For Neuheisel, it’s one from the heart
For Rick Neuheisel and one of his assistant coaches, Saturday won’t be remembered just for the game between UCLA and Kansas State, it’ll be remembered for a reunion few would have thought possible only a few years back.
“It’s going to be amazing,” says the UCLA coach. “It’s just gonna warm my heart.”
“I can’t wait,” adds Darren Witcher, the Bruins’ head of player development. “As much as I’m looking forward to this game, I just want to see our guy.”
“Our guy” plays in royal purple and now resides in Manhattan, Kan. “Our guy” is wire-thin and whippet-fast. He’ll be playing against the Bruins, wearing No. 81 for the other side.
His name is Attrail Snipes, and you’ve almost certainly not heard his name. It’s not only that he plays for Kansas State’s troubled offense. It’s that few in Los Angeles know of Snipes’ past, to say nothing of how the UCLA coaches helped shape his future.
The three were first linked in 2004, a time of trouble and redemption for Neuheisel; a time of hard, heavy, almost unimaginable challenge for Snipes.
It was in Seattle; in a poor, roughneck corner of that city that few tourists ever visit. At the time, Neuheisel had been dropped like a two-ton boulder from his job at Washington for answers he gave about participating in a betting pool. Scorned, jobless, staring at the prospect of never being a head coach of any renown again, for two years he soothed his wounds by volunteering as a quarterbacks coach at Rainier Beach High.
The team’s defensive coordinator? Witcher.
Its swiftest, most potent player? Snipes.
Their story hardly ends there. For it turns out that Snipes had a secret, something he mostly kept bottled tight.
“I’d been through some hard times,” he says, his voice quiet as he spoke this week over the phone.
“Hard times” is putting it lightly. Snipes lived much of his childhood a vagabond mired in poverty. Tagging along with a struggling mother, he moved at least 40 times. Sometimes, he was homeless. Sometimes, he lived in shelters. In his early teens, he arrived in Seattle by bus from California with his mother and sister and a few changes of clothes.
To hear him tell it, when his mother grew ill with diabetes and was forced to return to California, he stayed in Seattle, where his coaches and teammates were. For a while, he slept in a van parked near campus, too embarrassed to tell anyone what was going on.
“There was a period when we didn’t really know what was going on in his life,” says Witcher. “He was just so quiet. . . . But when he was around 18, he opened up.”
Says Neuheisel: “That’s when everyone around him pulled together to help.”
There were weeks when the receiver insisted on living alone, in low-income housing near school. Witcher helped clothe and feed him, helped pay to keep the heat on. Once Witcher walked with Snipes through a Nordstrom store. The kid told him he’d never set foot in a Nordstrom. A Boeing manager who coached part time, Witcher spoke to Snipes about holding an office job. The kid told him how hard it was to think that far off.
Everyone saw the potential. Even though he often performed on an empty stomach, Snipes wasn’t just fast, he blazed. In track, he became state champion in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. On the football field, he was all-state, and a potent Seattle rival for a player we now know well in these parts, USC’s Taylor Mays.
“Wow, the kid was great,” remembers Neuheisel, his eyes alight as he recalls drawing up play after play with the sole notion of getting the ball to Snipes. “On the field, and just as much, as a person.”
And what did Snipes think of Neuheisel? The receiver hadn’t played football until his sophomore year. He hadn’t much followed the sport. When all of his teammates were electrified by the idea that Washington’s former coach was soon to arrive at their school, all he could think was this: “Rick Neuheisel? . . . Who?”
It wasn’t long before they bonded. Within weeks came an important discussion. “He told me what my future could be,” Snipes recalls, thinking back to a practice, sitting on a bench with the man they called Coach Rick. “The way he talked, it just meant a lot.”