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Originally published September 14, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 15, 2011 at 3:50 PM

7 UW players' car accident altered football careers, lives

In 1991, seven freshman football players at Washington rented a van and headed to California for a weekend visit. They were hit head-on by a drunk, wrong-way driver.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

UW @ Nebraska, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 4

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Though the memories of the night will remain forever vivid — the joking and laughing and peaceful dozing without warning turned into the sounds of screaming and smashing metal and sirens — time has done what it always does.

Joel Rosborough, busy now with a career as a high-school basketball coach and duties as father to two daughters, hadn't noticed the odd coincidence of this Washington football season until reminded by a reporter.

The Huskies will play at Nebraska on Saturday, almost 20 years to the day from when the 1991 Huskies beat the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, 36-21, the key regular-season win for Washington as it won a share of the national title.

Seven UW freshmen, all from the Los Angeles area, weren't making the trip to Nebraska as they redshirted. With class not yet in session, the seven decided to rent a van and drive to Southern California to spend a few days at home.

But at 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19, 1991 — two days before the game — as Rosborough drove south on Interstate 5 near Medford, Ore., the van was struck head-on by a driver going the wrong way. The driver, who was drunk and whom police later concluded had planned to commit suicide, was killed.

All seven Huskies survived, and while some of their injuries were significant, none was life-threatening.

For each, though, the night proved life-altering.

Three of the players overcame their injuries to have memorable careers at UW. Cornerback Reggie Reser was a three-year starter. Running back Leon Neal was a part-time starter who rushed for more than 100 yards against USC, Ohio State and Arizona State in 1995. Offensive tackle Eric Battle was a two-year starter. All were key players on the 1995 team that tied for a Pac-10 title and played in the Sun Bowl.

But four other players in the group, soon dubbed "The Medford Seven," left UW before their eligibility expired, the crash and its aftermath undoubtedly playing a role.

Among those who eventually left UW was Rosborough, a wide receiver who said the crash often flashes through his mind when he buckles his seat belt.

Has it really been 20 years since that night? And is Washington really playing at Nebraska again on the same weekend?

"I hadn't realized that," Rosborough said. "That is a trip."

Each of the seven had been at UW just a month at the time of the accident.

Each of the group — the other players were cornerback Michael Steward, defensive lineman Doug Barnes and safety Richard Washington — had signed to play for the Huskies during the program's zenith. They were part of a 22-man recruiting class that included Napoleon Kaufman and Damon Huard and was rated by one magazine as the fourth-best in the nation.

But with the team on the road, seven college freshmen faced a lonely weekend in a new city. .

"We were all homesick, all from the same area, and we just saw it as an opportunity to make a quick getaway to get back home to see some family and friends," Neal said. "We just wanted to go back home for a couple of hours, then get back to school."

No one's sure who first came up with the idea, but they decided to rent a Chevrolet Astro Van. Neal also invited a friend from back home who was staying in the Seattle area.

The plan was to travel straight through, two staying awake at all times, rotating drivers every few hours.

Neal drove first. Rosborough took over driving as they began passing through Oregon and the hours began to tick away, everyone passing the time with the usual college-age banter. As night fell, a few dozed off.

There was nothing memorable about the trip until Rosborough suddenly saw lights in the distance.

"About 100 yards away I just see lights, and I'm just thinking they are on the other side of the road," he said. "As it gets closer and closer it's like, 'What is it?' And before you know it, it was just 'bam.' I remember thinking, 'He is going to swerve and I'm going to swerve.' But I swerved and it just clipped us and we got the full impact of the car."

Rosborough says the van rolled "eight or nine times. ... I'm still surprised we made it all through. When I saw the pictures, I don't see how anybody made it."

All but Steward and Washington were able to crawl out, once the van finally came to a halt.

"When I woke up the van was on its side," recalls Neal. "And so I climbed out of the van through the back window."

Not everyone reacted so calmly.

Twisted metal, blood and bodies were all around. Doug Barnes took off, running into the woods.

"He didn't know what to do," Rosborough said. "We had bodies scattered all over the place, and Mike was unconscious. It was a crazy scenario. Next thing I know, we are in the hospital and people are getting glass pulled out of their face."

Battle describes it "as being in a Mad Max movie" with black smoke enveloping the scene and "people staggering around."

Battle tried to pry Steward and Washington out of the van but couldn't.

Those two were the most significantly injured.

Steward broke his right thigh and every bone in his right arm. He spent 2 ½ months in the hospital. Washington broke three toes, cracked his hip, broke his pelvis, cracked his jaw and also suffered internal bleeding. He spent six weeks in a hospital.

After their hospital stays, all were given the choice to go home to recuperate.

