Sept. 29, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - You can tell Cort Dennison is going home.
"My mom (Marianne) made me," the Huskies' rugged middle linebacker said of his equally rugged stubble that usually adorns his face and chin. "She didn't like it."
The senior co-captain is going to his hometown of Salt Lake City with his teammates Friday, a day before Washington (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) plays at Dennison's favorite, neighborhood team growing up: Utah (2-1, 0-1).
Saturday's kickoff is 4:00 p.m. Pacific time on ROOT Sports television locally, Fox Sports Network nationally on cable, plus the Washington IMG College radio network. We'll again have the live game chat from the sidelines here on GoHuskies.com.
The game at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the Utah campus will be played less than a mile from where Dennison went to high school, at Judge Memorial. But UW's first-ever game at Utah will be the first time the Huskies' leading tackler has played in that stadium. His high school team never made it to the state semifinals, the postseason round in which Utah's high school teams play at Rice-Eccles.
Yet he knows how loud it will get on Saturday in the 45,017-seat place for the Utes' homecoming game.
"I grew up going to Utah football games," the anchor and undisputed leader of the Dawgs' defense said this week. "But I realize, too, that's it's just a game. No matter where we play, it's still football. And we have a task, a great task, at our hands. I've got to focus on that without the distractions of family and all that stuff."
"When I was going to the (Utah) games, yeah, I wore the red. But now I wear purple."
Even though Dennison was the Utah Class 3A first-team tight end as a high school senior, even though The Salt Lake Tribune named him as its Utah athlete of the year in 2006, and even though Dennison could walk to the Utes' stadium on his high school lunch hour, they didn't recruit him heavily.
"Uh... not as seriously as some schools," Dennison said coyly, with a shrug.
They didn't even invite the nail-chewing linebacker, one that finished fourth in the Pac-10 last season with eight tackles per game, down the street to one of their summer football camps -- though Utah did eventually invite him to try out for its team as a walk-on.
Dennison had far better options than that.
"And I ended up going to a place that I love," he says now.
Washington coaches called offering a scholarship early in 2007.
That was a week after Dennison had explored another, honorable option: To serve our nation in a time of war.
Then-Army football coach Bobby Ross, a former Super Bowl coach, liked Dennison enough that he ensured him he wouldn't have to go through the normal process of securing one of the few hundred annual Congressional appointments for admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Ross was going to offer him a spot on Army's football team.
Dennison fit the profile West Point seeks in its cadets: He had a 3.7 grade-point average in high school; he was not only a star in football but in basketball; and he performed over 400 hours of community service in and around Salt Lake City while at Judge Memorial.
"I took a visit back there and they pretty much told me they wanted me there really badly," he said last fall of West Point. "The next week, I came back and I was thinking about it - and Tyrone [Willingham] called me and he offered me on the phone.
"I jumped on it."
Dennison had relatives in the Seattle area, and he wanted to stay closer to home. He also loved the idea of playing in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) while earning a degree from what he proudly calls "one of the best public institutions in the world."
That's not to say he didn't like West Point. The coaches took him from the airport and drove him across the George Washington Bridge in early 2007, through Times Square, to the Bronx and past Yankee Stadium. Heady stuff for a teenager from Utah.
"Sometimes I like to be looked at as an underdog. Those kinds of things just motivate me. I like when people doubt me."
Then Army's coaches drove him about an hour up picturesque Palisades Parkway along the Hudson River, through the sleepy village of Highland Falls to the Academy. Dennison stayed in the Spartan barracks room of Army sophomore fullback Collin Mooney, an all-state high school player himself from Katy, Texas.
"It was a fun experience. It was something I've never experienced before," Dennison said.
"I'm not used to the whole academy kind of a thing. And the tradition. I didn't realize how on point they were, how technical everything is, how first-class everything is."
But, he said upon looking back, "I really didn't want to do the five-year service after."
That's five years on active duty as an Army officer. Had he pursued admission to West Point, Dennison would be a lieutenant by now, likely serving in Afghanistan or Iraq or soon deploying there. Instead, he's a redshirt senior playing Saturday for the Huskies at Utah while closing in on a communications degree from UW.
"I mean, that weighed in a lot," he says of war. "The main factor was I just didn't want to do the five-year service after college football. I wanted to get on with stuff. I don't know. I just felt more close to home in Seattle. I love the decision. I'm really happy here.
Dennison says he has "tremendous respect" for those who have chosen any military academy. He realized the sacrifice while he was visiting West Point.
"All these young people who have so much going for them are sacrificing their lives for our freedom. It just made me proud, because I couldn't do that, you know?" Dennison said. "Yet there are people my age who were out there in war. It just made me take my hat off to them for being so courageous. It made me gain that much more respect for them, because that could have been me.
"I have a huge amount of respect for the people who do that. But that probably wasn't my kind of a thing."
His kind of thing would be bulling through a balky knee and aches all over to register another double-digit tackle game and send Washington to a 2-0 start in conference play.
That such a victory could happen in his hometown, against his neighborhood team, is just a coincidence, he says.
He has no hard feelings toward Utah. He just chalks it up to a characteristic he's obtained over the last half-dozen years.
"No," he said. "I don't know what it is, but sometimes I like to be looked at as an underdog. Those kinds of things just motivate me. I like when people doubt me, or whatever the case may be. It motivates me to do better and to prove people points.
"That just makes my drive for success that much higher, and it makes me want to work that much harder than everybody else."
Dennison will probably have a few dozen guests at Saturday's game. But it won't be the 70 or so who swarmed Provo, 45 minutes down the freeway from Salt Lake City, to watch their man play Washington's 2010 opener at Brigham Young.
Still, he's been shaking down teammates for extra seats for his latest return on Saturday.
"This is when the seniority kicks in on the team, because I can normally take advantage of other kids' tickets and get those," he said, smiling.
"Yeah, I tell them what's up."
QUICK HITS: Coach Steve Sarkisian was extra, um... animated at his offense during Thursday's 90-minute practice. He wants more aggressiveness and physicality, especially up front. "Just to kind of send a little message to them," Sarkisian said. "It's going to be a physical game Saturday, you know? Just want to reinforce that thought.'' ... Sarkisian said RB Jesse Callier (hamstring) will give it a go Saturday. The only player not out for the season that is not on the 70-man (Pac-12 limit) travel squad because of injury is backup S Taz Stevenson (knee). ... Remarkable: Six days after he left the win against California in an ambulance bound for Harborview Medical Center while strapped to a board, freshman starting OLB John Timu will make Friday afternoon's trip to Utah. Timu, who Sarkisian said has a whiplash-like neck injury, did some position drills Monday but watched the rest of the week's practices while in full pads and a red, no-contact jersey. Expect Jamaal Kearse to start for him. ... The forecast for Salt Lake City when the team arrives for Friday afternoon's walkthrough is 91 degrees and sunny. The game-time temperature Saturday is expected to be 86.