Austin Urlacher hovers over a metal trough in the trainer’s room at Chiawana High School. He dreads every drop of cold water and cringes at every ice cube that pours to the bottom of the tub.
These ice baths are the worst part of his days. But when Urlacher sees the scabs on his elbow, walks on his sore legs or thinks about what little cartilage is left in his shoulder, he tells himself he can take one more week of this.
“It’s terrible,” said the Chiawana running back, his face shivering while he sat in the trough. “They never get any better.”
Urlacher doesn’t look like someone who just set the record for rushing yards in a single season. At just 5 feet, 10 inches and 185 pounds, he is built nothing like his famous cousin — former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, who is 6-4, 260.
Yet, Austin Urlacher’s 2,776 rushing yards this season surpassed the single-season marks of players such as Jonathan Stewart (Timberline), Bishop Sankey (Gonzaga Prep), J.R. Hasty (Bellevue) and Kai Van Sickle (Capital). He’s done it by carrying the load, taking more than 30 handoffs five times this season, including 47 against Walla Walla.
“I keep wondering if someone is going to call CPS,” head coach Steve Graff said laughing.
Urlacher is quick to credit his offensive line for his success this year, but his state record doesn’t resonate with him like this week’s trip to the Tacoma Dome does.
Chiawana makes its second consecutive state championship appearance after winning it all last year. Urlacher, as well as converted quarterback Logan Ellsworth, both say they don’t feel the connection to that improbable title game against Camas because both were lost to season-ending injuries before the state run started.
This year’s trip is just a little more special.
That’s also because of the adversity this team has overcome to get here. Steve Graff’s son, Mac, is also making the trip over the mountains despite being paralyzed from the knees down after falling from a tree stand while bow hunting with his dad on Sept. 13, the day after Chiawana’s 42-7 win against Wenatchee.
An outpouring of love and support followed. Mac recounted the numerous visits from Urlacher and other teammates while he was in intensive care at St. Luke’s in Spokane. Steve Graff’s brother-in-law, Long Beach State men’s basketball coach Dan Monson, came up with the idea to sell Graff Strong T-shirts, which were bought by teams around the state.
“It’s amazing to go around and see the Graff Strong T-Shirts. It’s pretty touching,” said mom Dana Graff. “It really does give you strength when people are supporting you when you are going through a rough time.”
But it didn’t stop there. While the family spent most of their time in Spokane with Mac, some of Steve Graff’s former players and parents of current players began remodeling the Graffs’ house.
They poured a concrete ramp to the front door and made the entry way bigger. They installed a chair lift up the split level to the main floor and another that leads to a bonus room. They made the bathroom bigger and widened the doors.
“I’m guessing it was $30,000-$40,000,” Steve Graff said. “They just said ‘Don’t worry about it.’
“The only thing I did was make sure the beer was cold in the fridge.”
Mac’s room is loaded with memorabilia, including a football autographed by Ferndale native and Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, Above his bed is a “GRAFF STRONG” sign. One of his friends donated him a flat-screen TV and a couple others bought him an Xbox One.
“I couldn’t believe they did that,” Mac said.
And despite the accident, he’s even been back out hunting.
“I’ve been duck hunting several times,” said Mac, who last week began taking a second class at the school since his fall. “I can only turn to my left, but the first time I went out after the accident I shot the only duck we shot.”
Mac didn’t attend Tuesday’s football practice because of a doctor’s appointment. They told him he could begin weaning off a brace that wraps around his core, though he’ll wear it when he watches his team play Saturday’s state title game against Bothell.
“They are trying to develop the quads so that maybe someday they can be weight bearing and he can stand with crutches. He will be able to wear braces and walk with a little swing eventually,” Dana said. “The neurosurgeon said that it’s very encouraging that each time he sees him he has a little more movement.
“But it’s small. We don’t want to paint a picture that he’s going to walk up out of his chair here in a year.”
The Graffs were wary to take away attention away from what the football team has accomplished. What could have sent the team, and especially its coach, into a downward spiral instead brought them and the community closer.
It’s even made the gruff, tough-guy Steve Graff, who won three state titles and went to another at Pasco before taking over at Chiawana when it opened in 2009, just a little softer.
“The community has been amazing,” he said, struggling to find more words. “… It’s been amazing.”
“We just didn’t want this to drag the team down,” Dana said. “We wanted them to see you can move forward and get through it. I won’t lie, it’s been hard. It’s been life changing. But with the support of our community and everyone around us, it has got us through this and it has lifted the team, as well.”
No matter Saturday’s outcome, what this team and community have been through won’t be lost.
“We will never forget this season,” Urlacher said.