Part 1: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spider Gaines

Dan Raley

Robert Gaines was known as "Spider" but not that well known at all. He made such a dramatic college football debut at Husky Stadium, it was if he showed up in a red and black costume and swung onto the field from the upper deck.

In the sixth game of 1975, Gaines extended his body and blocked a third-quarter Stanford punt, enabling Washington teammate Mike Rohrbach to retrieve the ball and return it 27 yards for a touchdown.

Fifty-five seconds later, Gaines did it again. This time, he deflected a punt attempt into the outstretched arms of Husky teammate Steve Lipe, who ran 21 yards for another score.

Thus began the boundary-pushing exploits of the UW's very own Spiderman.

Gaines was not only a special-teams menace, he might still be the Huskies' greatest deep threat in the history of the program, with no apologies to Mario Bailey or Reggie Williams. 

Spider was an electrifying player who could be a super hero at times but also proved to be the total opposite of a crime fighter. He got into trouble at times. 

He should have been an elite NFL player and an Olympic medalist. Instead, he wound up working a sex-trade job in Canada and dealing with a substance-abuse problem.

"I was probably one of the best athletes in Husky history," Gaines said.

This is the first installment of "The rise and fall and rise of Spider Gaines," a throwback series that will be told in three parts. There's the good, the bad and the encouraging.

Today, Gaines, 63, lives in his hometown of Richmond, California, in a tough neighborhood not far from Oakland, in the house he grew up in, which he inherited once his mother died. He's married. He runs a foundation in his neighborhood that benefits youth and he serves as a motivational speaker. 

Spider has quite a story to tell.

Gaines was part of Don James' first UW recruiting class in 1975, an extra promising wide receiver who was tall for his position at 6-foot-3 and could get out and run with smooth, loping strides.

He was nicknamed Spider by the father of Lance Theodele, a Kennedy High School and UW teammate, for the skittery way he ran around the bases as a Little League baseball player.

Spider arrived in Seattle having run 13.2 seconds in the 120-yard high hurdles, which set a national record for his age group. He was Olympic Games material.

Yet as an unpolished freshman footballer, Gaines was relegated to a seat in the stands or in front of a TV set for the Huskies' first five games. He wanted to know why.

At practice, he brashly told his UW teammates that they couldn't cover him. He reminded his first-year Husky coach more than once that he was the fastest player on his team.

James finally gave him a chance to back up his bravado by deploying him for the first time against Stanford. He made him a punt-blocker.

Gaines was as good as he promised. He swatted down five kicks over his first five games, including three field-attempts. He preserved an 8-7 victory over USC by deflecting a 26-yarder with 3:22 left to play. This came after he earlier tackled the Trojans punter in the end zone for a safety.

In the season-ending Apple Cup, played in a downpour and absolute misery at Husky Stadium, Gaines became the stuff of school legend. 

With the UW trailing 27-14, less than three minutes to play and WSU turning greedy by driving for another score, the Huskies engineered a most unlikely comeback.  Teammate Al Burleson intercepted a Cougars pass and returned it 93 yards for an instant touchdown.

The ball changed hands once again and Husky quarterback Warren Moon, who came off the bench and completed just 3 of 21 passes that day, threw one deep into double-coverage. The ball bounced off a WSU defensive back Tony Heath and into Gaines' hands. 

Shocking everyone in Husky Stadium, Spider didn't stop running until he had covered 78 yards and scored with 1:56 remaining, giving the Huskies an unfathomable 28-27 victory.

Gaines was sensational and mercurial throughout his college football career. He could be difficult at times. Yet he always saved his best for the best.

He became a 1978 Rose Bowl hero against Michigan, catching a 28-yard TD pass from Moon and having a 31-yard end-around run for a score nullified by a penalty in the 27-20 victory.

As a senior, he totally embarrassed Alabama's defensive secondary by hauling in 74- and 58-yard touchdown passes from quarterback Tom Porras, and he dropped a potential 54-yarder that would have overturned a 20-17 defeat to the Crimson Tide at Husky Stadium. 

"I talked to Bear Bryant later and he told me he never had anyone cut through his secondary like that," Spider said. 

Gaines finished his UW career with 70 receptions for 1,651 yards and 17 touchdowns. The NFL beckoned, impressed with his physical attributes. Yet there were questions surrounding his citizenship.  

He wasn't always on time. He temporary quit the Husky team early in final season, disgusted with Porras' inability to get the ball to him as consistently as Moon had done the previous three years. He sometimes broke training rules. 

Gaines could have been a first-round draft pick, but he slipped to the sixth round and went to the Kansas City Chiefs. He signed for a $30,000 bonus that should have been 10 times that.

Things turned much worse. He became a Greek tragedy. He tore up a knee between mini-camp and training camp while catching passes from friends, robbing him of his elite speed.

"They expected me to be the next Otis Taylor," he said of the Chiefs' greatest wide receiver. "I knew I was supposed to be in the NFL. I felt I should have been a pro for 8-9 years."

Instead, a gimpy Gaines bounced around and went through unsuccessful tryouts with the Green Bay Packers, the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Colts, the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws and the CFL's B.C. Lions, before playing just a handful of games for the Montreal Alouettes.

Nothing went right for him. Even had he stayed healthy, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Russia, which would have robbed him of a chance to show off his hurdling abilities on a world stage. He nearly made the American team that competed in the 1976 Montreal Games.

Gaines had a final opportunity to rejoin the B.C. Lions. He returned to Vancouver, but not to football. He hit the streets. 

"I was depressed," he said. "It was like I had to swallow my pride to go back to the Lions. I was in a party mood. I was more interested in going out with the ladies than going to practice."

Part 2: The second installment of "The rise and fall and rise of Spider Gaines" details his descent into a most unusual lifestyle in Canada. It wasn't legal.

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Comments (3)
No. 1-3
monkeyarms
monkeyarms

Great article, Mr. Raley. I was in middle and high school during Spider Gaines' time as a Husky, and I remember him well; although not all of these details. Looking forward to the next two installments.

Dan Raley
Dan Raley

Editor

I've known Spider a long time.

WWallker
WWallker

Thanks Dan. Looking forward to the next installments.


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