the Rick Neuheisel era. It also gave Sarkisian a golden chance to jump-start the program, and Washington to return to relevance at a time it is trying to raise millions of dollars to finance a renovation of Husky Stadium.

Sarkisian only raised expectations when he stated before fall camp that his goal this year is for Locker to complete 65 to 68 percent of his passes and have a three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio.

A year ago, Locker completed 58.3 percent of his passes, with a 21-to-11 TD-to-interception ratio, after completing just 48.7 percent of his passes his first two years.

"When I first got here, people said Jake wasn't accurate," says Doug Nussmeier, the Huskies' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "To me, it wasn't that he wasn't accurate; it was that his feet and his eyes didn't seem to be in the right place at the right time. And that's the whole key."

Nussmeier expresses little doubt about Locker's ability to make a quantum leap in efficiency this season, saying that his experience in the system should make him that much better.

"His overall ability to command the offense and do different things within the offense has grown," Nussmeier says. "And we've grown as an offense, so we are giving him more freedom to do more things."

That likely means more chances for Locker to run. Sarkisian reined that in at times a year ago, trying to find the appropriate place for Locker's running in his offense, a happy medium that appeared to be reached in the final two games. In wins over Washington State and California, Locker completed 35 of 51 passes for 344 yards, four touchdowns and one interception while rushing 24 times for 171 yards and three touchdowns.

And if 2010 picks up where 2009 left off, Locker could indeed be in for a December trip to New York, as one of the top five Heisman vote-getters invited to attend the ceremony.

"To have your name mentioned is something that is a really big honor, and another one of those things that you just dreamed about as a kid but never thought would come true," he says.

Just a Ferndale kid

Still, the question lingers — can a kid from Ferndale really win the Heisman?

Sarkisian, noting Locker's summer in the national spotlight, says, "He's not just the guy from Ferndale anymore. He's the guy from Washington and Seattle now."

Maybe, but Locker takes solace in knowing Ferndale's always there.

"When I go back there, I'm who I am," he says. "And I haven't changed since I lived there. I'm still the same person, still enjoy the same things. When I'm there, it's not 'Jake, the Washington quarterback.' It's just 'Jake.' I enjoy that."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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