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Opposites meet in the middle

Former Duck and Beaver take different but parallel paths to end run at moderate politics


by: WASHINGTON STATE LEGISLATURE SUPPORT SERVICES - Eric Pettigrew, former Oregon State offensive lineman, discusses issues at the Washington State House.If Ryan Zinke and Eric Pettigrew had any more opposites to their backgrounds, they'd make the North and South Poles seem like the equator.

Zinke is a Duck, Pettigrew a Beaver. Zinke is white, Pettigrew black. Zinke is a Republican, Pettigrew a Democrat. Zinke grew up in rural Whitefish, Mont. Pettigrew was raised by a single mother in the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles.

Yet their parallels as they have gone about life are just as striking. They are examples of student-athletes who came out of the state's major college programs and went on to make a difference in the lives of many around them.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT HOMMEL - Ex-University of Oregon center Ryan Zinke admires Theodore Roosevelt.Both are former offensive linemen in their early 50s. And both are doers who have served, and continue to serve, in a political realm that should make their coaches, as well as the folks who helped educate them at Oregon and Oregon State, proud.

Zinke, 51, recently completed a four-year term in the Montana state Senate before making an unsuccessful run as lieutenant governor in the 2012 Republican primary. A former Navy SEAL, Zinke is CEO in a pair of business development firms and has contemplated a future run at a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Pettigrew, 52, is in his sixth term and 11th year in the Washington state House of Representatives. The Seattle resident, director of business and community relations for Regence Blue Shield, has considered a bid for Congress or governor of the state of Washington.

Duck recruit

Zinke had scholarship offers from Notre Dame, UCLA and USC out of high school in 1980 but chose Oregon because of what he considers a strong recruiting effort by head coach Rich Brooks and assistant Neal Zomboukas.

by: COURTESY OF SCOTT HOMMEL - Admiral John Dick, a University of Oregon basketball star in the 1930s, turned Duck center Ryan Zinke on to the Navy SEALS program.The 6-3 1/2 Zinke came to the Ducks as a safety but was switched first to guard, then to center as a freshman. He wound up being an undersized but effective three-year starter who ended his career weighing 212 pounds and earned the undying respect of his teammates.

"Ryan was a warrior," says Dan Wilkens, a starting safety for the Ducks during that time. "He had bad ankles he'd have to get shot up before games. He did everything for the team. He was super smart academically, too.

"His goal even back then was to become governor of Montana at a time when all of us were young kids trying to figure ourselves out. He knew who he was. The SEALS were like a test for him to see if he could handle it and be the best he could be."

At Oregon, Zinke was first-team Academic All-Pac-10, received the program's annual Senior Academic/Attitude Award and earned the Emerald Cup for academic, athletic and leadership excellence.

"Ryan was a brainiac type guy who studied geology," says Gary Zimmerman, Zinke's closest friend at Oregon who played alongside him at offensive guard and wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "He seemed too smart for the rest of us."

As a player, Zimmerman recalls, "Ryan was a pit bull. He did things nobody thought he could do, things normal humans can't do. When he set his mind to something, he was going to accomplish it."

"The guy's SAT scores were like 1,400," says Ed Hagerty, a starting linebacker during that period. "He was a straight A student at Oregon, incredibly smart, quirky in a nice way.

"On the football field, he was undersized and overhearted. With certain guys, you just admire their work ethic, how they come to practice every day. Ryan Zinke was one of those guys. Anybody who coached him would tell you that."

The Ducks were 14-26-4 during Zinke's time at Oregon, but Brooks made a lasting impression.

"Rich was really intense and very intimidating," Zinke says. "Even today when I see Rich, my palms sweat. He often coached from the bleachers. When Rich would come down, you knew it wasn't good. You spent time looking at the bird's nest, hoping he wasn't coming your way.

"I learned how to manage expectations through Rich. To have a coach with that kind of intensity helped me become a SEAL."

Playing football helped, too.

"Everyone has a mission to do," Zinke says. "I've always maintained the quarterback is no more important than the line, which is no more important that the receivers. Everyone has to function as a team. Team-building carried through to my career as a SEAL. You're rarely alone. You're dependent upon your teammates. You're only as strong as your weakest link."

