Sumner High School’s football season had just ended in the 4A state semifinals. Luke Ross was in tears as the quarterback approached his father and coach after the final seconds trickled off the clock.
“He came up to me and he was crying and he says, ‘I’m sorry, Dad. I couldn’t get you a state championship,’” Sumner coach Keith Ross said, his own eyes glossy as he recalled that moment.
Keith was coach, but more importantly a father. And Luke was quarterback, but more so, a son.
“All I could say was, ‘Luke, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault,’” Keith said. “He just wanted it so bad.”
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They’ve trekked to the Tacoma Dome for the state football championships ever since Luke Ross was throwing footballs as Sumner’s ball boy – well before he became Sumner’s most decorated passer in at least the past 20 years since his father has been a coach.
Luke said his goal was to be on that Tacoma Dome turf as a ball boy. When that didn’t happen – as he watched his father’s teams combine for 20 wins in five seasons, including a 1-9 season in 2007 – their goal changed to going there as coach and quarterback, father and son.
Now Sumner is 25-2 since Luke became the starting QB just over two years ago. The second-ranked Spartans (3-0) face No. 3 Graham-Kapowsin (3-0) at 7 p.m. Friday at Art Crate Field in Spanaway with Luke having never lost a league game in his career.
And don’t think he’s just an hors d’oeuvre to the Spartans’ vaunted run game. Maybe as a sophomore and junior he was a play-it-safe, game manager, but now he’s a playmaker.
“I’ve always felt I’m underrecruited and people overlook me because I’m not 6-foot-5 and throwing the ball 70 yards,” said the 6-foot-2, 175-pound senior. “But I’m 25-2 and not a lot of other quarterbacks can say that. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder because stars (recruit rankings) don’t matter on Friday nights – it’s about the guys who get the job done.”
He said that with a monotone confidence, not with loud and boisterous gumption.
Keith Ross said he would have been the latter when he was a standout linebacker and tight end for Enumclaw (and the starting quarterback there his sophomore year).
Keith and Luke might have similar shoulder-length, curly hair, but the coach is more known for his massive handshake, big smile and booming voice, and the quarterback is more soft-spoken and even-keeled.
And it’s perfect for Sumner. Keith Ross’ fire is fit for a pounding defense. Luke Ross’ calm confidence is fit for a quarterback.
“And their personalities haven’t changed,” said Tracie Ross, mother and wife. “They are different, but they work so well together, especially since they are on different sides of the ball.”
Just down the road from Sumner High School, Keith Ross keeps an old Cadillac covered in his driveway. He no longer has the blue “beater” of a Nissan Maxima he’d drive to Sumner from his former home in Kirkland, just after he was hired as the Spartans’ defensive coordinator almost 20 years ago.
Tracie slipped a 2006 Sumner football program out from a bookshelf in their family room, with Keith and Luke, who was eating dinner out of a foil pan after practice, sitting on a couch. Inside was a picture of an unrecognizable Keith Ross (his hair was short and goatee trimmed). Young Luke and their daughter, Annie (now a sophomore) were on each side of him and their son Eli (now a sixth grader) on his lap. Keith hasn’t cut or trimmed his hair in seven years, he said, Luke hasn’t since he was forced to for the basketball team as a freshman. And Eli’s is long, too.
Tracie has never missed a Sumner football game the last two decades, though she didn’t pay as much attention to the actual games until Luke became the quarterback.
“I’m so nervous on Fridays,” Tracie said. “I don’t know what it is. I’m nervous all day.”
They weren’t sure Luke was even going to play. Keith was an All-American linebacker at Central Washington University, but he wouldn’t let Luke play tackle football until the eighth grade, instead encouraging him to play basketball and soccer.
“But about a month before he began the eighth grade I talked to Tracie and I was like, ‘Has Luke talked about playing football?’ And she said no,” Keith said. “I never said a word to him. This isn’t a sport where players do well when it’s pushed on them. You got to love it, so I never asked him about it. I didn’t want him to play because I’m a coach. I wanted him to play because he wanted to play.”
But just before the start of the school year, Luke gave his dad some papers to sign so he could play. Luke said it was never in question.
It wasn’t as easy once he got to Sumner. He recalled a time as a fourth-grade ball boy, with his father yelling at the defensive players, spitting as he did, and Luke was playing catch along the side with the game ball – the one the offense needed as it took the field.
“And I got yelled at,” Luke said. “I was so down the rest of the game. I didn’t even want to talk.”
And it wasn’t easier to get yelled at once he was a player.
Under throw a pass?
“Why would you under throw that!?”
Throw an interception?
“How could you miss that!?”
Even on a good pass, Keith excitedly yells, ‘Good pass!” There have been times Tracie thought Keith might have a heart attack on the sideline.
But Sumner offensive coordinator Spencer Crace approached Keith two years ago and told him that Luke doesn’t take well to his father yelling at him. And Keith has avoided it since.
“It takes a bit to get used to your dad yelling at you,” Luke said. “Mostly because when he yells, they are these rhetorical questions. I always wanted to say something back. I just had to learn that he’s coaching me, it’s not a personal attack.”
Keith said the experience has changed him.
“He does great when anyone else yells at him,” Keith said. “But I think he took it from me as, ‘My dad is mad at me now.’ Not, ‘My coach is mad at me now.’ His sophomore year I could just see the angst.”
But it’s never rattled him on game day. Luke completed 12 of 14 passes for 183 yards in his first career start. His first completion went 60 yards to Tre Weed. That game solidified his spot.
Keith used to spend Sumner’s offensive drives huddled with his defensive players on the sideline. That changed since Luke took over so he doesn’t miss one of his son’s snaps.
Luke only jokingly calls his father Coach or Mr. Ross. That’s his dad on the Sumner sideline. Keith even once pulled Luke out of class one time just to tell him how proud he was of him.
It was the third quarter of that semifinal game against eventual state-champion Camas last year when Sumner pulled to within 24-21. Luke was playing one of his best games, finishing with 258 passing yards and two touchdowns.
“I just remember he completed a pass and he’s helping bring us back and I remember saying to myself, ‘Man, my boy is a baller,’” Keith said. “And then I told the coach next to me – ‘My boy is a baller.’
“I’m just super proud of who he has become. Everyone always talks about how nice he is and that makes me happy. Teachers just say how he’s genuinely nice and compassionate and my other son just idolizes him.
“I’m almost getting sad, like I won’t have Luke around forever. It’s been so fun – the most successful three-year run Sumner has ever had and I’m sure he’s the leading passer in Sumner history. How cool is that that my son gets to play for me and he’s leaving his mark like this?”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677