SEATTLE – The roads around Jake Locker's hometown are perfect for getting lost, perfect for wandering aimlessly with no feeling of being rushed, where any traffic is likely to be some type of truck hauling farm equipment or a semi headed to the nearby aluminum plant.
On the roads around Ferndale, Wash., is where Locker has gone whenever major decisions arrive in his life. Usually with his father, Scott, the Lockers would traverse the Northwestern corner of Washington state, together trying to find the right answer to the question at hand.
Last December, the Lockers again set out on one of these drives. A week after completing his junior season at Washington, Jake and Scott headed out to find peace with whatever decision Jake made about his future: returning to Washington for his senior season, or entering the NFL draft where a bounty of millions awaited him as the potential No. 1 overall pick.
"He knows me really well, and I know him really well. He can probably tell me the answers I'm going to give him before I answer them, and I could probably do the same for him," the kid said. "But to talk about it and bounce the ideas back and forth off each other (helps) really solidify those opinions and ideas that you have."
Within a couple of days of making that drive with his dad, Locker walked into the Washington football offices with his chocolate lab "Ten" and gave coach Steve Sarkisian and Washington's fan base the news they so desperately wanted to hear: He was coming back for his senior season.
Fiscally, it will never be viewed as the best move by the 6-foot-3, 225-pound quarterback, whose strong arm is often overshadowed by athleticism that many receivers and running backs could only hope for. After all, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford wound up going first in the draft to the St. Louis Rams and received a record $50 million guaranteed.
But coming back and not being concerned with money is simply what felt right to Locker. It's part of his small-town pedigree, after growing up in a place with just 12,000 residents mostly based around farming. The median income in Ferndale is about $35,000 a year.
The Sonic drive-in just off the freeway is the latest hangout, but just as many gather along the paved path that wanders along the edge of the Nooksack River and provides postcard-quality views of Mount Baker on a clear day.
In July, Locker was feted during "Jake Locker Day" as part of the local Pioneer Days celebration, when Ferndale's most famous celeb rode atop a fire truck with some of his teammates through the town. It has embraced it's favorite son this summer to the point of spending time writing letters to influential Heisman Trophy voters about Locker's upbringing.
"Simple, laid back, friendly, just a great place to grow up a great place to go back to," Locker said, when asked to describe his hometown. "A place that you are always welcomed, you know pretty much everybody. I'm comfortable there."
The appearance in his hometown was low-key compared to much of his summer. Locker twice went on a media blitz of the East Coast, posed for countless photoshoots and endured an endless stream of interview requests.
It's all part of his transformation from the shy, small-town kid that arrived at Washington in 2006 as one of the Huskies' most lauded recruits ever.
"He's not just the guy from Ferndale anymore," Sarkisian said. "This was an invaluable experience for him, to push him out there, get him comfortable out there doing the things that he's done. He's done fantastic with it. I think he's really found some of his own personality and he's allowed it to come out and get people to really know him as a person."
Having a public persona is a continuing evolution for Locker, even though he's become more comfortable with who he is and what he's about. He loves country music and his pickup truck, jeans and camouflage are his preferred attire. His dog goes almost everywhere with his master, especially happy when they go to Eastern Washington for duck hunting.
Easy, Oregon fans. No pun intended.
Being settled is largely why Locker had such an easy time decided to return to a program with just five wins in the past two seasons, despite all his longtime friends calling him nuts for passing up the NFL money.
"Personally within my thought process it was a bigger deal than it should have been," Locker said. "I got a chance to go home and spend some time with my family, my friends, people that were really close to me, kind of discussed it with them, felt them out, got their opinion and when I was leaving that weekend I knew, I just knew that coming back was what I would feel comfortable doing, what would be best for me in the long run."
Once Locker decided he was staying, then came the process of building on a junior season that finally showcased him as more than just an athlete, but a bona fide quarterback. In his first season with Sarkisian's tutoring, Locker threw for 2,800 yards and 21 touchdowns versus just 11 interceptions. His completion percentage was 11 points higher than his freshman season — the last full year he played — when Locker played in a more spread-option style offense.
Locker capped his junior season with the most efficient afternoon of his career.
Against bowl-bound California, Locker accounted for five touchdowns in Washington's 42-10 rout. He carried 14 times for 77 yards and two rushing scores, then completed 19 of 23 passes for 248 yards and three TDs through the air, with passes to six different receivers along the way. If scouts weren't drooling after his game-winning drive months earlier against then-No. 3 Southern California, they were downright giddy after his performance against the Bears.
That performance against Cal might have been the tipping point in keeping him around another season. Locker wanted more, another chance to see just how good Washington could be with another year of instruction by Sarkisian and another year of throwing to his talented skill players.
"We'll take Jake every day. If it's meant to happen, it's going to happen," running back Chris Polk said. "Jake coming back, we really respect him for that."
Sarkisian hasn't made it easy for Locker's return.
The goals he established for Locker would potentially make him the most efficient single-season passer in Pac-10 history: 65 to 68 percent completions, a 3-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio and a few thousand yards passing. Aside from those numbers, Sarkisian continues to ram home the point of senior quarterbacks and their success in leading Pac-10 teams to titles.
If Locker reaches those marks, wins are likely to follow and everyone else will begin to understand why he gave up millions for another year in college.
"I'm really happy with the decision I made. I felt good about it when I made it and I wouldn't have made it if I wasn't completely sure that's what I wanted to do," he said.
'I haven't regretted it since the day it happened and I don't think I ever will," Locker added. "The opportunity we have here, the experiences I'll have here in this final year, I wouldn't trade that for anything."