Aug. 8, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Though a college sophomore, Austin Seferian-Jenkins has been to two high-school proms in less than a year.
The first one, at his native Gig Harbor, Wash., High School, was remarkable because it came two months after the coveted tight end was already in college. He had enrolled early at UW to join the Huskies for 2011 spring practice.
The second one was incredible, an experience that will stay with the big tight end for the rest of his life.
Seferian-Jenkins went on a visit in early May to Seattle Children's Hospital during the Husky football team's annual "Blitz the Sound" community campaign, a month after he had finished the season on UW's Pac-12-champion basketball team. Seferian-Jenkins plus fellow tight end and good friend Michael Hartvigson broke off from the group and went through the hospital's intensive care unit.
That's where ASJ found Ruby Smith.
A 17-year-old senior softball player, swimmer, photographer and bass player from Nathan Hale High School in north Seattle, Ruby had been diagnosed last August with Burkitt's lymphoma. The rare form of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a highly aggressive tumor that most often strikes children. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports more than half of those with Burkitt's lymphoma can be cured with intensive chemotherapy, but that the cure rate may be lower if the cancer spreads to the bone marrow or spinal fluid.
Ruby had spent nine months getting intensive chemotherapy by the time Seferian-Jenkins met her in her hospital room. She documented her battle from her point of view, her hospital bed at Seattle Children's, through this remarkable video she and Seattle Children's artist-in-residence John Blalock co-produced.
He didn't realize it as he rounded the corner in that ICU hallway that day in May, but Seferian-Jenkins had found a truly remarkable person in that hospital room.
"We went around the floors and see all the kids we could, try to give them hope, inspire them, do whatever we could to keep them happy, because they are battling far bigger battles than we ever do out here," Seferian-Jenkins told me on the edge of East Field Tuesday, minutes after he and Hartvigson were the only Huskies to do extra, 50-yard, post-practice wind sprints. "I met Ruby and her great family. Talked about some great stuff."
They are battling far bigger battles than we ever do out here.
The teen with a feeding tube running through her nose and an uplifting, indefatigable spirit running through her soul knew Seferian-Jenkins was a Husky athlete, but only in the context of the team's visit to Seattle Children's that May day. She didn't know - or care - that he had been recruited by just about every college with a goal post. That he had turned down Texas and UCLA to stay close to home and play at UW. That he had one of the most accomplished freshman seasons in Husky football history last fall, then went straight into basketball to contribute to a championship run.
"He just happened," Ruby's father, Theo Dzielak, said of Seferian-Jenkins over the phone Wednesday morning. "Ruby didn't know particularly who he was. But all of Ruby's friends in the room from Nathan Hale were going `Austin! Austin!'"
No, ASJ and Ruby didn't talk football or hoops. Or any sport. They talked of hope and determination that day at Seattle Children's.
The room filled with positivity -- so much so, Ruby suddenly blurted to Seferian-Jenkins "Will you go to prom with me?"
"I was surprised," her father said. "But Ruby always was really upfront with people. She wanted to make sure he wasn't B.S.-ing her.
"This seemed like a perfect opportunity, so she grabbed it."
So did the tight end.
"Of course I said yes."
To ensure Seferian-Jenkins wasn't just playing along but was serious, Ruby told him sternly, "I mean it."
"So do I," he replied.
To further show his sincerity, to convince Ruby he would indeed be following through on his word, the formidable, 6-foot-6 Husky spun around on his way out of her room, pointed at her and said, "I'm taking you to prom."
"Wow," Kate Smith, Ruby's mom, said Wednesday by phone from the East Coast she is visiting. "He nailed it. That was the moment, right there. I thought, `I think this guy is sincere. He's going to come through.'
"I knew when he turned around that this guy was not going to mess this up."
I asked Seferian-Jenkins how long into the conversation he got asked out by the gutsy high schooler.
"Oh, maybe a minute or two," he said, smiling. "She jumped the gun.
"But she was a great gal. Great spirits. Just a delight to talk to."
I knew when he turned around that this guy was not going to mess this up.
When Seferian-Jenkins and Hartvigson returned to their teammates and began heading home, Austin excitedly told them "I'm going to the prom!"
Meanwhile, Ruby told everyone with a badge at Seattle Children's that she was going to the prom with Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
"Yeah, Ruby had the best prom date," her mother said.
