Falk's final fling

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CHULA VISTA, Calif. - As Washington State football players strode off the field after a sun-warmed practice at Southwestern College, Luke Falk heard an importunate address from an unfamiliar adult male in a nearby corner of the stands.

"Luke. Luke!"

The senior quarterback was just steps from the locker room. It would have been easy to ignore the voice and keep on chugging - to "shut out the noise," as the Cougars always say. Nobody does this better than Luke Falk.

Instead he turned to look, heard the unsurprising request for an autograph, then jogged over to comply.

In a cover story on Sam Darnold in August, ESPN magazine characterized the USC Trojans quarterback as a reluctant celebrity, a quiet and respectful young man trying to adjust to the glare of the spotlight.

The glare may be less oppressive amid the wheat fields of eastern Washington, and also here in a mellow, multi-ethnic pocket of Chula Vista, where the No. 21 Cougars are preparing to face No. 18 Michigan State on Thursday (6 p.m., FS1) in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

But the ESPN story rang familiar in Falk country, meaning not only eastern Washington but also the Cache Valley in northern Utah where the athlete grew up.

"He's in L.A., I'm in Pullman," Falk said recently of Darnold. "But I definitely think I'm a private person. I like to keep a close group around me, and that's about it. I just like to play football, and I try to use my platform in a positive way. But the glam and everything, it's uncomfortable."

To those close to Falk, it's hardly surprising that he has maintained this taste for personal space, this stubborn modesty, while becoming the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history. It's how he got here in the first place. It's inseparable from his attention to detail, his easy rapport with teammates, his unshakable composure - all the crucial traits that distinguish him from athletes of perhaps more explicit physical gifts.

As college football makes increasingly harsh demands on players' time and attention, especially at quarterback, it may be that players like Darnold and Falk, who value their privacy, have a particular advantage in the long run.

"The position demands a lot from you," Falk said. "During the season, it's such a grind that, whenever you have free time, you just want to spend it with people that you care about. And you really want some alone time as well, to get away from everything. Otherwise I think you get burned out."

The intangible aspects of Falk's game, not to mention his beautiful throwing mechanics and deceptive physical toughness, have been most gloriously on display during the seven fourth-quarter comebacks he directed for the Cougars, including three stunners in 2015 that required game-winning or -tying touchdown passes in the final 13 seconds.

The most recent example was a 94-yard TD drive that gave the Cougars a 24-21 win over No. 18 Stanford last month in Falk's final appearance at Martin Stadium.

Mike Favero, who was Falk's football coach at Logan (Utah) High, relished all those performances, of course, but the first Falk-led drive he happened to mention in a recent interview was, like the quarterback himself, an exemplar of humility.

It was a five-play drive for 5 net yards, after clock-draining spikes. But it included an 11-yard zone-read dash by Falk for a first down, and it consumed the final 2 minutes, 53 seconds in the Cougars' snowy 20-14 win over Miami in the 2015 Sun Bowl.

One reason the moment has proved memorable for Favero is that, like many followers of WSU football, he was baffled by something that had happened two years earlier. The Cougars blew a 15-point lead in the final three minutes to lose 48-45 to Colorado State in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.

Falk watched from the sideline as a redshirting freshman, and maybe learned a lesson or two.

Said Favero: "I watched Colorado State come back and beat Washington State in a bowl game that Washington State had no business losing had they managed the clock properly. Part of Luke's greatness is he's aware of every detail important in winning football games, and the Miami game was one example of his leadership in making sure he did everything, both as a player and a game-manager, to win that game."

Some of Falk's biggest admirers are former quarterbacks who can appreciate his attention to the nuances of the position.

They include Jack Thompson, whose spectacular career at WSU in the late 1970s nudged the school toward its self-image as Quarterback U. Falk can't help but be cognizant of that tradition, given the mentoring he's received from, among others, ex-Cougar QBs Thompson, Drew Bledsoe and Jason Gesser, the last of whom now works for the school as an assistant director for development.