Battle, who suffered a knee injury and had just had an appendectomy, decided not to and says that decision saved his football career.

"I remember being in the hospital and thinking, 'If I go home, I am never, ever going back,' " he said.

Indeed, the mental scars ended up being as painful as the physical.

Washington, who had turned down Colorado, Oregon and Oklahoma, was going to be the next great UW safety.

"He wasn't able to come back and be that same big hitter," Rosborough said. "It had more of a mental effect on him than anything."

Washington recovered in time for spring football in 1992, and one newspaper article said he looked "spectacular."

But Washington says now he was never the same and left school a little while later. He cites the accident as helping lead him on a spiritual journey that saw him become a Christian soon after leaving Washington.

"I loved football for so many years and when you love it like that and it's taken away from you and it's stripped from you like that, it's permanent damage," he said. "It's not the same."

He later played one year at Long Beach City College, eventually earned his four-year degree from the University of Phoenix and is pursuing a Master's in business administration at Westwood College. He also runs a human-services company.

Steward had rods in his arms and legs through the 1992 season and also decided to transfer. First he went to Fresno State and later to Long Beach City College, where he played with Washington and Rosborough.

His career was derailed, however, after he was accused and later convicted of participating in a string of robberies.

"I think that had the accident not happened his life would have been a lot different," Rosborough said.

Barnes also ran into legal trouble. He was arrested on suspicion of burglary and attempted rape, along with UW receiver Jason Shelley and Huskies basketball player Prentiss Perkins, in an incident in Eugene, Ore., in 1993. They were convicted of third-degree misdemeanor sex abuse. Barnes was dismissed from UW, later playing at Jackson State.

Rosborough, who suffered a dislocated shoulder, a fractured ankle and cuts and bruises in the accident, left after the first year. He transferred to Long Beach City College, where he played football and basketball. He had also recently become a father and says the combination of events proved too much.

"When I came back, my mind was pretty much gone," he said of returning to UW. "I wasn't taking care of business. I was just pretty immature, feeling down on myself.

"We all tried to come back, but it was tough. It's hard seeing yourself as one person. (Then) you come back and you have to work so hard just to do the basics. It was like a mind thing."

No one will ever know, of course, but those who stayed wonder what impact losing four talented, young players had. The program entered the rocky early 1990s, when Don James suddenly retired in the wake of NCAA violations. Losing scholarships severely hurt the team's depth.

"I definitely think they would have been really good players," Neal said. "I think the injuries they suffered, they couldn't bounce back from. I think it affected them mentally. They weren't the same athletes."

Neal's injuries were superficial, mostly a sore back and whiplash, and he soon resumed practice. As a senior in 1995, he won the most prestigious UW football honor, the Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational Award, as voted by teammates.

After his UW career and brief stint in the NFL, he returned to the Seattle area. He works now as a state probation officer. The accident, though, is never far from his mind.

He drove with his wife to Disneyland recently, and it flashed through his mind as he neared Medford. "I'm trying to figure out where it happened — is this the spot?" he said.

Reser ended up leading Washington in interceptions in 1994 and now lives and works in Michigan.

Rosborough wishes he'd stayed at UW. His younger brother, Morgan, became an offensive lineman for the Huskies during the Tyrone Willingham era and is now an assistant coach at Ballard. Joel Rosborough, meanwhile, is the head basketball coach at Long Beach Jordan High School and says life is good.

"Time heals all wounds," he said. "But it's made me aware of all that can happen that you don't have control over and to just live life to the fullest and be careful."

Battle, after making a few attempts at a pro career, also settled in the Seattle area and lives in Bothell, where he works as a software consultant.

He remembers the accident like it was yesterday.

"Trust me," he says, "Every day I count my blessings."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

The Medford Seven
Four of the seven UW freshman football players injured in a crash in Oregon left the Huskies program. Three returned and had productive UW careers.
Player Injuries Football career Where are they now?
CB Reggie Reser minor injuries Three-year starter for Huskies Lives and works in Michigan
RB Leon Neal whiplash, sore back Key backup for Huskies State probation officer in Seattle area
OT Eric Battle knee Two-year starter for Huskies Software consultant, lives in Bothell
WR Joel Rosborough Dislocated shoulder, fractured ankle Played football and basketball at Long Beach City College High-school basketball coach in Long Beach, Calif.
S Richard Washington Broken pelvis, cracked hip, facial fractures, three broken toes, internal bleeding Played at Long Beach City College Runs human-services company in Long Beach, Calif.
CB Michael Steward Broken thigh, multiple arm fractures Played at Long Beach City College Unknown
DL Doug Barnes Minor injuries All-conference at Jackson State Unknown

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