But days after Seferian-Jenkins promised her that date, one of those conditions appeared in Ruby that often drops the survival rate from Burkitt's lymphoma below 50 percent. The cancer had relapsed, unmercifully spreading to her bone marrow.
While she was scheduled for a bone-marrow transplant, her condition deteriorated rapidly. Her parents contacted the local chapter of the Make-a-Wish foundation to arrange for a special, "pre-prom" for Ruby and a couple dozen friends at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seattle. Make-a-Wish then contacted Seferian-Jenkins to tell him Ruby wouldn't be well enough to attend that June 5 prom he had promised her.
"A VERY, VERY MATURE YOUNG MAN"
Monday, Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian was talking about Seferian-Jenkins' potential on the field. That's beyond what he's already accomplished: The 538 receiving yards that ranked second in UW single-season history for a true freshman at any position, and third-highest in UW single-season history for a tight end of any class; his 41 receptions last season that ranked sixth in Huskies single-season history for a tight end; and the six touchdown receptions that already have him fourth on Washington's all-time tight-end list for a career.
"(He) is different than other guys. He's set a bar, his bar has been set differently than others," Sarkisian said, capturing ASJ's essence off the field, too. "He's the one that set the bar there ...
"The cool thing about Austin, he's a very, very mature young man."
You can say that again. And again.
Upon learning from Make-a-Wish that Ruby had become too sick to attend her prom in person, Seferian-Jenkins instead brought the prom to her.
That is, to her hospital room.
He returned to Seattle Children's on her 18th birthday, May 23, accompanied by Huskies Director of Football Operations Jared Blank and operations assistant Deborah Goldstein. The room was packed with Ruby's family, friends and hospital staff, all of whom Seferian-Jenkins didn't know. They surrounded beeping machines, the maze of tubes - and the stand holding an IV bag that dripped morphine into Ruby's veins, zapping her eyesight and slipping her in and out of consciousness.
(He) is different than other guys. He's set a bar, his bar has been set differently than others
Seferian-Jenkins walked past all that, approached the bed and handed Ruby a corsage. It was Husky purple, of course, matching the hand-made, light-purple dress and shoes she was wearing while in her hospital bed.
He signed a birthday card and presented that to her with the flower.
Seferian-Jenkins then led a singing of "Happy Birthday," though he isn't sure she heard it.
"She wasn't doing too well when I got there, so she couldn't speak," he said. "It was sad. She was pretty out of it."
But her mom says Ruby heard him.
"She knew he was there," Smith said. "She heard him. She knew he had come through.
"I was so happy."
On his way out, Seferian-Jenkins gave Kate and Theo each a hug. In his mind, it was the least he could do.
"Thank you," they each said to the Husky.
"No, thank you," Seferian-Jenkins said. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity of being with your daughter and being around you."
Smith still marvels at the scene.
"It's kind of hard to think of him being just 19, isn't it?" Ruby's mom said. "I mean, wow, that was a lot for him to walk into a hospital room in front of all these people he didn't know."
"That," Ruby's father added, "took courage. That was really mature of him."
His voice broke off.
"I'm sorry," Dzielak said, "it's still very hard for me to talk about."
On May 30, one week after Seferian-Jenkins brought the prom to her in the hospital, Ruby Smith passed away.
"She was fighting the battle; she wanted to live to see her 18th birthday," Austin says. "She won that battle."
Then he turned his head, looked up - and smiled.
"YOU COULD JUST FEEL THE LOVE"
Huskies of many sports - men's and women's basketball, volleyball, gymnastics - visit Seattle Children's hospital and the neighboring Ronald McDonald House each year. But few if any come back, on their own, to follow up on a special promise. Classes, homework, training, practices and travel to and from games make such extra visits difficult.
Then again, as his coaches and teammates say, Seferian-Jenkins has standards that are as unique as his persona.
"Oh, he's very mature. Obviously you see he's got that big beard growing," quarterback Keith Price joked.
"A humble guy. A hard worker. And a playmaker. Man, words can't describe what I feel about Austin.
"He's a great player - and a great person."
Tuesday, 2½ months later, Seferian-Jenkins was still shaking his sweaty head over the impact his visits with Ruby have had on him.
"You could just feel the love in that room," he said. "It's hard for ... just having that moment with someone and realizing that, you know ... it just puts everything in perspective. I can't even put it into words.