"Jason Gesser has been the quintessential mentor to Luke, and Luke is the best to play at that position (for WSU)," Thompson said last month. "Trust me, I'm very begrudging when I give platitudes like that. I look at the whole picture, starting with the kind of guy he is."

He's referring to qualities both on and off the field. Seemingly everyone who talks about Falk veers constantly between the two.

"Luke has a plan, in which details are important," Favero said. "He knows that to peak-perform the plan needs to be comprehensive, holistic, whether it be sleep and rest, strength-training, film study, QB mechanics, clock management. The list is extensive on the things the great ones understand."

People note his humility, symbolized by the aging off-white WSU cap he has worn since he arrived on campus as a walk-on, nine months before landing a scholarship. In the same breath they mention his competitive nature.

"I think it's an underrated value in kids," said Logan Brown, who was Falk's basketball coach in high school. "A lot of times kids are given so many stars based on their athletic ability, and so many stars based on certain performances. But I wonder how many times we really look at the individual to their core and understand how big a competitor they are. To me, that's what separates Luke. He's gotten the most out of his ability because of his willingness to compete.

"His competitiveness is something I hope to have every single year, and I haven't had a kid match it yet. I think he lives the fact that losing is not an option. I really believe he lives that."

Casual fans are sometimes surprised by such descriptions of Falk. In TV interviews they see his blank expression, occasionally breaking into an aw-shucks grin, and they hear his diplomatic, sometimes bland answers, delivered in a deep monotone.

Like Darnold, he describes being upstaged as boy by a more gregarious sister - or two of them, in Falk's case.

"When we were growing up, I wouldn't say anything at the dinner table, and my sisters would like steal the show," he said. "And my mom and dad or whatever. I was a laid-back kid, very quiet. I've always been quiet - in those settings."

Yet teammates describe him as a goofball, and also as a leader who demands accountability. If only through his determination to do whatever's necessary to win a football game, he has learned be vocal on the sideline.

"Sure, but still really respectful," WSU receivers coach Dave Nichol said, as opposed to "some other quarterbacks I've been around. I mean, he always respects what the receivers are trying to say, and their opinion on stuff."

He shows the same courtesy with beat reporters, though he shares with them a running joke that being interviewed is excruciating. It really isn't, quite. But it's not getting him any closer to his single-minded goal of maximizing his football talent.

Although he chooses to keep many facts of his life private, he's quick to pay tribute to those who inspire him. Every game, he scrawls "Brad" on his wrist band, to honor a beloved AAU basketball coach, Brad Barton, who died six years ago of a diabetic seizure, aged 31.

Falk will leave WSU with some regrets. The Cougars never won a Pac-12 title under his leadership, despite knocking on the door three straight years. They never experienced a win in the Apple Cup against Washington. "I think that will sit with me forever," Falk said.

Yet he has proved an ideal quarterback in coach Mike Leach's Air Raid. He owns school and Pac-12 records for passing yardage, completions, total offense and passing touchdowns. He's 27-13 as a Wazzu starter, he's entering his third straight bowl game, and the Cougars went 6-0 at Martin Stadium during his senior year.

After each of those 2017 home wins, while teammates celebrated and gravitated to the center of the field, Falk turned toward the north stands, spotted his girlfriend and surreptitiously walked over to give her a kiss.

He has alluded to her often in interviews but has avoided mentioning her name, noting she values her privacy even more than he does. Last week, however, he announced on Instagram that he had proposed to the woman. Her name is Mallori Lindberg.

"She said yes!" he wrote, later telling reporters, "I think that was the most nervous I've ever been."

She's his rock, it turns out. Whenever possible, she helps the record-setting quarterback transform briefly into a regular guy as they venture on some simple, "brainless" excursion, as Falk puts its.

There's one other party involved in these trips: the Labrador that Falk's parents gave him a decade ago, to console him after he'd broken his collarbone in the eighth grade. Falk and the dog were separated for his first three semesters at WSU, but since then they've been constant companions.

Its name? Falk won't say. It's a dog that values its privacy.

---

Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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