Bound for Beavers

Pettigrew came to Oregon State in 1978 as a way out of the ghetto. The 6-5 offensive tackle, who grew to 285 pounds at OSU, was raised for his first 14 years as an only child by a mother who provided love but few of life's amenities.

by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Eric Pettigrew started three seasons at Oregon State under coaches Craig Fertig and Joe Avezzano. As a youngster, Pettigrew lived in Crips territory behind Fremont High. His junior high school, Edison, was in an area ruled by Bloods.

"During those years, I had to walk to Edison, from Crips territory to Bloods territory," he says. "I made a map every day for how I was going to go home after school. My buddy and I would vary our times. Sometimes we left early, or we might stay really late. Sometimes we went separately."

The dangers were unavoidable.

"I got jumped a zillion times," Pettigrew says. "I got punched lots of times, hit in the cheek with the butt of a gun one time. They'd steal money. I was a big kid. The kids my age were no problem. I could beat those guys up. It was their big brothers and, in some cases, their big sisters who would catch me. That's where it got ugly.

"The gangs were one thing. We were also afraid of the sheriffs. They did not mess around. You'd rather get caught by a gang member than a Firestone (representing the local police precinct) if you were doing something. We had friends who were good guys, friends who were bad guys. You could find yourself in the middle of stuff real easy.

"One time my buddy and I were walking home through an alley and a squad car vrooms up behind us and pulls us over. Tony wore a bomber jacket, which was the look for gang members of the day. The cops grabbed him, jabbed him in the side and took all the stuff out of his pockets. He didn't have anything on him, drugs or money. It was a message kind of thing."

Pettigrew's mother, a strict Baptist, kept him in line. Naomi Sparks worked on an assembly line at a hardware manufacturing plant. His father, a junk collector, wasn't around much.

"Mom was a saint," he says. "I went to church as much as I went to school, maybe four days a week. Bible study, youth group, prayer meeting. That was my social activity. I was way too afraid of my mother to get in trouble. I'd rather face any gang member than her. I wouldn't have been able to handle her disappointment in me. I wanted to please my mom."

When Pettigrew was 13, he begged his mother to let him live with his grandparents in La Fuente, Calif., 20 miles east of downtown LA and a world away from inner-city trouble. He still regularly visited his mom, but he had found a safe haven.

"It was a place where I could walk the streets without getting jumped or shot," he says.

Pettigrew recalls his first football practice as a high school freshman, wearing a pair of powder-blue tennis shoes and black socks.

"That's all I had," he says. "I couldn't afford cleats."

The school's booster club provided a pair of black Johnny Unitas high-tops with cleats.

"When I stood on the field with those things," he says, "I was 6-9."

Pettigrew wound up being a three-year starter under Craig Fertig and Joe Avezzano at OSU, a good player who impressed his teammates in many ways.

"We had a lot of classes together and a similar background, growing up in church," says Rudy Guice, a starting linebacker during those years who remains Pettigrew's closest friend. "He was a very good player, one of our best linemen. But the thing that struck me about Eric, even in those days, he had his mind set on what he wanted to do -- stay in school and graduate.

"He was open and embracing of all people, not getting caught up in race, class, gender and all that stuff. He had friends of all persuasions. He could communicate with everybody. People we played ball with at Oregon State, you tell them now what he's doing, they always say, 'Yep, I can see that.' "

SEALS lay groundwork

Adm. John Dick — a member of Oregon's 1939 "Tall Firs" NCAA championship team — turned Zinke on to the Navy's Sea, Air, Land Teams program. The SEALS are the nation's principal special operations force, part of the Naval Special Warfare Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command. The SEALS were the group responsible for carrying out the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

"Adm. Dick gave a speech to our football team my senior year," Zinke recalls. "That always stuck in my mind. He had a command presence."

After Zinke graduated in 1984, he had a talk with Dick about his future. Zinke planned to attend the Diving Institute of Technology to learn deep-sea diving for the geology field.

"If you're interested in diving," Dick asked, "did you ever consider the Navy?"

