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Jeff Benedict: Saturday Night Lights in Pullman

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 12:23 a.m. MDT

The night before the Cal game I went to my favorite restaurant in Pullman – The Black Cypress. It's the only place in town where you can get grilled steelhead, sautéed kale, fresh farm vegetables, homemade squash soup, Jurassic Salt imported from France, and freshly squeezed celery juice. The place was jammed. The only open seat was at the bar.

I'm not a drinker. But there is something to be said for the atmosphere at a restaurant bar on Main Street in a college town on a crisp fall night. I ended up next to Barry Bartlett and Rob Salberg. Barry is with a PR firm in Seattle. Rob is an energy conservationist for a power company on the opposite side of the state. Both guys graduated from WSU. They were in town for the game. It was their first trip to Pullman in years.

"We're just blown away," Barry told me. "This isn't the Pullman we remember. I feel like I'm in Seattle."

The only reason they were in Pullman is because Mike Leach is the new coach. They said that. Leach also has a lot to do with why a rural town near the Idaho panhandle is starting to feel like Seattle. He has electrified the place.

Barry hoisted his wine glass and proposed a toast. I lifted my freshly squeezed celery juice.

"To the Cougs," Barry said.

"To the Cougs," Rob and I repeated, bringing our glasses together.

College football has a way of bringing people together. It's also an economic engine. It's the reason the airplanes in Spokane were full and the restaurants and hotels in Pullman were packed.

I'm touching down in Seattle now. I'm headed to a downtown office building. Naturally, it will be closed on a Sunday morning at 11. But a security guard will admit me. I'll take the elevator to a law firm on one of the top floors. The lights will be off and the desks unoccupied. But I will proceed to the managing partner's corner office. There I'll find attorney Bill Marler, wearing khaki shorts and working on his computer while talking on the phone.

His office overlooks Century Link Field, where the Patriots are about to kick off against the Seahawks. Marler could be watching the game from a luxury suite, schmoozing with other suits. He can certainly afford to do that. But that's not how he rolls. He's unconventional. He works just as hard today as he did when he got started over 20 years ago.

Marler also happens to be a WSU alum. He's also the former chairman of the school's board of regents. He's one of those guys who used to approve the football coach's salary. So he knows all about the importance of football to universities, not that he thinks it makes any sense.

These days Marler is in a contest where losing is not an option. He represents 42 families with members who became ill during the September 2011 Listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupes sold by Colorado-based Jensen Farms. In all, 147 people were poisoned; 32 died; and there was one miscarriage.

Bill is a dear friend, the kind of guy who always has your back. And if I had a loved one with a serious case of food poisoning, there is no one I'd rather have as an advocate. The guy never stops working for his clients. Even on Sundays.

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