Good morning and Happy Hump Day, Cougs! We’re going to step away from your usual 2013 Cougar Football coverage today to check in on the goings-on of former Shadle Park, Wazzu and Washington Redskin legend, Mark Rypien, as he competes in another sport he’s pretty darn good at. He’s competing on “Big Break: NFL” which debuted last night on the Golf Channel and will be airing every Tuesday at 6:00 PT through early December. (At the time of the conversation and as I write this, I have not yet seen the first episode.) Thanks to a huge assist from the Golf Channel, I had the chance to talk with Mark, who very graciously shared his experience on the show, as well as his thoughts on the Cougs and the recruitment of another Rypien currently making a name for himself in Spokane. For a rube like me, this was a pretty cool experience. I’m already a big fan of “Big Break” and having a Coug in the mix makes it a no-brainer for me to watch this season. I hope the rest of Cougar Nation will check it out as Rypien plays for a great cause and to help out a couple golfers as they try to catch their big break.
WSUFBB: For those that aren’t familiar with “Big Break”, tell us about the show, especially with the special NFL format and what fans can expect to see this season.
Rypien: There is a $200,000 purse for the aspiring PGA and LPGA reunion Big Breakers and for NFL guys. For the team that wins, the winning players (the gal and the guy), will each win $50,000. The winning NFL guy will win $50,000 for their charity. That, for me, would go to The Rypien Foundation. For anyone that doesn’t know about “Big Break, hence the name, it gives these aspiring PGA and LPGA professionals a chance at their big break, a sponsor’s exemption to a tour event if they win. It’s a team format. All of the nerve-wracking things that happen in golf, individually, such as when I play in Tahoe (The American Century Championship, which Rypien won in 1990 and has several top tens, including a second place finish this year), I can say, “I didn’t get it done”. In this situation, in all the challenges and things they ask us to do, I have an impact, either good or bad, of my two pros making it to their potential chance at The Big Break. The pressure mounts when it comes to that, having a say in their lives and their careers so it was pretty intense.
We filmed at the Dorado Beach resort in Puerto Rico in the first part of June. There is a wonderful format with 18 interesting characters. Anyone that watches will get to see the theater that evolves around putting 18 people on a reality show. Even as a golf show, there are going to be some points in time that are fun for the audience.
WSUFBB: You mentioned you’re playing for The Rypien Foundation. Talk about that foundation, obviously something that is near and dear to your heart.
Rypien: The foundation was born about 9 years ago. Our mission is to be the premier provider of hope for families with children battling cancer. The programs, we do on an annual basis. Through the first 8 years, we had so much success that our donors were looking for money to be put in a different manner. We looked for a lead project and ended up partnering with Sacred Heart Medical Center. They were renovating their emergency center so we went to a detailed design phase of making one emergency center into a children’s side and one to an adult side. Children will be specifically treated by children’s nurses and doctors. Adults will have a separate waiting area and be treated by separate nurses and doctors which will ease the comfort of the child and their parents. It will also work toward our mission statement, as 70% of cancers are diagnosed in the emergency department when a child comes in with a fever or something else isn’t quite right.
It is definitely something close to my heart. A little over 15 years ago, I lost my son Andrew to a brain tumor. Because of his loss, we’ve turned out to honor him and respect him and do something that will benefit children and their families as they go through this process of dealing with a child with cancer. Each of the NFL players were guaranteed $10,000 for their charity.
WSUFBB: When I’ve watched “Big Break” a lot of very accomplished players have said it was the most pressure packed experience they’ve had and they’ve played in significant events. Being a former Super Bowl MVP, you know a thing or two about pressure. Would you agree that the things you had to do on the show ratchet it up?
Rypien: There’s no doubt. Especially when you’re doing it for someone else’s well-being, it amplifies the nerves and everything tenfold. What I found out there is so much preparation and production into a “Big Break” event. You get 18 individuals together for breakfast to have a staging event and to kick it off with a lighthearted discussion to get to know the people you’ll be with for two weeks. From there, you go to the driving range to hit balls for an hour/hour and a half until you get the card that gives us the details of the challenge for that day. You practice that challenge for about 10 minutes. All this practice goes into 1 or 2 shots that you’ll actually hit that day. The intensity mounts because it’s not like you’re going to play a hole, or 9 holes or an alternate shot thing. It’s just one chance to hit it over a flop wall or break the glass. It magnifies quite a bit when it comes to pressure like that.
