Pillars of Perseverance
Sept. 26, 2008
By Matt Winter
When they came to the University of Washington in 2004, seniortight ends Michael Gottlieb and Walt Winter had no idea their footballcareers would turn out the way they did. One came in as a walkonwithout a scholarship; the other switched positions twice beforefinding his home.
They have dutifully done their jobs for four years, and have nowbecome the veterans guiding young players in finding their way. Ina time when Washington football was not at its most glorious, thesetwo found glory in their own path. They found a way to exemplify theHusky spirit even when Spirit the mascot could hardly muster a bark.
While Gottlieb and Winter's role on the team has been sometimesunclear during their time on the field, their presence is invaluable.They bring experience, perspective, and a sense of that blue-collarteam attitude that seems lost in sports these days.
Gottlieb was a star at Mercer Island High School. He came toWashington as a walk-on, passing up on scholarship offers fromother schools to play for the team he had grown up watching. Inhigh school, he made most of his impact on defense as a linebacker,and after amassing 113 tackles during his senior season, was namedKingCo 3A Defensive Player of the Year. Upon joining the Dawgs, hewas told that he would be playing tight end.
'It was definitely tough at first,' Gottlieb explains, 'I mean,[defense] was pretty much all I did in high school. My whole mentalityabout football was just, `tackle the guy with the ball,' or `chase the guywith the ball.' That was all I really knew.
'But, especially being a walk on, I wanted to do everything I couldto fit in with the team, and do whatever I could to get on the field.'
Winter has had to get used to adjusting. At Juanita High School, heexcelled as a linebacker and tight end, earning all state honors and aspot in the U.S. Army All-America game. However, after coming to theHuskies as a tight end/linebacker recruit, within a week he was movedto defensive end, where he remained for two and a half years. Afterredshirting in 2004, he played special teams and added defensive linedepth for another year and a half. In 2006, because of injuries at thetight end position, he was moved back to offense and joined Gottlieb.
'The transition was good, I've enjoyed it,' said Winter, who servedas a backup to Gottlieb and Johnie Kirton in 2006, 'It's different--Ialways loved catching the ball. I think tight end is my favorite spot toplay.'
Adjusting is something Gottlieb would also have to get used to.After redshirting in 2004, he played some special teams in 2005. Thatvery next year, due to injuries, he was thrown into the fray at tight end,starting in six games and catching four passes for 78 yards.'I still wasn't on scholarship but I got thrown into the mix,'remembers Gottlieb about his early days.
Being assigned a more prominent role didn't faze Gottlieb. Heshowed he belonged and was deserving of consideration for ascholarship.
'Mostly everything is happening so fast that you don't really havetime to sit back and think about it,' he says. 'I remember my firstgame my sophomore year, I was extremely anxious, I was breathingdeeply, there was a lot of adrenaline.'
His success carried over into Gottlieb's junior year in 2007, wherehe played in every game, starting six at tight end. He led UW tightends and ranked fifth on the team with 12 receptions for 136 yards.Winter's junior season was spent again in a reserve role, as he wasstill getting used to playing offense.
'Learning a new playbook is never easy, it's a whole differentlanguage and all new material to learn,' Winter explains.
However, he was able to draw from his defensive experienceto help with the blocking aspect of the tight end position. 'Being adefensive player for two-and-a-half years I understand defense, theway people are trying to go, and it helps at tight end knowing wherethey're going so I can stop them from going there.'
At Washington, there is plenty of tradition at the tight end position.With guys like Mark Bruener, Ernie Conwell, Cam Cleeland, and Jerramy Stevens, there are few teams across the country that havethe lore at a certain position that the Huskies have at tight end.Winter knows the program and takes great pride in this. 'I've beena local guy--it's an honor.'
Gottlieb finds inspiration in the situation.
'You're not automatically given anything simply because youbecome a tight end at the University of Washington,' explains Gottlieb.'You have to earn the status to be mentioned in the same breath asthose guys. But, at home, you think about the tradition. You thinkabout where you want to be--that's extra motivation for me, holdingmyself to a higher standard.'
Perhaps the greatest part of playing tight end for them is playingalongside each other. These two veterans are great friends; they evenlived together for a year.
'Walt and I are close buddies,' says Gottlieb. 'So more thananything it's fun to spend a lot of time with him--playing and inmeeting rooms and throughout the whole thing.'
'Mike and I have been through a lot together,' adds Winter, 'andwith the young guys, we can take Kavario [Middleton] or Chris [Izbicki]or Romeo [Savant] under our wing. We can simplify things becausesometimes it's easier for a player to teach or coach another playerbecause we speak the same language.'
Now in their senior years, Gottlieb and Winter are finding their place,and that place is not what they expected. They have suffered throughtheir share of losses, position changes and injuries. Yet, through itall, the duo has remained diligent and pillars of perseverance. So onthis 2008 team that features so many young rising stars, who betterto lead and offer wisdom than a couple of guys who have remainedstrong over the past four years?
'This experience has been very different than I thought it was goingto be,' admits Gottlieb, 'but it's been very rewarding for me--seeingthe way I've grown, how far I've come since I first walked in here --personally, as a football player, academically, everything.'
'It lets you know that, despite what I've gone through here I didn'tquit, I kept working hard and kept my head up,' offers Winter. 'I cango through almost anything. When it's sour, it makes it sweeter, andwe've had some tough times so when we have success it makes itthat much better knowing where we've been.'
While these two may never earn All-American status, you willsurely see their impact on future Husky teams. Especially if the youngstars on the team emulate their blue-collar ways and help put the barkback in the Huskies.