Oct. 17, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Something so unforgettably genuine happened last Saturday at CenturyLink Field. And it had nothing to do with how the Huskies ultimately fared against USC.
It happened on the playing field. Yet almost no one saw it. No television cameras captured it.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins was getting loose, readying for pass-catching drills when he spotted two familiar faces on the sidelines nearby.
Kate Smith and Theo Dzielak were smiling at him.
They always have done that, since the day in May that Ruby Smith's mother and father met the Huskies' tight end in their daughter's room in the cancer ward at Seattle Children's Hospital.
Saturday, the sophomore beyond his years immediately ran toward Smith. It was 6 feet 6 inches and 260 pounds of compassion coming her way.
He just didn't look that way to Smith. Not with the big tight end in his purple, skin-tight undershirt, leg pads, and purple-and-gold high-top cleats. Her outer layer was an orange vest. She might be a few inches taller than 5 feet, max.
"It was a massive force of nature coming at me. I was like, `Whoa,'" Smith said on the phone Wednesday, alternating through laughs and sobs.
"It was crazy, just this natural sort of impulse. I just started to run toward him, too."
There, inside the 20-yard-line on the south end of CenturyLink Field, Seferian-Jenkins stooped to share a hug with a parent to whom he will forever be linked.
"It's great to see you again," Seferian-Jenkins said to Smith. "How are you holding up?"
A REUNION MONTHS IN THE MAKING
It's been one week short of five months since Seferian-Jenkins returned to Ruby's room at Seattle Children's, to follow through on his promise he had made weeks earlier during a Huskies' team visit to the hospital: To take Ruby to her senior prom.
Days after she was told she was about to die, Seferian-Jenkins brought the prom to her - corsage and all.
When the dynamic former softball player, swimmer, photographer and bass player became too sick to attend her prom Nathan Hale High School, days after she was told she was about to die, Seferian-Jenkins brought the prom to her - corsage and all.
A week after Seferian-Jenkins gave Ruby her prom on her 18th birthday, Ruby passed away from Burkitt's lymphoma. After nine months of strength through enduring radiation, the highly aggressive tumor from the rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma killed her on May 30.
At the end of the interview I did with him in early August on how he had met Ruby and how her legacy lives on within him and many others, Seferian-Jenkins told me he hoped her parents could come to a Huskies game this season. He wanted to say hello again, to see how they were doing -- and to let them know he was thinking about them.
Oh, yes, he's been thinking about them. So much so, when the big tight end saw Ruby's mom and dad out of the corner of his eye during Saturday's warmups, he was immediately drawn to them.
"I recognized them right away," he said following Wednesday's practice for UW's game Saturday at Arizona.
After months of sorrow over Ruby's death, Smith said Seferian-Jenkins running at her on the field Saturday unleashed a dormant, happy clown in her.
See, Smith has been a performing clown for 25 years. She's spent 11 of those years visiting Seattle Children's Hospital to cheer up its patients - and then telling her young Ruby about those kids' situations that her daughter ultimately ended up in herself.
"It was crazy, just this natural sort of impulse. I just started running toward him," Smith said, still sounding surprised at her reaction to Seferian-Jenkins on that field. "Honest to God, when I saw him I did this little dance."
It felt good to hear her laugh.
As you may be able to deduce by now, Smith's respect and admiration for Seferian-Jenkins is boundless.
"Normally, you would expect to see this sad mom thinking about what had happened. But Austin, he elicited this response!" she said. "That's the transcendent human element to all this.
"Then he bent down low enough that he could hug me, and I could hug him around his neck. It was just so cool."
There, an hour or so before one of the bigger games he's played in his life, the 19-year-old second-leading receiver among tight ends in the nation thought of something larger than himself. Something larger than this game.
"Obviously, they are still having a tough time - as anyone would," he said. "Her mother gave me a nice card. I read that after the game. It was really touching, just little things to remember Ruby by. It was pretty cool.
"It was great to see her father. It was great just to reconnect with them again."
The connection lasted through the game. Smith and Dzielak, co-owner of Couth Buzzard Books at Greenwood and N. 85th Street in north Seattle, had never been to a Huskies game before. They'd never been to CenturyLink Field downtown, either. Like their daughter, they really didn't know all that much about who Seferian-Jenkins was that day he walked into their lives.
Yet suddenly on Saturday they were sitting in the 300-level beside the south end zone at CenturyLink Field as impassioned as long-time season-ticket holders with Tyee numbers of 10 and 11.
Smith said they sat with a "quiet-like intensity" as USC jumped out to a 24-7 lead by halftime. Then, 9 minutes into the second half, Seferian-Jenkins broke free down the middle of the field a few yards from where Kate and Austin had hugged a couple hours earlier. Keith Price's perfect pass met the tight end in stride, and ASJ ran the final 10 yards for a 29-yard touchdown.
The score revitalized the Huskies' crowd. And it brought at least two of the 66,202 fans in the stadium to tears.
Standing and overlooking the scene of teammates mobbing Seferian-Jenkins in the end zone below, Smith and Dzielak didn't say a word to each other.
They didn't have to.
"Of course I'm going to feel when he scored that touchdown, `Oh, that's for Ruby!'" Smith said. "It really doesn't matter if it was for Ruby or not. That's how we felt."
I asked Seferian-Jenkins on Wednesday if he was surprised or impressed to know he continues to have such an impact on Ruby's parents. After all, it's been almost five months since he took it upon himself to first go with teammate Michael Hartvigson onto that cancer floor and into Ruby's room to cheer her up.
I'm just blessed to have that impact on my life, and for them to come into my life.
"I mean, I'm just blessed to have that impact on my life, and for them to come into my life," he said. "I really think they are one of the biggest blessings I've had in my life.
"They are amazing people. Their daughter is amazing."
Yes, that is present tense.
"I'm just lucky to meet her and just have time to talk to her and get to know her," he said.
"WE ARE BONDED ... FOREVER"
"Hero" gets thrown around as much as passes in sports, to the point it's cliché and almost trite to call an athlete one.
Not with ASJ.
Not to these two parents who know the true meaning and value of the term.
"It's so beautiful a concept, heroism," Smith said. "I've been thinking a lot about this since seeing Austin Saturday: Really, two people on that hospital floor were heroes.
"Ruby knew two days before Austin came back and stayed true to his word that she was dying. And all she wanted was a prom. That was her `teen thing.'
"It was really one hero meeting another."
Seferian-Jenkins could not have known it that first time in May that he entered the lives and the death of Ruby and her parents in that hospital room. But he is bonded with two, middle-aged parents in north Seattle, plus the ongoing legacy of their teenage daughter, forever.
"When strangers have a really traumatic experience together - a real, life-and-death experience - I think it bonds them. That's what it felt like Saturday, that I was seeing an old friend.
"We are bonded through this traumatic tragedy. I'll hold it that way forever.
"He is truly a really, genuine guy. Like with Ruby, just because it did kill her didn't mean she wasn't strong. She was so strong. Same with Austin. No, it's OK you didn't win Saturday, Austin. You are still a hero.
"In our book, you will always be a hero. And so will Ruby."
So, yes, the thanks and the admiration are mutual. And in perpetuity.
"We are forever grateful to him," Smith said of ASJ.
"He gets it."
Click here for the original Gregg Bell Unleashed column from August on how Austin first met Ruby .
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.