I’d say that playing in the tournament every year in Tahoe and playing in pressure packed games in Pullman and with the Redskins helped me talking to my team and understanding the role. The role of the team is to put the best people in the right spots. If you have an opportunity, just like in football, you want to have your go-to guy. It was James Lepp, myself and Meghan Hardin. James is probably the most accomplished golfer there. He’s from the University of Washington, won the NCAA Championship and finished second in Greenbrier (Lepp previously competed on the show during the “Big Break: Greenbrier” season). If there was an opportunity to get him in a place to get us through, we knew we were in good hands.
WSUFBB: I wanted to talk about James. Being that he went to UW, when you found out about that particular pairing, how did that treat you as a Coug alum?
Rypien: Other than he’s a Husky (laughs), the one thing we had in common is we’re both Canadian. He’s a Vancouver kid, I’m a Calgary guy. Even though we had one knock against each one of us, we had something that we could put our small little knock aside and be excited about the fact that we come from the same homeland and share our love of hockey and the love of golf. We utilized that in our two weeks together.
WSUFBB: One of the challenges I’m specifically curious about is when you do have to smash the glass. I play to about a 9.5 handicap and it looks literally impossible to me. Is it as hard as it looks or is it just a little “hooded” 7 iron in there?
Rypien: I used a 5 iron. It is difficult. They actually brought the glass break to Tahoe and had the participants there exercise that challenge. [Golden State Warrior] Stephen Curry won it there. I did it in about 9 seconds with my third ball. We had some guys that did it. Others, they didn’t get it done. Brian Baumgartner (of “The Office fame) ended up throwing his club at it and smashing his club. Larry the Cable Guy never did get it done. A few of them just said, “Nope” and didn’t finish the task. They enjoyed it and had a different appreciation for all the Big Breakers.
WSUFBB: The other NFLers that are on the season (Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Marc Bulger, Chris Doleman and Al Del Greco), when you saw the participants, were you familiar with them as players? Did anyone jump out as a particular opponent to worry about?
Rypien: I’ve played with Al, Jerry and Tim in Tahoe and Al’s won there. Al’s very accomplished. He won the NFL Cadillac Pro-Am with the senior tour 6 or 8 times. He’s got a pretty good pedigree. He coaches golf and his son is an accomplished player at Vanderbilt. And he’s a kicker, which is basically the same motion as golf. This particular format, Big Break, bodes perfectly for him because he’s used to sitting on the bench, then coming out and kicking one. You’d have to give him the advantage from that standpoint. Jerry and Tim were workaholics when it comes to golf. They love the game, are very passionate and their game has gotten much better over the years. Marc Bulger is just an athlete, a single-digit handicap that was a pleasure to be around. I knew as an athlete he’d be pretty stout. Chris Doleman kinda surprised me. He said he’s a 3 handicap, but sometimes you can – instead of sandbagging – reverse sandbag. After watching him play, he’s very skilled. I was especially impressed with his short game for a big guy. From that standpoint it was relatively even. For some of us, you can say we had an advantage because we’ve played more under the TV lights, but we’re all competitors and hate to lose so that kinda evens out. It came down to our pro’s and how they fit with each other. It’s not all gonna be hugs and laughs and great shots. There are gonna be heartaches or you get mad when individually you couldn’t get something done and as a team you couldn’t get something done. You’ll see a little bit of that play out in the episodes.
WSUFBB: You’re over 50 now which means you can be eligible for the Champions Tour. Is that something that crosses your mind to continue as a professional golfer?
Rypien: I turned 50 last year and went to “Q-School” (Champions Tour qualifying), but missed it by 4 strokes. I kinda shot myself out the first day. I’m going back again this year, the 1st of November to the same course I played last year. As long as the conditions stay the same and the way I’m playing now, I should score better than last year. Depending on how many they’re going to take and how well the others play, I hope to have an opportunity to go from there to the final stage and see what I can do. The good thing this year is that the final stage is at TPC Scottsdale (as opposed to Florida). It’s closer and I’m used to golfing in the Phoenix area. I look forward to seeing how I line up against some of the old tour guys that lost their card and some of the European guys trying to get their card. It’ll be a good field there in Scottsdale for 12 spots. It’ll be tough, but we’ll see how it goes.
WSUFBB: Switching gears to the Cougs, you played for a team that holds up in Cougar lore as one of the most popular teams, the RPM Team. How do you feel that team stacks up to some of the great Cougar teams of all time?
Rypien: We functioned as a group. Pullman is not the easiest place to recruit. The culture is changing in Pullman with Bill Moos coming in there and shaking things up a bit. Our fall athletics have been spectacular with the golf, tennis, volleyball, soccer and football programs, we’ve had some success. We had a different core of people that did it a different way. We had pulling guards that were quick little guys, not the big strong guys like the have now. We used the veer option offense under Jim Walden and threw the ball off that. We had some success doing both. With guys like Kerry Porter and Rueben Mayes and the receiving corps, there weren’t enough footballs to pass around, but we managed to lead the Pac 10 in offense and did some wonderful things. There were some great individuals when I was there (Keith Millard, Erik Howard and James Hasty) that went on to play great careers in the NFL.