Dick arranged for a naval recruiter to visit Zinke in Eugene. He took an exam and left for a vacation. When he returned, he had a set of orders for Officer Candidate School. Soon he was taking a physical fitness exam to qualify to be a SEAL.

"OCS was not particularly challenging, but the SEAL training was very challenging," Zinke says. "It was harder than triple-days in football. I thought I had been cold in Montana. Wait until you sit in the ocean in surf torture."

Zinke says he thought about quitting.

"But when other people quit," he says, "it was reassuring. 'Things can't be that bad. I'm still here.' You find strength in the weakness of others."

Those who run the SEALS screen 3,000 candidates annually and narrow the list to 800 for training. Between 150 and 200 graduate annually.

Zinke spent 24 years — from 1985-2008 — with the SEALS, gradually moving into leadership positions. He commanded 3,500 special-operations troops in Iraq in the conduct of 360 combat patrols and was awarded two bronze stars for combat.

"As you become more senior, the less time you have behind the gun and the more time you spend in command and control," Zinke says. "I stayed operational as long as I could physically.

"I've always enjoyed being a part of a team. I've enjoyed and appreciated talented people around me. I had the world's best snipers or explosive experts or breeches around me. It was a thrill to be part of a group with that talent.

"The most dangerous job in the Navy is a young man on a carrier deck. Everything moving can kill you. The SEAL mission is dangerous, but you're talking about it being executed by the world's best. They have superb training, leadership and training, and they're tough guys. If you have to go to war, go to war with the very best. The adrenaline was there. There was always a chance of riding on the wings of death sometimes, but the tougher job is to not have the training."

Was Zinke ever scared during combat duty?

"I wasn't scared for myself, but for the men of the mission," he says. As a commander, "I lost men. it's tough for the families back home. I've lost only sons. It happens. Their whole lives are just crushed. I still maintain contact with the families off and on. It's the hardest part of the job."

During his time with the SEALS, Zinke was responsible for killing or capturing 72 enemy insurgents and terrorists.

"Everyone on that list deserved it, 100 times over," he says. "When the SEALS go out on missions, it's with a lot of reconnaissance and hours of surveillance. We knew exactly who was good and who was evil. it was appropriate and responsible."

Zinke, who considers himself a moderate Republican, won a spot in the Montana state Senate in 2009, then made a run at lieutenant governor with running mate Neil Livingstone last year. They finished fifth in the Republican primary.

"I've always been a fan of Teddy Roosevelt," Zinke says. "He championed the little guy against the monopolies. He was an example of what to be.

"When I left the SEALS, our nation had a leadership void. We're so partisan that we forget why we're there. The reason we have government and rules is to protect the people, and to be fair. Campaigns are extraordinarily ugly. They go after your family. A lot of good people who should be in politics choose not to because politics has become so vile. We need good leadership."

Answering corporate call

Pettigrew won six football games in four years at Oregon State, but enjoyed a good relationship with both of his head coaches. Years after he left school, he kept in touch with Fertig.

"When I told him I was thinking about running for office, he said, 'I'll help you. I'll make phone calls,' " Pettigrew says. "I learned what loyalty is about from Coach Fertig."

Avezzano benched Pettigrew for much of his junior year, but the player still holds respect for the coach.

"I grew up the most under him," Pettigrew says. "I'd never worked so hard, pushed myself mentally so hard, as in those two years. Bud Riley was on the staff at the time. If you had the approval of Joe and Bud, you were a football player then.

"Although we didn't talk much and I wasn't as close to him as I was to coach Fertig, (Avezzano) was the best coach for me. If I'd had him for all four years, I'd have been a much better player. He was about responsibility on and off the field, too. He and (academic coordinator) Don Whitney were the people most responsible for me graduating."

After graduation, Pettigrew worked at a juvenile detention facility in Molalla for two years, then moved to Seattle, earning a master's degree at the University of Washington. He worked for child protection services and for an advocacy organization for children before joining the staff of City Councilman Norm Rice.

When Rice became mayor, he appointed Pettigrew chief of staff, where he oversaw the city's police and fire departments and court appointments for two years. He spent time as Seattle's emergency manager and in research at UW before serving a 10-year stint opening satellite offices in urban environments for Safeco Insurance. In 2002, a friend convinced him to run for the state Legislature.

