Dave Whitmire implored the big kid with dreams of playing big-time college football to grab a ball and get to know it.
Take that football, Whitmire told him, and spend hours in a crouched position, looking back between your legs, and fire that sucker to a holder or punter. It just might pave your way to a scholarship.
This was 31 years ago. Whitmire was the football coach at Davis High School, and Paul Wulff was an offensive lineman, a thinker in shoulder pads who understood the game. Wulff certainly understood unthinkable grief and how to overcome considerable loss.
Because Wulff missed much of his senior season with the Blue Devils in 1984 with a knee injury, there was very little game film to show many recruiters who stopped by regularly to gawk at prep All-America tailback Marc Hicks. But Whitmire knew colleges coveted long snappers for field goals and punts.
“One day, the Washington State recruiter comes by,” Whitmire recalled Friday, “and I told him that I just happened to be working with Paul Wulff over here. Come take a look. He came in and saw Paul long-snapping, and that’s what got him to Washington State, and away he went.”
At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, Wulff emerged as a four-year starter on the offensive line for the Cougars. Wulff was so tough and determined that as a senior in 1989, he played in the Apple Cup against rival Washington 18 days after being hospitalized for appendicitis.
“Paul has always found a way, and he’s earned all of this,” Whitmire said.
This includes the next chapter in Wulff’s football journey. Earlier this week, he was named the assistant head coach at Sacramento State, where he will work with decades-long friend Jody Sears, the Hornets’ head coach.
Whitmire said Wulff found solace in football amid a time of searing teenage heartache. Wulff’s mother, Delores, went missing from their rural Woodland home in the summer of 1979. She was a beloved secretary at Woodland High School. Wulff, the youngest of four children, was 12. It is said he bears a striking resemblance to her – including a big, warm, wonderful smile.
Wulff’s father, Carl, immediately was tabbed by law enforcement as a possible suspect. He was the last to see her. But without a body and not enough evidence, the case stalled.
Members of the Wulff family combed nearby farmland for months, armed with shovels and hope. Aircraft with special infrared sensors zipped over acres of open land. They found only cow carcasses.
Delores Wulff was never found. Carl Wulff died in 2005 from heart failure, estranged from his children. Wulff’s relationship with his father was always strained. They did not speak for the final 16 years of Carl’s life.
Wulff told me once that never finding his mother left a deep internal void. There can never be closure, he said. Wulff endured the difficult years with the help of Whitmire, the Rocha family that took him in while he attended Davis and Blue Devils teammates.
“The adversity that Paul fought through is incredible,” Whitmire said. “He had a lot of backing and love from relatives, and the Rocha family helped him through that terrible turmoil. Paul’s overcome a lot.”
Wulff endured more anguish while coaching at Eastern Washington, where he led two Big Sky Conference championship teams. In 2002, wife Tammy, a WSU sweetheart, died from brain cancer after a five-year battle. Whitmire can relate to such loss. His wife of 49 years, Kathy, his Davis High sweetheart from the 1960s, died in November after a five-year battle with breast cancer.
Remarried, Wulff and his wife, Sherry, have three children.
“I feel so good for Paul, so happy for him, very proud,” Whitmire said. “Paul’s a family man, a great football coach, a hard worker who has proven himself. He’s grade-A in my book.”
Whitmire then chuckled in recalling a story about Wulff and a miscalled play.
“I’ll never forget this,” Whitmire said. “In a big game, when (Wulff) was at Davis, I called a running play over right guard, and it didn’t work. Wulff was the blocker. He came off the field and said, ‘Coach, I knew right away that play wouldn’t work.’ I told him: ‘Now I know why it didn’t work!’
“It was pretty obvious even then that Paul had a great football mind, that he was special, that he’d figure things out.”