Boise State's Linehan following in footsteps of his father and brothers

ccripe@idahostatesman.comNovember 28, 2013 

The last of Ron Linehan’s three college football-playing sons will celebrate the end of his career Saturday at Bronco Stadium.

Ron won’t be there.

He wasn’t at Josh’s senior day at Oregon State in 2006 or Cole’s senior day at Oregon in ’08, either.

He died in 2005.

Gabe, a Boise State tight end, who was 14 when he lost his father, spent his early teen years helping his mother care for the former football star whose body failed him. Gabe has dedicated his life to making his dad proud.

That hair that flows out of Gabe’s helmet? He hasn’t cut it since he started playing college football, because his dad was known for his long hair as a three-time All-Big Sky linebacker at Idaho.

The tattoos on his upper arms — spelling “Wild One”? They’re a tribute to his dad, the Wild One in the Vandals’ famed Wild Bunch defense. He also has the entire “The Man in the Arena” quote from Theodore Roosevelt — his dad’s favorite — tattooed on his left thigh.

His future? He’ll become a football coach, he figures, just like Ron and Josh and Cole.

“My life is in memory of him,” Gabe said. “That’s one of the purposes of my life is to make him happy, wherever he is. I know he’s looking down and he’s proud, and that’s what my life’s been about. And it won’t change.”

A FOOTBALL FAMILY

Ron was one of seven children, and the oldest of four boys, who grew up in Sunnyside, Wash. He was an All-Big Sky linebacker in 1969, 1970 and 1971 — one of six three-time all-conference honorees in Vandals history.

Ron and his brothers Rick, a defensive back, and Scott, a quarterback, were all team MVPs during their careers at Idaho. The fourth brother, Kelly, played at Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College.

The family has posters promoting Ron and the Wild Bunch to Vandals fans during his playing days. Josh even found old film clips on YouTube.

“Everybody we’ve ever talked to that he has played with, or his siblings, they always talked about what kind of player he was,” Cole said, “such an intensity, such a little nastiness.”

Said Josh: “There are so many damn stories about him when he was playing, but they kind of get bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where you’re like, ‘Wait. I’ve heard three different versions of that same story.’ The legend grew even more after he passed away.”

Ron was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the NFL didn’t pan out. He became a high school coach in the Portland area — compiling a 156-64 record in 23 seasons at Sunset (1977-93) and Westview (1994-99) high schools.

He met and married Liz, and they raised their three boys in Banks, Ore. — Liz’s hometown.

Josh, Cole and Gabe got their father’s athleticism and their mother’s height — the perfect recipe for an offensive tackle, a defensive tackle and a tight end.

Football dominated their lives. Liz went to as many as five football games a week.

“Family comes first and then I guess football comes next,” Cole said. “It’s something that’s just been engrained in us. It started with my dad coaching, us going to games every Friday night, us working the ball-boy circuit when we were young, going to practice with him every day.

“That was the only thing we ever wanted to do was play high school, play college. It’s paid for all of our educations. And now I coach it and teach, so it just continues on.”

Josh and Cole are two years apart and played together in high school. Gabe is 6 years younger than Cole.

They played football on their knees when Gabe was young so he could play, too.

“He’d get roughed up a little bit,” Josh said, “but he loved every minute of it.”

Ron was known for his intensity on the sideline and tenderness at home. Sometimes the intensity showed up at home; other times, the tenderness showed up at work.

Mike Packard played and coached for Ron, who fixed Packard’s “attendance problem” in high school.

“He picked me up every day for school,” Packard said. “He followed me around. I’d see him peeking in the window at class to make sure I was there.

“… He was hard, but fair. He had a different motor in him. He expected tenacity out of his players and he kind of bred that. He was an intense guy.”

He also was a family man.

Packard remembers a several-year stretch during which Ron would show up for Saturday practices after wins wearing multi-colored parachute pants.

“He always said, ‘My boys bought these for me and they are my happy pants,’ ” Packard said.

A STAR FALLS

Packard remembers Ron losing his clipboard, his keys — even the whistle hanging around his neck — during his coaching career.

Those moments make more sense now.

“You think it’s just funny at the time,” Packard said. “But he was a real meticulous man.”

Ron’s health began to deteriorate in 2000. He left his job as a head coach to become the offensive coordinator at Banks High, where his sons played. Then he dropped down to the junior high, where he was Gabe’s offensive coordinator in seventh grade. Gabe was the quarterback.

“He was a really, really strong, independent man — really prideful,” Gabe said. “It was a pretty tough decline. It was really hard to watch.”

Said Liz: “For a long time, I thought it was depression. And five years later, he was dead.”

Doctors never truly solved Ron’s medical mystery. Josh says they “settled” on early-onset Alzheimer’s for lack of a better explanation.

But one doctor hinted at what the family now believes to be the truth — that Ron’s habit of tackling helmet-first in his playing days and the concussions that ensued eventually killed him.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, has become a hot topic in football in recent years.

