Sept. 29, 1999
PULLMAN, Wash -- Step right up kids, slip under the tent because the circus is in town.
It's a one-man show, a dazzling display of athleticism, heroism, humor and grace. It's ever-evolving, ever-improving, but always around to perform. And all this football season you can see the ringleader himself, right in Martin Stadium, or anywhere the Cougars play.
He'll make and take passes, lay hits and sprint to avoid them, but never vanish from the spotlight. And if you just walked in, you've already missed a bunch because Paul Mencke has been at this for years.
He's at Washington State, you might know, because of a football scholarship. A scholarship offered and accepted with the idea that he'd be a Cougar quarterback. But it didn't always look that way. And sometimes it still doesn't. Nope, Mencke's first act may have been quarterback, but it wasn't the only one.
"When I was younger my dad played football, and he was a quarterback so I always wanted to be one," Mencke, a redshirt junior, said of his childhood. "But when I started high school my love was baseball...By the time I graduated, I loved basketball the best. But then I got a scholarship at Washington State to play football, so I thought, cool."
And now here he is, the pride of the Cougars' passing corps, just another in a long line of great WSU quarterbacks, right? Well, it's not quite that simple. See, Mencke may have started three games at quarterback in 1998, and seen action at the helm of the offense in seven more, but he didn't even make the depth chart there at the beginning of the 1999 season.
At the hands of quarterbacks Steve Birnbaum and Jason Gesser, by the decision of head coach Mike Price, Mencke's quarterback act was seemingly retired. But like all good performers, Mencke knew the show had to go on.
This time he didn't switch sports, just positions. No longer would he make the throws, now he'd try and catch them. But his most amazing trick wouldn't be pulling it off at receiver -- three catches for 14 yards, so far -- it would be accepting the change of scenery without a single complaint.
"I think he's a great person, a lot stronger and more special than people know," Price said. "The way he has taken his rise and fall at the quarterback position is better than anyone I have ever coached. I don't think I've ever had someone who has done it with that kind of enthusiasm and genuine, genuine concern for the team.
"I'm sure there's a lot of people close to him telling him that he's getting screwed. But he doesn't think so. He just wants to win." And although the wins haven't come, Mencke's still been working away.
"That's just how I was raised," Mencke said. "My mom and dad raised me to just be happy for what you have. Moving to wide receiver was tough, but then when you look at what you have and what other people don't have, it puts things in perspective.
"Playing college sports is something not many people get to do. So, hey, let me make the best of wide receiver because there are a lot of people who wish they could be here. As long as I'm getting on the field, let's make it fun and have a good time at it."
But just when Mencke was getting used to the idea of making spot appearances at receiver, his circus-like career was shuffled again. Like members of the flying trapeze working without a net, Birnbaum and Gesser suffered injuries against Arizona Sept. 25. And just that quickly, Mencke was dusting off his throwing arm and looking to rewrite his quarterback routine.
Saturday (Oct. 2), when the Cougs take on California, Mencke will be waiting in the wings to fill in at quarterback if Birnbaum's pulled groin keeps him off the field. He may be a little bit rusty, he may not be sharp, but his smile and his enthusiasm will surely be the greatest show on Earth.
ADDITIONAL NOTES ON PAUL MENCKE:
A LONG TIME COMING: It took the Cougars 67 years to make it back to the Rose Bowl. Mencke was there, but that isn't his favorite sports memory. That's reserved for a high school basketball game. It was an experience a long time coming, too. "The best thing was going to State my senior year in basketball," Mencke remembers. "My school (Lewis and Clark High in Spokane) hadn't been to the state tournament in like 32 years. We hadn't been known as a basketball power, but we got there. . . Just walking into the Seattle Key Arena was unbelievable. We were playing the No. 1 team in the state and it was a feeling I'll never forget. To walk into Key Arena, which is so big and there were so many people there, it was just so much fun."
THE CATCH: He wasn't at quarterback, but it didn't take Mencke long to get involved in the Cougars' 1999 season. In WSU's season opener against Utah, Mencke slipped in at wide receiver and made two third-quarter receptions. But it was the first catch, and the sound of the crowd's congratulations, that Mencke will remember. "It was really cool," Mencke said. "I didn't know the crowd was going to erupt like that. After I caught it I heard the guy (public-address announcer Glenn Johnson) say, `pass complete to No. 12 Paul Mencke,' and I heard the crowd do a little uproar. I just thought it was really neat to know that there are still people who support you even though you might not still be playing quarterback. It was just a cool feeling. And getting the first catch out of the way was just a relief because it was like, I know I can do anything from here."
THE LUCK: To answer the age-old question, `What does a quarterback, turned receiver, turned quarterback do for luck?' you must simply reply, `Nothing.' At least that's what Mencke would do. "Most of my superstitions I had in high school are kind of gone," Mencke said. "I kind of grew out of them. I used to wear a certain pair of socks or a certain shirt underneath my uniform, but then something goes wrong with that and you have to throw it out the door. At this point I think you just got to go out there and do your best."
THE STATS: Last season Mencke played 10 games at quarterback, competing 71 of 156 passes for 10 touchdowns, and running for 124 yards and a touchdown.
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