Wren and Erika McCallister had chemistry.
That’s where this story starts.
They met as laboratory technicians in the chemistry department at the University of Washington. Erika was from Edmonds, Wren from Kirkland. The biochemistry majors shared classes together, earned degrees together, became doctors together, built a family together …
Then sat together in the northwest corner inside Husky Stadium.
Last Saturday, they watched their son — redshirt freshman punter Jack McCallister — make his debut in Washington’s 45-20 win over Kent State.
It’s a sentence, and an experience, they’re still struggling to digest.
“His first game last year he wasn’t even playing, but we were there and it was just insane for me,” Erika McCallister said. “It was like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever. I can’t believe it.’ It’s been a little bit of disbelief the whole time.
“Sometimes I’ll say to my husband when we’re down there, ‘Can you believe we’re back here and he’s playing?’ It’s taken me a good year to get used to. I still sometimes can’t quite believe it when I see him in his uniform and all his Husky gear. I’m like, what happened? It’s kind of crazy. But I can’t even describe how cool it is.”
This, indeed, is a full-circle story. But it wasn’t supposed to be. Jack McCallister long expected to play college soccer, until high-school football swayed his heart. Erika said that “as soon as he started doing it, he really, really liked it. When he played soccer he was a striker and he was very good at taking (penalty kicks). He was very good at putting the ball in the net. So he kind of took to kicking, because it was very precise.”
Added Jack McCallister: “I ended up trying it out, and I fell in love with it, and here I am.”
Here, at home. Almost by accident.
After all, McCallister had committed to punt at Weber State, before Washington made contact the week prior to his graduation from King’s High School. He was set to travel to Ogden, Utah, two weeks later.
He took a hastily scheduled visit to his parents’ alma mater instead.
“They reached out to him on a Monday, and by Friday we were at UW checking out everything and they were trying to convince him to come,” Erika McCallister said. “They from the very beginning told him, ‘We want you to come in and learn from Race Porter and hopefully be our starting punter.’ They were pretty up front about that.
“They wanted him to have some time with Race and learn what his process was. Because Race had been a walk-on also and became a leader on the team. He was another hometown kid. They liked that aspect for Jack.”
Added Jack McCallister: “I realized it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
As a freshman walk-on, McCallister watched Porter produce the finest punting season in Husky history — setting a program record while ranking fourth in the nation with 48.5 yards per punt.
But little else went to plan. The Huskies went 4-8, the staff was fired and Kalen DeBoer and Co. were hired. They quickly added a scholarship punter in fifth-year senior Kevin Ryan, who averaged 45.6 yards per punt last season at Idaho State. Ryan was widely expected to assume a starting role.
And yet …
“Right out of the gate, I knew it just felt really good,” Erika McCallister said of the coaching change. “From a parent perspective, the way that the coaching staff reached out to the parents from day one and included us and made it clear that family was going to be very important, I felt very positive about where things were going.”
So here’s where it went. Special-teams coordinator Eric Schmidt said last week that “it’s been a really good competition. Jack’s gotten a lot better since we first got here. He’s done a great job in the weight room of getting stronger and getting more mobile.” McCallister and Ryan were listed as co-starters on UW’s Kent State depth chart.
But McCallister knew he was the man for the job.
“When I heard those words,” Jack McCallister said, “it was like all my hard work finally paid off.”
Added Erika: “He came home that day, after talking to (special teams quality control coach Paul) Creighton. He said, ‘Well, I’m the starting punter.’ We were very excited, and he was very excited and I think relieved to hear that from the coaches. Because in his heart he knew he had done well and had worked very hard.”
Which brings us back to Saturday. Pinned in the west end zone — directly below his parents — McCallister unleashed a picturesque 48-yard punt with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
It was a first. But it felt familiar.
“It was a crazy feeling,” Jack McCallister said. “I felt oddly calm out there. It was an oddly familiar feeling, even though I’d never done it before. But it was super fun. I ended up hitting a great punt and it was a great experience.”
When it happened, Wren and Erika’s phones instantly erupted. Jack’s little sisters, Avery and Gabby, screamed by their side. From a parent’s perspective, it was simultaneously indescribable and comprehensively, gratifyingly right.
“I don’t know completely how to describe it,” Erika admitted in a phone interview, before stopping momentarily to find the words. “You work very hard to raise your kids. You sacrifice a lot. So seeing him on the field, especially after that first punt, it was like, ‘Yes. This is what you were meant to do, and you just nailed it.’ It was a very proud moment.”
Jack wasn’t quite as proud of the following punt, a 20-yarder that was nearly blocked before careening out of bounds. He conceded “that was not the best operation all around, but I’m not blaming it on anyone else. That was majorly on me. It wasn’t a great punt on my part. In my first game, it was a learning experience, so I’ll rebound next time.”
Which will likely be Saturday against Portland State.
So yes, this is a full-circle story.
But it’s closer to the beginning than it is the end.
“It took some time for him to find a place where he was just completely, totally ready to do the mental and physical work to get to the next level,” Erika McCallister said. “I know he found it at UW. Not only is he playing at the next level, but he’s taken himself to the next level. That as a parent is what you want for your kids.
“You want your kids to work to be the best they can be, and that’s what we’ve seen him do in a lot of different ways — from working in the weight room to dialing in his diet and learning about nutrition and learning about sleep and all those things. To know that he worked so hard and went out on the field with composure, as a freshman, for me that was like, ‘This is going to be awesome for you. You’re going to do great things.’”
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