Joe Jarzynka was a legendary kick returner for the Huskies in the 1990s. His body was found in the Sol Duc River on Sunday. He was 45. (University of Washington)

Joe Jarzynka was a legendary kick returner for the Huskies in the 1990s. His body was found in the Sol Duc River on Sunday. He was 45. (University of Washington)

UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON FOOTBALL: Joe Jarzynka looms large in Huskies lore

Former UW player dies while fishing in Sol Duc River

FORKS — The University of Washington’s Joe Jarzynka was probably a little too small for big-time college football.

It didn’t matter to him. He built himself into a larger-than-life legend as “the man who never took a fair catch.”

Jarzynka, 45, was found dead along a bank in the Sol Duc River near Forks Sunday morning. He had come from his home in Tacoma for a solo fishing trip on the Sol Duc. His single-person pontoon boat was found stuck in a logjam about a mile from where his body was discovered. An autopsy is pending, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

Jarzynka, a Gig Harbor High School football star, played for the University of Washington football team from 1996 to 1999. A 5-foot-7 undersized halfback, he built his legend mostly by returning punts and kicks for the Huskies. He was even a field goal kicker for UW one season.

Jarzynka knew the Olympic Peninsula well. He was one of the regulars at the Sonny Sixkiller Celebrity Golf Classic, held every year at 7 Cedars Golf Course. The golf classic features a lot of University of Washington football legends every June.

Bruce Skinner with the Olympic Medical Center Foundation is one of the organizers of the golf tournament. He said Jarzynka came all 10 years of the Sixkiller event.

“I remember him as a player. He never took a fair catch,” Skinner said. “When you looked at him, you’d think there was no way that guy played football. He was obviously very tough to survive college football.”

Skinner said what Jarzynka lacked in size, he made up with quickness. He always seemed to have the ability to make the first defender miss when he caught the ball.

Jarzynka walked on at UW. He never had huge stats on offense. His best year was 1998, when he caught 11 passes for 92 yards and a touchdown. He followed up with four catches for 82 yards and a TD his senior year in 1999.

Where he made his mark was special teams, returning both kicks and punts. He had a total of 136 punt and kick returns in his Huskies career. He had a monster year his junior season with 45 punt returns for 402 yards and a touchdown with an average of 8.9 yards per return. He also had 16 kickoff returns for 329 yards and an average of 20.4 yards per return. That’s 731 return yards in 11 games — an average of 65.6 return yards per game.

His junior year in 1998, he even became the Huskies’ kicker after the fifth game of the year, making 19 of 22 extra points and six out of eight field goals. He made the all-Pac-10 team as an all-purpose player.

In a 1998 game against Cal, he had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown, then had to line up and kick the extra point.

Jarzynka’s fans and former teammates took to Twitter Monday after hearing the news of his untimely death.

“So sad to hear the news of the passing of Joe Jarzynka. It’s impossible to explain the buzz that ran through Husky Stadium when Joe would drop into punt return formation. He was not going to fair catch. Everyone knew it. And he seemed to always pull it off,” said Seattle sportswriter and radio personality Mike Gastineau.

“RIP Joe. The news of your passing has pierced my heart. One of the most fearless competitors I’ve ever played with. It truly was an honor to be your teammate. Prayers to you family,” tweeted former UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo.

“Joe’s heart for his brothers and his character were the best traits about him. They superceded his toughness and fearless approach to the game,” tweeted former UW special teams player Spencer Marona. “I loved blocking for you on the kickoff return team; however, it was an honor to call you a friend. RIP Joe Jarzynka.”

“He wasn’t the biggest, he wasn’t the strongest, he wasn’t the fastest, but my goodness gracious was he one of the favorites,” said former UW quarterback Brock Huard.

Skinner said former Husky Braxton Cleman is putting together a fundraiser, reaching out to other Huskies legends who are part of the Sixkiller Classic to raise money for Jarzynka’s family.

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