"I was making more money than I ever had at Safeco," Pettigrew says. "I was thinking, 'I'm going to ride this corporate thing out. Why would I want to be a politician? I can't drink, I can't yell at my kid at the grocery store, I can't gesture to people who cut me off on the highway.'

"He said, 'This is about a community that has already given you so much. It's time for you to give something back.' "

Pettigrew figures he "doorbelled" 14,000 houses in his district — "and lost 25 pounds" — in six months on the campaign trail. He won the seat and has served ever since in a district that includes what he calls one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country.

"I love it," he says. "I'm a 'want-to-help-people' kind of person. This is the ultimate job for that. I'm a social worker with resources. I get to help a lot of people not just on social issues but with business stuff.

"I've been identified as a liberal, but I'm also a business guy. I get to work a lot with people, with a lot of mom-and-pop businesses."

None of this surprises Guice, his best friend for 35 years.

"I've seen him doing this stuff since we were wet-behind-the-ears freshmen at Oregon State," says Guice, who works as a supervising U.S. probation officer in Portland. "He has always had a unique ability to interact and be open and involved. He was always expanding his horizons.

"Some of the black players considered him a sellout. What, for working hard to get ahead and earn a degree? He always made decisions that had a positive result. He has a passion for service, especially with youngsters."

Leadership role

Zinke's fertile mind is on overload these days. He chairs a conservative Super PAC called "Special Operations for America," is a member of the STWA (Save the World's Air) board and works for an oil technology company with the goal of making the U.S. energy independent.

He is writing a book titled, "The Rise of the Middle."

"I take the middle of the political spectrum," Zinke says. "Middle America is us. Most folks are not particularly political. They're paying taxes and working hard. They're not being well-represented, but we have to get them to become part of the movement. The government has almost become a self-licking ice cream cone. The middle has to be moved as part of our political process."

Hagerty, who lives in Dallas, arranged for Zinke to speak to a group of 50 businessmen — "high-end executives" — prior to the 2012 presidential election.

"Ryan talked for an hour without notes and had them mesmerized," Hagerty says. "His knowledge of national issues was powerful. He's a really impressive guy."

Zinke is married with three children, the two youngest still in high school. He's not sure what is in store politically in the near future.

"I have some time to decide," he says. "Maybe a run at governor or the U.S. Senate. Problem is, you give your soul to the campaign trail. I'm not sure this is the time and place in my life. But we do need leadership that is more interested in solutions than worrying about whether it is a Republican or Democratic idea."

Never give up

Pettigrew has had friends, colleagues and constituents suggest a bid for governor or Congress.

"But I don't know," says Pettigrew, who is going through a divorce. "I have a 13-year-old daughter I'd like to spend more time with. I like my times going on trips for Oregon State football games, getting to hang out with Rudy.

"It would be incredible to be a congressman, but I'd have to live in D.C. I've reached a place where my ambition is spending as much time as I can with friends and family."

Pettigrew says he is grateful for the lessons learned in college that have helped in his legislative career.

"You work every week to mentally and physically prepare yourself to play your very best game," he says. "And regardless of the outcome, you lick your wounds and quickly recover. I use that every single moment in the Legislature.

"There are a zillion ideas that fly. If I get pissed off that someone isn't supportive or doesn't vote for my bill, I lose. OK, we lost that one. You head into the next game with the same attitude. There are always opportunities to take the side door. My time at Oregon State taught me that if you get up and dust yourself off, you can live to play another play. You might win."

Making a difference

Above all, Zinke and Pettigrew have inspired faith in those around them.

"We need more people like Ryan Zinke," Zimmerman says. "If he decides to run for Senate or governor, I guarantee he'll get there, and be there for a long time, I'm sure."

"I just believe in a guy like that," Wilkens says. "He's the first guy you can trust. I'd want my kids to grow up to be him. He's a better man than I am."

"I've told my kids, 'Be around the right people,' and have pointed Eric Pettigrew out as an example," Guice says. "I think that says it all right there."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers