Nov. 4, 2004
by Jonathan Price
Success in the safety position at the collegiate level requires a unique combination of skills -- the coverage skills of a cornerback, the pattern-reading and play-breakdown ability of a quarterback, and the toughness of a linebacker.
Consider Husky senior Jimmy Newell more than qualified.
The Port Orchard, Wash., native starred on both sides of the ball at South Kitsap High School, playing quarterback on offense and safety on defense. While the offense was exciting, it was his defensive play that turned the most heads.
As a senior in 1999, Newell totaled 60 tackles, five interceptions and three sacks to earn PrepStar All-American honors, and was named to Seattle Post-Intelligencer's "Elite-11" area All-Star team. National recruiting publications ranked Newell among the top-20 players nationally at his position. Newell left South Kitsap knowing on which side of the ball his future lay.
"It was neat to play on both sides of the ball, but the high school games were much easier physically then it is in college," says Newell. "I think that it is everybody's dream to be able to do that in college, but how hard you have to play at this level makes it not very realistic."
Just as certain as his determination to play defense in college was his knowledge of the jersey he'd be wearing when he took the field. Despite interest from Big Ten, Big 12 and other Pac-10 schools, Newell knew all along that he'd be a Husky.
"I grew up watching Washington football," he says. "The time I started playing competitively as a kid was the same time when the Huskies were having their Rose Bowl seasons. How could another school possibly top Washington, with all of the success that they were having? On top of that, my family could come and watch me play because our games are close to home."
Newell's first season at Washington was the stuff his childhood dreams were made of. Thrown into the action from the very first game of the season, Newell became an integral part of a defense that ranked second in the Pac-10 in pass defense, and led Washington to an 11-1 record and the 2001 Rose Bowl championship. The Port Orchard freshman contributed 11 tackles as a backup to starting safety and future NFL draftee Hakim Akbar, including a five-tackle, one forced-fumble performance in Washington's 31-28 win at Stanford, and was credited with one tackle in the Rose Bowl.
Barely three months after his first day of class, Newell had 12 games under his belt and a Rose Bowl ring on his finger. One could certainly forgive him if he thought success always came so easy.
"It might have spoiled me to play in the Rose Bowl my freshman year," he says. "You come in as a freshman and you don't really know what to expect. To be on a team like that right away was pretty special. It would have been nice to have gotten a few more seasons like that."
The emotional high of Newell's freshman season didn't even last through spring-quarter finals. A shoulder injury suffered near the end of the season failed to heal as expected, and Newell went under the knife in April, forcing him to miss what would have been his first year of spring practices. The sophomore attempted to return to the field in the fall, but was forced to shut it down after the season's third game.
"The injuries were a big setback my sophomore year, and I ended up red-shirting," he says. "At that point I was having a lot of trouble keeping my shoulders healthy. I had to have surgery on one of them before the season and surgery on the other one during the season. It was a struggle to keep the shoulders in their sockets."
Newell earned a medical redshirt for his sophomore year and dedicated himself to building up strength in his shoulder during the offseason. Named the team's starting free safety for the season-opener at Michigan, Newell took to the field ready to take out the frustrations of a lost year on the Wolverines' offense. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas.
"I had torn a tendon in my thumb during fall practice, and came into the game wearing a cast on my hand and wrist," he explains. "On the second play of the game, Chris Perry split right through the defense. I dove to make the tackle and got my fingers stuck in the turf. My wrist couldn't bend at all because my hand was in a cast, so my fingers just bent all the way back. I didn't realize at first how serious I was hurt, because I was upset that Perry ran 57 yards for a touchdown. When I looked down, though, I could see that the bone had popped right out of the skin."
Broken hand and all, the determined Newell fought his way back to the field, ultimately appearing in seven more games, including three more starts. Newell had entered his first sophomore season with visions of consecutive Rose Bowl titles. He entered his junior season hoping just to be able to play a full 12 games.
Apparently deciding he had been through enough, fate finally granted Newell a break. After appearing in just 11 games over the previous two seasons, Newell appeared in all 12 games the Huskies played in 2003, starting at free safety in every one. The junior's three interceptions -- including one in a 27-19 win over eighth-ranked Washington State -- ranked second on the squad, while his 84 tackles equaled the second-most of any Husky.
"It felt great to have a full healthy season my junior year," Newell says. "To put together a full season where you are not traveling to the games on your own, and you don't have to stand on the sidelines with no pads and just a jersey on, was terrific."
Newell's hard work on the field also drew attention to his hard work in the classroom, where the Husky earned first-team Pac-10 All-Academic honors, and was a second-team Region VIII Academic All-American.
With three games remaining in his senior year, Newell has become a mentor to young safeties C.J. Wallace and Chris Hemphill, using his experiences as a lesson to not take any season, any game, or even any play, for granted.
"I think that I am a leader because I have been in the program for so long now," Newell says. "I know what is going on, and am always willing to talk to the younger guys."
When Newell talks, the younger players should listen. From the highs of a Rose Bowl title to the lows of a season lost to injury, Newell has seen it all, and through the versatility possessed of all safeties, has fought through it to come out on top.