Nov. 18, 2005
by Jonathan Price & Brian Beaky
You couldn't blame Joe Lobendahn if he was bitter.
After all, the five-foot-10, 230-pound linebacker has given his heart and soul to Washington football over the past few seasons, only to see each come to a close with him watching the Apple Cup from the sidelines as the result of an injury.
Bitterness, though, is not commonly referred to as a quality of leadership, and throughout all that he has endured, Lobendahn has been a consummate team leader.
"If I can't be out there on the field, that's not going to stop me from making a difference," he says. "I just have to find another way to help the team win."
Having suffered a significant injury to his right knee in UW's loss to Oregon State, Lobendahn will likely miss Saturday's Apple Cup; the third time in three years that the senior will not be on the field for the Huskies' biggest game of the season.
"It's tough -- I made a list of goals coming into the season, and winning the Apple Cup was a high priority," he says. "I'm going to prepare mentally like I'm going to play, though -- go to all the meetings, see the trainers when I'm supposed to. Hopefully I can make it back in time for the game. It means a lot to me."
Lobendahn has meant a lot to the Huskies, too. In 2004 -- his first full season as a starter -- Lobendahn racked up 100 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery en route to honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors, and the Defensive Player of the Year award at the annual team banquet. Included in Lobendahn's stats were four double-digit tackle performances, including a 16-tackle, five tackle-for-loss game versus Fresno State, which also included a sack and forced fumble.
Even while putting up numbers that most linebackers dream of, the co-captain thought only about areas in which he could improve.
"As an individual, my stats were good, but they could be better," said Lobendahn. "A good linebacker needs to play at a high level and be physical. You need to be mentally tough and athletic. You need great instincts coming up on the ball and you have to be a player who always wants to lay a hit on someone."
While most defensive players prefer the blindsided hit that stuns the unsuspecting ballcarrier, Lobendahn says he prefers to look right into his victim's eyes.
"I would rather hit a guy head-on rather then blindside him," says Lobendahn. "It shows your toughness. Blindsiding is kind of soft because the guy is not looking at you. If he is looking at you and you are seeing each other eye-to-eye, it is all about who is going to win that battle and who is tougher. The whole team feeds off a big hit like that."
While Lobendahn's numbers have been more than great this season -- at the time of his injury, the senior ranked among the conference's top-10 in tackles per game -- he can't help but be disappointed in the way the year has gone for his team. Having won three state titles at St. Louis High School in Honolulu -- part of the Crusaders' 14-consecutive state title game wins -- losing is an unfamiliar, and unwelcome, feeling.
"In high school, our attitude was all about winning," he says. "We knew going on the field that we were going to win that game. We would just go out there and dominate, and we had a lot of fun doing it."
At Washington, Lobendahn has played on just one winning team -- a 7-6 squad during his freshman season in 2002 -- but remains optimistic that the team is continuing to improve.
"It's tough," he says. "This year wasn't the way that we wanted it to go, but we are improving every week. We just want to win the final games on our schedule and get out of here with something."
Lobendahn says that if he can not, in fact, return to the field in time for Saturday's game, he will find other ways to impact the team.
"There's lots of things I can do to help the team." he says. "A lot of the older linebackers helped me over the years -- Jamaun Willis, Ben Mahdavi -- just in terms of learning what to look for and what to do. I can help the guys who are going to be out there in the same way, just getting them ready to play and go after it."
Part of his role as a senior leader, he says, is to remind the younger players who have not experienced winning at UW of the history and prestige of the program whose helmet they strap on each Saturday, and to continually strive to return UW to its rightful place among the college elite.
"There is a lot of tradition here at Washington," he says. "As a senior, you want to get back to that tradition, but to do that you have to win. We are not winning right now, but it's important that we don't forget what it means to be a Husky."
If they can't remember, they need only to look at Joe Lobendahn. While he may have played his final game in the purple and gold, his selflessness and commitment to success will ensure that he remains a Husky for life.