SAN DIEGO — He leaves as a winner.
Jake Locker ran over to the corner of Qualcomm Stadium to lingering Huskies fans chanting his name. He raised his helmet, pumped his fist, tapped his heart. Fans chanted his name.
Five years after it began, his Washington career ended on soggy turf in chilly San Diego. His purpose in passing on the NFL to return for his senior year for, what he wanted all along, was accomplished. Locker left with a winning season (7-6) and a bowl title.
“This is the experience I came back for,” Locker said. “It’s been some frustrating years. But to go out this way … I’m proud to be part of this program, part of this football team.”
Locker did it against the team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, that made him look his worst. The 4-for-20 performance from the Sept. 18 game was upgraded by a smartly executed 5-for-16 passing performance, thoroughly enhanced by 13 carries for 85 yards. In a 19-7 Holiday Bowl victory that closed the season with a fourth consecutive triumph, Locker and his mates repaid the 56-21 whipping.
In his final game, his speed, guts and decision-making were exemplary. Humility was in tow, per usual.
During the on-field, post-game trophy presentation, defensive MVP Mason Foster spoke to the crowd. Offensive MVP Chris Polk spoke to the crowd. Head coach Steve Sarkisian shouted to the crowd. Locker, after being surrounded for two ESPN interviews, was standing near the podium with teammates watching the speakers. When the crowd chanted his name, Sarkisian tried to coax Locker to the microphone. Locker shook his head and stayed put.
“I think so much was made of why he came back was for the Heisman or this or that,” Sarkisian said. “The reality of it was he came back for this moment.”
Locker posed for pictures, took in hugs, celebrated on the field with tears in his eyes. He even signed a ball for backup quarterback Keith Price to give to a friend.
Locker provided all with a scare in the second quarter. After his cranium was rattled by simultaneous hits on a first-down run, he was face down, prone and still. Kind of a funny story, actually.
“It wasn’t as bad as it looked,” Locker said. “My helmet came down, hit me on my nose. The front of my face was kind of numb.
“My helmet was covering my eyes, so I couldn’t open my eyes up. They were asking me, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’m saying, ‘I can’t see anything!’ ”
Locker was persuaded it was his helmet. Upon adjustment, he sheepishly realized the truth.
Even that seemingly dark moment turned out positive on a day when many things had to go well, and did. Now, Locker turns to his much-debated future in the NFL.
“I actually think he’ll be a better pro because he’s got a real pro mentality,” Sarkisian said. “He has the work ethic and the drive to make that happen.
“Somebody’s going to get a special guy here in a few months.”