A rare visit at the home of the Dawgfather
Posted by Don Shelton
Entering the home of the Dawgfather must be a little like a Washington football player running through the tunnel at Husky Stadium for the first time.
Well, except no one is cheering.
From a dark hallway, I step into the bright light of his Kirkland condo. And there is Don James, smiling, shaking my hand and introducing me and four coworkers from The Seattle Times to his wife Carol. Welcoming us into their home.
We are there to do a live chat with the legendary former University of Washington football coach. It is a chance for Times readers to ask questions of James directly. It's also a chance for me to reconnect with a man I haven't seen in about 20 years. And, I suppose, a chance to assess how quickly two or three decades can go by.
First, let's get the formalities out of the way.
What is their home like? Nice. Spacious. Bright. With a great view of Lake Washington.
What are they like? Nicer. Perfect hosts. They tell us we can go anywhere we want, use whatever we need to use. They offer us coffee. Freshly brewed.
But to understand what it's really like to visit with Don James, I have to go back almost 30 years. I was a young sports reporter for The Journal-American, a defunct daily newspaper in Bellevue. I was in my late 20s, covering theHuskies for three years in the early 1980s. James was in his 40s then, and he was building an imposing resume that would make him one of the legends of football at Washington and on the West Coast.
One reporter described him as the little man with a big "W" on his cap, but James always stood tall, presiding over news conferences with a deadpan expression and no-nonsense answers. He presided over practices the same way, watching from a tall tower. Distant but omnipresent.
But that was almost three decades ago. Now I am shaking hands with the man. I can't help but size him up as we walk around his house, take photos and video, and talk about the live chat.
He is smaller than I remember, a bit frail, though there is no mistaking his piercing eyes behind the wire-rim glasses. Now 78, he has aged. Haven't we all? My dark hair turned silver years ago. And as I talk to him, I realize that at 57, I am almost the same age Don James was when his Huskies shared a national championship.
James' voice is strong. His memory is sharp. But there is a gentler tone to him, the tone of a man completely comfortable with himself, his retirement and his legacy.
The years have been good to Don and Carol, who is his co-pilot in every way. The two are high-school sweethearts who have been married 59 years, since he was the quarterback and she was the cheerleader at Miami University.
They watch the Mariners every day. Carol takes the big-screen TV and Don gets the smaller one if there's a disagreement on what to watch (just like at my house). They go on lots of cruises. People apparently are willing to pay to go on the same cruises with Don and Carol James. Don likes to play golf, but not as much as he used to. He carried a 7-handicap when he retired, he says.
"Now I'm lucky to shoot 90," he adds with a smile.
James has some health issues. He recently went to the hospital to treat skin cancer, and then had a heart defibrillator installed. All things considered, he looks good.
James handles the chat the way he once handled questions from reporters. Answers are short and direct. He never ducks a question or shows emotion, but a few times I see that old competitiveness, the fire that made him a Hall of Fame coach. The old man still has it.
His house is nice but tasteful. But one room is jaw-dropping for anyone who follows Huskies football. His office is stacked with awards and memorabilia. His Bear Bryant Award for being college football's coach of the year in 1991 is there. So is a framed Dawgfather poster. There are newspaper clippings, pictures of James with President George H.W. Bush, game balls from Rose Bowls and scores of other items.
As I stand in this shrine of Washington football alongside the man who ensured its legacy, I take a few moments to soak it all in.
"We used to have a lot more," the Dawgfather says. "We gave a lot of it to the university, and a lot to our kids. And we sold some of it."
"Really?" I ask, then blurt out a question much too crass for this perfect spring day with the perfect hosts. "How much was it all worth?"
"Well, I was able to furnish the whole house," Carol replies.
We are about to leave, when Don turns to me as we shake hands.
"You're the sports editor, right?" he asks.
"I've got a little bone to pick with you," he says.
I brace myself for what's to come. Did a story I wrote three decades ago still upset him? Does he have a grudge over a Seattle Times story?
"You need to run more golf," he says, smiling a little. "I'm in a golf fantasy league, and I can't get all the scores from your paper."
"OK," I hear myself reply. "I'll see what I can do."
So there you have it. The Dawgfather watches the Mariners, goes on cruises and plays fantasy golf. And he reads The Seattle Times.
Like I said, the old man still has it.
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