“They could never classify what he was going through,” Gabe said. “When I was in college, I started researching CTE. It matched his symptoms completely, much more than Alzheimer’s. … Mentally, he had this huge downturn his last five, six years of life.”

The turning point, he said, was a car accident when they were headed to school. Ron became confused and hit the gas instead of the brake and collided head-on with another car.

“That’s when he fully lost his independence,” Gabe said.

Ron died two years later, on Sept. 23, 2005, when Gabe was in ninth grade.

Gabe and Liz were home alone to care for Ron during those two years. Josh and Cole were away at school.

“That has created a really special bond with us,” Liz said. “It was a pretty young age that he was exposed to that. He just accepted it. It was kind of a gradual thing — he got sicker and sicker. We just kind of dealt with it on a daily basis. I didn’t want any regrets as far as how we treated him and how we lived our lives. And I don’t have any regrets.”

Said Gabe: “It was hard, because there were some really bad times where he couldn’t really understand what was going on, why things were happening to him. He had to blame something. There are a lot of out-of-character things that happen when people go through that. My mother is so strong. I never saw her falter in any way. It makes you grow up really fast and gives you a lot of perspective on what’s actually important.”

He says the time spent caring for his dad helped shape the person he has become. Among his tattoos is the word “empathy” on his left forearm.

His brothers see the impact, but wish their little brother had been able to enjoy a regular childhood. They were 2 hours away, but with the time constraints of college football, Cole said, they might as well have been in “a different state.”

“I always feel terrible that he didn’t have those memories of when (Ron) was really mentally there, like when we were teenagers,” Josh said. “That always bugged me. … No one should have to go through that. It’s ugly. But he’s a strong kid and he dealt with it well.”

Said Liz: “He shouldered the responsibility and he was not bitter about it or anything. That was his dad and he was going to do what was necessary and take care of him the best way he could. … As hard as it was, it had a really positive impact on him as a human being.”

THE LEGACY CONTINUES

Ron’s three boys weren’t just football players; they were exceptional players. All three started during multiple seasons for programs that spent time in the Top 25.

Josh was the first, at Oregon State — the school of choice on Liz’s side of the family. His career began when Gabe was in elementary school.

“I was very intense in my fandom,” Gabe said. “I was a little freak fan kid. I knew every player. Me and my cousin, we went to every game. We were just obsessed — jumping down on the field, dodging security guards. Those were some fun times.”

Cole went against family tradition and took a scholarship offer from Oregon.

He and Josh were linemen.

Gabe was different — smaller and more athletic, he was the first of the three boys who could play quarterback and run Ron’s beloved offense. The former linebacker became an offensive-minded coach.

“(Gabe) was the different animal,” Cole said. “We always had that black stripe on our helmet, over the weight limit. He was the prima donna quarterback.”

The three boys will be together on the blue turf Saturday night, with their mom, during pregame senior introductions.

They don’t know what to expect from their emotions as an era in their lives ends. Liz has been attending college football games for 12 years, with only a one-year break during Gabe’s redshirt year.

“I’m really proud of Gabe and all that he’s done,” Cole said. “He had a lot of pressure growing up with two brothers playing. I know he put a lot of pressure on himself. He had a lot of success and worked hard for it.”

Gabe, like his brothers, has faced significant adversity from injuries during his career. He missed most of last season with a hamstring injury and has been hampered by a high ankle sprain for much of this year.

Liz, who attends all of Gabe’s games, says she has a love/hate relationship with the sport because of the injuries.

“His dad, he would have been there at every game if he was around,” Liz said. “So I really felt like I needed to do that — for him and for me.”

She isn’t likely to stop watching football now that the boys are done playing college football.

Josh is an assistant coach at Pendleton (Ore.) High. Cole is an assistant coach at Hillsboro (Ore.) High. And Gabe says “it’s in my destiny” to coach eventually, too.

Gabe graduated with a degree in marketing in May and has spent this fall taking classes of interest.

His favorite: creative non-fiction writing.

His favorite topic: “A lot of the things I’ve told you about. The unique circumstances I’ve been in. Telling stories that I hope people can relate to and get a feeling from.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat


A SPECIAL MOMENT

Ron Linehan played in the first Boise State-Idaho football game in 1971 as a Vandals linebacker.

His youngest son, Gabe, played in the last rivalry game in 2010 at the Kibbie Dome.

And Gabe punctuated that footnote in history with one of the most unlikely — and poignant — touchdowns in recent Boise State history.

The Broncos led 45-7 in the third quarter. On first-and-10 at the Idaho 21-yard line, they called a play on which Linehan’s job was to run a defender out of the play as a decoy.

But quarterback Kellen Moore scrambled to his left, spotted Linehan in the back of the end zone and made a high throw that only his freshman tight end could grab.

Touchdown.

“That was pretty wild,” Gabe said. “In the moment, you can’t really comprehend how significant and meaningful it really is. But the stars aligned. I believe in those things. The ball was never supposed to go to me.”

Linehan also carried the Hammer that day, for a hit a week earlier against Hawaii.

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