A humble guy. A hard worker. And a playmaker. Man, words can't describe what I feel about Austin.
"She just a person that just fought that battle. She just kept fighting. She makes you realize some things that you might be mad about, it's just not worth it. It's just not worth it, man. Enjoy life, because she was fighting every single day, just to live another day. And to think, some people complain, `Oh, I don't want to be here. I don't want to do this.'"
It sure puts a dropped pass or a missed blocking assignment in its proper place, eh?
"It gave me, personally, out here on the field and in my life, a why. A perspective," he said. "Yeah, I might be tired, but there are people who wish they could be out here running, that they could be doing what we are doing. It just gave me a true appreciation of life and what I do.
"I just want to personally thank her and her family for giving me that gift."
When Seferian-Jenkins was in fourth grade, his grandfather -- the father of his mother Linda who worked three jobs to raise Austin and 15-year-old sister Michaela by herself -- died of cancer. Austin still remembers coming home happy from a particularly great Little League game, only to get the news from his mom.
"It's not just the patient fighting battles. We are all fighting battles, trying to fight this battle against cancer," ASJ said. "Everyone is affected by it, whether you personally get it or somebody around you gets it. It's just a terrible disease that we have to do whatever to figure out and find a cure.
"I pray every night that we can find a cure for this disease."
This, from 19-year-old college sophomore.
Who says his is the "Me" generation?
"I just really appreciate her," Seferian-Jenkins said of Ruby, who had been accepted to Western Washington and Seattle University and was planning on attending WWU. "I know she is looking down, she and my Grandpa are looking down on me.
"She wanted to go to college, once she beat the battle. She and her family's attitude was so uplifting. It was, `Let's just beat this thing.' It's like Coach Sark is always telling us, `Just fight through it and have an uplifting spirit. Why be down when you can be up?'"
The big tight end then sighed, his huge shoulder rising and falling.
"That room just gave me a lot of good energy, you know? It's just special," he said of Ruby's hospital place. "You can't put into words what that room gave to me."
I asked him what his reaction was when he learned Ruby had died. He shook his head.
"It's ...," he said solemnly, "it's just sad."
CONTINUING RUBY'S LEGACY
Ruby Smith's legacy lives on -- and not just within one of the top sophomore receivers in the nation.
Last week, the Seattle Art Museum began displaying in its South Hall gallery 28 Ruby's black-and-white inkjet prints from her battle at Seattle Children's. The work is called "The Hidden Shadows of Cancer." It will remain at SAM through Sept. 9.
The museum notes the show is free. Donations made in Ruby's name to The Seattle Children's Hospital Fund will go directly to The Therapeutic Play Fund, which supports art and music therapy at Seattle Children's.
Like one of his post routes to the end zone, Seferian-Jenkins is on his way.
"I will be going there," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Ruby's work is also within the "Not Now" program at Seattle Children's Hospital. And this summer Blalock is presenting a 10-week photography program for young adults with cancer called "The Ruby Project" at Photo Center Northwest, a community arts program here in Seattle.
"Cancer is a hidden disease," Ruby said while finishing "The Hidden Shadows of Cancer." "I have it right now even though you cannot see it, but it causes pain and makes me nauseous. It appears only as the shadows on an X-ray.
Photography for me is a search for the shadows. An image that has no shadows is not very interesting; it's the shadows that make photographs beautiful.
"Photography for me is a search for the shadows. An image that has no shadows is not very interesting; it's the shadows that make photographs beautiful. I started this project as a way to show my classmates what it's like to have cancer. But as the project has grown more people have become interested. And now I am using photography to show the world the story of my experience."
A TRUE WINNER
As I biked away from the practice field after talking with Seferian-Jenkins Tuesday, he stopped me with a final message.
"Please tell Ruby's parents if you contact them that I'd like them to come to a game, just to see them again," he said. "Just let me know and I will get them tickets.
"I would really like that."
I think they may accept.
"I want you to thank Austin for us, for continuing Ruby's legacy," her father, Dzielak, told me Wednesday.
I don't care if ASJ never catches another pass or scores another touchdown for the Huskies, though we know there are plenty more of each coming in his football career.
He doesn't turn 20 until next month. Yet Seferian-Jenkins is already winning -- in a rout - in something far more important than a game.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.