SEATTLE — Chico McClatcher can pinpoint the games that ate away at him last season.
There was the victory over BYU, when his fumbled punt return in the fourth quarter led to the Cougars’ first and only touchdown. And then there was the win over Colorado. McClatcher fumbled twice that afternoon, recovering one and losing the other.
In the days following that Colorado game, McClatcher decided to step away from football for personal reasons. On Tuesday, after the Washington Huskies’ fifth fall practice, McClatcher spoke to the media for the first time since the announcement.
He answered question after question with a smile.
“Those plays that I missed opportunities on, those really did kind of set me back,” said McClatcher, now a redshirt senior wide receiver. “I just felt like I wasn’t really the same player I was four years ago in my freshman and sophomore years, but now I feel great.”
During Pac-12 media day in July, UW head coach Chris Petersen could only shake his head at the plays McClatcher had fixated on. He vaguely recalled the errors, but Petersen was hard-pressed to assign them to a particular game or moment. The players, he said, obsess over the smallest details.
“We walk that fine balance where we want those kids that are so passionate about ball and they’re all in,” Petersen said, “but it’s also like, we got to help them keep perspective. Sometimes you don’t know that the walls are closing in before it’s too late.”
McClatcher said he was working through family matters last season. And physically, his body just didn’t feel right. He wasn’t playing up to his expectations. As a sophomore in 2016, McClatcher caught 31 passes for 574 yards and five touchdowns. Before suffering a season-ending injury in 2017, he had 10 receptions for 128 yards in three games. In eight appearances last year, McClatcher caught nine passes for 134 yards.
The former Federal Way star admitted there was a moment, however brief, when he thought he was finished with football for good. But instead of letting him walk away, Petersen encouraged him to simply take a break. Do what you need to do, Petersen told him, and then come back.
“I just felt so bad for him last year,” Petersen said, “just putting the weight of the world on his shoulders. … These kids care so much about football. You love these kids and they’re so passionate about it but it’s like, you can cross that line where it just starts going bad and your whole world is that. It’s just like a spiral effect.”
Deep down, McClatcher said he really didn’t want to leave football behind. He still loved it, and he couldn’t imagine not participating in a sport he’d been playing since he was 8 years old.
He just needed to find the joy again.
“Coach Petersen, he’s a great person, great teacher, coach and everything,” McClatcher said. “He’s one of a kind and I’m blessed to have him as my head coach. During that time, he was very understanding of my situation and mentally what I was going through. He got me through it and I’m just blessed to be here.”
While he was away, McClatcher studied film, kept up with training and focused on school work. He spent most of his time with family, who encouraged him to let go of the past and not let his mind linger so heavily on mistakes.
Still, when McClatcher sat down to watch the Huskies on television, he found himself wishing he could be with his teammates. But until he knew he could be as engaged as necessary, he stayed away.
And then winter workouts arrived, and McClatcher was ready. He came back the first day.
“It felt like I never left,” he said. “My teammates, they welcomed me back and I still had the relationships with them. It was just normal when I got back.”
McClatcher has impressed during spring practice and the first few days of fall camp. There is a noticeable bounce in his step again, and he’s flashing bursts of speed that were so often missing last season. On Monday, he arguably had the play of the day when he out-jumped Alex Cook and Isaiah Gilchrist along the sideline to haul in a deep pass from Jacob Sirmon.
“I’m just so happy he is back,” said offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan. “I think he’s a guy, at least for me, when he’s not here anymore it’s going to be a sad day because I feed off him. I think a lot of guys feed off him. That’s a kid that will be out here practicing all day and night if it takes and just to have a guy like that, his influence on the rest of the team is amazing.”
McClatcher was unsure how to completely sum up his transformation from last season to this one. In simple terms, he’s just stronger — mentally and physically. In some ways, he feels like a freshman
Most of all, though, he’s just happy to be back.
“Every game I play I always critique myself, what I can do better,” McClatcher said. “Definitely those plays (from 2018) do stick out but I learned from that and I’m just focused on being a better play each day during fall camp.”