The culture now in Pullman…”Gosh, that would have been a fun thing for me to do”. Connor [Halliday] is having success and he’s probably icing his arm every practice. I know he’s icing his arm after every game. They have a lot of offensive plays. 60-70% of them are passing plays. I definitely like that Coach Leach has opened it up. It’s been exciting to watch with the big wins at SC and Cal. Basically, we should have been undefeated on the road. We lost a tight one to Auburn that I thought we had a chance to win. Probably one of the mistakes Connor would love to have back in that game when he was driving the team down, he probably didn’t make the best decision, but it happens. I’ve done it many times myself so I know what it’s like. It’s like when you throw it you wish the ball had a string on it so you can bring it back. Other than that, there are good things going on. The defense is playing great. Stanford kinda thumped us in the mouth a little bit. Too bad it was bad conditions, but they’re also a good football team. That’ll happen sometimes.
The nice thing is there is more consistency. I think we can get to that 6 win barrier. And if we play well, we can get there in the next 3-4 games. If we can do that, everything after that is gravy and we can just get a better bowl appearance. The cliche in sports is to take them one at a time. Right now in our sights is a pretty good Oregon State Beaver football team. They’re playing on all cylinders on offense, but we have them at home. After losing to Eastern at home, they’ve run off four in a row and they’re playing pretty good football. We’ve got ’em at home, a sellout crowd, Dad’s Weekend. It should be crazy and a lot of hysteria and fun in Pullman. I look forward to us playing at a high level.
WSUFBB: One other thing I have to ask and I have to tread lightly here being that we’ll be talking about a recruitable athlete. There is a certain young man at Shadle Park High School with a familiar last name, Brett Rypien, doing outstanding things in Spokane. Are you in his ear or are you going to just let him see how things play out in terms of his college future.
Rypien: I’m always in his ear. I tell him he’d look great in Crimson and Gray. There’s no doubt he’d look really great in that. His mom went to school there. His mom, I have to be open and honest, doesn’t want him to go there because Chris Tormey (Brett’s uncle) was there a few years ago under Paul Wulff. Of course, she feels it’s Leach’s fault that he was fired. That just comes from a mom that loves her family and when one of her family members gets a job pulled out from underneath him, especially this close to home, she’s probably a little bitter even though she’s a Coug herself.
There are a lot of people pressuring him to go a little bit South of Spokane so we’ll see what happens. He’s just enjoying things. He’s getting a lot of letters, a lot of calls and a lot of programs asking him to verbally commit. I think he’s just wants to enjoy his junior year. It’s the biggest year because once senior year comes around, you pretty much know what you’re going to do anyway.
What a great game he had last week against undefeated Mount Spokane, to beat them 63-49, throw 8 touchdowns,613 yards, no interceptions and one touchdown run. Nine touchdowns accounted for in a high school football game is pretty amazing.We’re not talking 8 man football. We’re talking 11 man at a pretty high level. I’m really impressed and proud of Brett. He’s very deserving of breaking all my records. I think that’s awesome. For him to do it after they held up for 32 years says a lot. For him to do it in his junior year, says even more.
WSUFBB: He’s doing outstanding. Hopefully, like you said he just gets to enjoy the process and keeps playing well.
Rypien: And signs with the Cougs, right?
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WSUFBB: One more question before you go. I used to live in the DC area and keep in touch with Redskins fans as well as DC media. The biggest talking point that pertains to the Redskins is off the field right now, and the use of the Redskins nickname. What are your thoughts on that? Is it something that they need to look at changing?
Rypien: Obviously they need to see the sensitivity side of it, what the Native culture thinks of it, what is it affecting, what are the problems and what are their issues with the name. I know that as a player to represent the Redskin name with integrity, honor, commitment and all those principles that show strength and pride for the team you play for has something to say about how we feel about it. Again, there are strong native cultures that have a problem with it. We should be more than willing to listen to what their issues are, see if we can straighten it out and see if we can find some common ground that will find a way to resolve it in a manner that there are not a lot of hard feelings and that we’re at least sensitive of what their feelings are and how they perceive it.
With that, Mark Rypien and I exchanged a few pleasantries and of course, the call ended with a simultaneous, “Go Cougs”. It was a great privilege to talk about his experience with reality TV and to hear just how keen an interest he keeps for Cougar athletics. I’m excited to see how “Big Break: NFL” unfolds and hope Mark represents WSU well, but more importantly that the Rypien Foundation gets a $50,000 donation at the end.