Aug. 23, 2011
SEATTLE - John Timu is running to the sideline to break up a pass. Now he's zooming into the line and jamming a tight end from getting into his pass route.
Oh, there he is intercepting a ball in the middle of the field. He's weak side. Strong side. All sides.
The freshman has not just filled one of the Huskies' biggest voids coming into the preseason, finding new starting outside linebackers. The former high school quarterback has seized the job, charging into the spot 2010 national tackling runner-up Mason Foster had until he entered the NFL this spring.
"Being a high-school quarterback and safety, he's just a natural athlete. He's got great football instincts. He can run. He's tough," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said of the renowned talent from Long Beach Jordan in California.
"He's really made probably the biggest impact."
Not this week. Not in Saturday's full scrimmage. Sarkisian meant in all of Washington's preseason camp.
Timu is a sprinting, hitting example of perseverance. And of loyalty.
The youngest of four children by native Samoan parents accounted for 20 touchdowns as a junior quarterback and safety at Long Beach Jordan. That led to scholarship offers from Oregon, Hawaii and Washington entering his senior season of 2009. But in the second game that fall -- "seventh play," he says now, remembering like it was last weekend -- he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his knee cutting awkwardly in the open field, without getting hit.
His parents were both unemployed, and he was playing without insurance. It took him four months before he could secure his own insurance for reconstructive knee surgery, after he waded through bureaucratic paperwork and processing.
Goodbye scholarship offers.
All but one, that is.
"Everyone pretty much backed off - except for the Huskies," Timu said.
UW recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Jonny Nansen went to Long Beach Jordan, and has friends who have known Timu since he was a tyke. He wasn't about to abandon him.
"It was a blessing that I still had a scholarship after that happened, that I could still be a Dawg," Timu said.
"The other schools, after that they backed off. But Coach Nansen was always there, checking in, asking how I was doing, making sure I was rehabbing and getting the surgery as soon as possible. ... I kept positive, and he kept me going. He's the reason why I am here."
Timu had given Washington his verbal commitment entering his senior season. But that sometimes weighs as much as a wristband in today's high-stakes, cut-throat world of big-time athletics.
It weighed a ton to Sarkisian and his Huskies staff, though.
"That's the one thing about Sark that is so awesome," Nansen said following Tuesday night's practice. "We stuck with the kid. We knew he was going to come in and help us. And now, obviously, he's getting into that starting role.
"He was a great kid, and he fought off a lot things. That's just standard here. That's how we recruit kids. No matter what happens, you keep sticking with them."
There's much more to Timu, way beyond the fact he will be wearing jersey No. 10 - that of a certain Husky quarterback's number from 2007 through December -- in the Sept. 3 opener against Eastern Washington.
Once he finally had the surgery, in January of 2010, Timu had no insurance for rehabilitation of the reconstructed knee. He was getting worried and antsy, sitting around doing basically nothing, and he ballooned from 195 pounds.
"I was sitting back, eating a lot. Next thing I know I was 230," he said. "And here I am, a linebacker."
He says two weeks after the ACL surgery, he tried out for Jordan High's volleyball team. That's right, two weeks. Fourteen days after knee reconstruction that takes some a full year to get back into competition.
"Oh, we knew," Sarkisian said flatly. "We thought he should have been rehabbing."
Nansen confirms the unbelievable.
"Oh, that's just the way the kid is. He's just a freak athlete," the Huskies assistant said. "I found out about it when one of my best friends, the volleyball coach there, said, `Hey, have you seen Johnny play volleyball?' I was like, `Man, tell him he needs to take care of his knee.'"
Timu says now he was being "hard headed ... it wasn't the best thing." But in essence, he was being resourceful. He essentially used volleyball as free physical therapy, to offset his lack of insurance for more conventional rehabilitation.
"I mean, I didn't know what to do. Again, my financial situation was pretty tough for doing rehab," he said. "I was going in, doing squats. I thought I was helping my knee. I went in the weight room, walked around and said, `Well, this helps me with my knee.' So I figured, `Keep doing it.' Doing squats, toe raises, jumping around, running around the track - I figured volleyball would help me.
"I mean, my athletic director, trainer back in high school at that point were worried I would get hurt again. But I didn't, fortunately. The doctor who did the surgery said it was healing pretty well, pretty fast. So I figured, `Keep going. Keep working.'
"Plus, I couldn't see (the danger). I was in that depressed mode, missing football, seeing all those teams playing. So I figured get out, play volleyball, jump around a while."
Timu also did it because he was worried Washington would be like the other schools.
"Yeah, part of it was that, afraid of losing the scholarship, and all that. But, again, Coach Nansen kept calling and checking in, and was all positive," Timu said. "So that kept me motivated and looking forward to this day."
Nansen and the Huskies arranged for Timu to enroll at UW this past January, meaning he is a freshman - and that he still hasn't played in a football game since that second game of Jordan High's 2009 season, 23 months ago.
"It feels good, after being out for a year and a half with a torn ACL. It feels good to be out here playing football again," he said.
Less than two weeks before his first game, he is already a family hero back home in Long Beach.
He has two brothers, Jeremiah (22) and Faamouemoue (21), plus 20-year-old sister Jannette. His father, Faamouemoue senior, was born in American Samoa and went to high school in Hawaii. He had worked security at a casino in Southern California until he was laid off. His mother Taumate, a native of Western Samoa, has had difficulty finding a steady income since 9-11 because of citizenship issues.
John is the first in the family to go to college. Getting a UW degree would be as huge as - or bigger - than Timu's upside on the field entering this season.
"Oh, for my family that's bigger for them than my dream, which is to go the (National Football) League," he said, adding he is so far unsure what his major will be. "That piece of paper is more powerful than being in the draft."
And that knee? The ill-advised "rehab" of making the volleyball team two weeks after reconstructive surgery has finally turned out great for Timu -- after a year's delay, that is.
By the looks of camp, it may turn out great for the Huskies for the next four seasons with this quarterback-turned-linebacker they didn't give up on.
"Oh, I feel great. I feel faster," Timu said, smiling. "I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm capable of, and I think I can do it."
QUICK HITS: Tuesday night's fast-paced practice brought another task for Timu and the defense. Sarkisian had the starters on the field for long, 97-yard drives by the offense, to force them into gaining game stamina 12 days before the opener. "Just tonight, I see I've got to get into football shape, college football shape," Timu said. "As Coach Sark was saying, you've got to be able to think, react, talk, and play when you are tired on 10-play drives, 11-play drives. Or they will break you down." ... WR Kasen Williams made yet another eye-popping play, a one-handed catch along the sideline. The freshman has been getting regular plays with the first-team offense all month. ... Wednesday's 3:15 p.m. public practice will again focus on special game situations and increasing stamina.