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Washington State strikes up the band for its adversary after Washington’s bus accident

Washington State’s Max Borghi carries the ball during the 111th Apple Cup. William Mancebo / Getty Images

I have a confession: I’m a die-hard Washington Huskies fan. I have been since elementary school in central Washington, where I grew up watching Cary Conklin play quarterback for my future high school and then for the Huskies. I idolized Don James’ coaching discipline. I also learned to look down my nose at Washington State. Hey, it’s just what you do with a cross-state rival.

Brian Hendrickson

And my devotion runs deep. At the end of November’s annual Apple Cup, when it was apparent the Huskies were going to win in snow-slogged Martin Stadium, denying the Cougs a Pac-12 North Division title, I texted a friend: “Payback for 1992.” It’s likely only Huskies and Cougars fans will remember how that Apple Cup, in which the fifth-ranked Huskies retained outside hopes of winning a second straight national title, was played in a blizzard. Those heartless Cougs ended that possibility in a 42-23 win. “Yes, I’ve been holding a grudge THAT long,” I texted my friend.

But grudges and loyalty run only so deep. And this year, the Washington State band showed it could rise above the hard feelings when it did something you would never expect a Washington State band to do.

Understand, for you non-Huskies or non-Cougars, the tension for this game had been building for weeks. There are already natural divisions: conservative eastern Washington versus the liberal west; trendy Seattle versus the salt-of-the-earth Palouse. But this year, Washington State’s season had been nothing short of miraculous. The Cougs surprised the nation by rising from last-place preseason prognostications to a No. 7 College Football Playoff ranking in late November. So there was motivation to hate the Huskies more than usual.

The night before the game, the Huskies’ pep band was en route when it encountered icy roads. One of the six buses slid and rolled over. Photos of the crash site showed the bus roof looked like a squeezed tin can as the vehicle lay on its side in the dark and snow.

More than 40 people were injured. Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. But the band had to retreat to Seattle so the students could recover. And in that moment, a warmth emerged that showed just how shallow our divisions really are.

The next morning, the Washington State band started rehearsing a song it had never before played. And before kickoff, the band started playing “Bow Down to Washington,” the Huskies’ fight song, which on any other day would be anathema in eastern Washington. Yet on this day, the Cougars’ band even formed the Huskies’ iconic “W” as they played — a sign of respect that was humbling and heartwarming.

“No matter what happens in the rivalry, we’re all Washingtonians, and we all care for the well-being of those kids,” Troy Bennefield, athletics band director for the Cougars, told Seattle television station KIRO-7.

I kept asking myself: Could I see Ohio State doing that for Michigan? Or Auburn for Alabama? Or, dare I ask myself, Washington for Washington State?

Yes, I can.

Because even with everything they desired on the line in a winner-take-all game — a conference title, a possible playoff berth — during a time in which our society has become boldly divided both politically and culturally, the Cougars showed that sports rivalries bring us together on a human level. In this moment, those Cougars showed me something for which I’ll gladly cheer.

That’s right. In that moment, I became a Coug fan.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.