Oct. 21, 2005
By Jesse Hulsing
For a significant fee, doting mothers and fathers will soon be able to determine at a young age at which sport their child might ultimately be most successful. Testing for the gene ACTN3, which controls the production of fast-twitch muscle fibers, coupled with a day of rigorous coordination and agility testing, can tell one if their body is best suited for football or table tennis, without ever strapping on the pads or picking up a paddle.
Such technology did not exist eight years ago, but that's just fine with senior linebacker Evan Benjamin. He never needed science to tell him what sport he was destined to play.
"I wanted to play football every year in youth leagues when I was a kid, but my parents wouldn't allow me to play until about the eighth grade," he says. "But I just fell in love with it once I started playing."
It's likely that gene testing would only confirm what Benjamin already knew -- you see, football is in Benjamin's blood. His father, Anthony, was a star running back for the Duke Blue Devils, and later played for the Seattle Seahawks. Benjamin, though, says there was no pressure to follow in his father's footsteps.
"I just like to compete more than anything." Benjamin says. "I like football, baseball, soccer, basketball; I'm just a big sports fan. Being around football a lot as a kid, it became natural for me to play football."
Blessed with that competitive drive and the genes to succeed, Benjamin became a star at Redmond (Wash.) High School, racking up 1,286 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns as a running back, and 69 tackles and three interceptions as a safety.
Benjamin also had the luxury of tapping into a resource most kids don't have -- a father who played football professionally.
"He was definitely there, over my shoulder trying to get me to do the right techniques and stuff like that," Benjamin says. "It continued through high school where he coached me at running back. So, he was there helping me with all of the stuff that football players need to do."
When the recruiting battle began, Washington had a leg up on the competition. Evan's sister Paige was an All-American volleyball player for UW, and Husky Stadium was just a short drive across the bridge for Benjamin and his family. Benjamin came in with a top-notch recruiting class, and was billed along with James Sims as the Huskies' future at the safety position.
For two seasons Benjamin and Sims lived up to that billing. The former appeared in all 13 games as a freshman and started the first eight games of his sophomore campaign, capping off the 2003 season with a pair of interceptions against Washington State to earn Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Benjamin had earned a reputation as a hard-nosed tackler, equally strong against the run as he was against the pass. Thus, prior to the 2004 season, Washington's defensive coaches moved Benjamin closer to the line, putting him in an outside linebacker position that would put him on the ball in a higher percentage of plays. Ironically, Sims, too, was moved, to fullback, marking the end of the "future" at the safety position, but the start of successful runs for both at their new positions.
"I think it has been a good experience for both of us," Benjamin says. "He has done very well at running back, and I think I have been contributing at linebacker. Wherever the coach asks us to be, that's what we'll do. I think we have helped out the team wherever we've played."
`Helping out the team' has been a central theme in Benjamin's career as a Husky. Throughout the highs and lows of the last five years, Benjamin has persevered, striving to improve himself and his team. Despite his individual successes, he is never satisfied, always working on ways to improve his game, and help the team win.
"I don't want people to pass me by," he says. "I earned a starting spot a couple of years ago, but I have continued working to keep it ever since. I just don't want to let my teammates down. The big thing is to just keep myself going; that's what really motivates me to do better."
Entering his final year, Benjamin realizes he has unfinished business. First and foremost is a sociology degree to wrap up, one he plans to use as a tool to help kids in local communities. Second on the list, but no less important, is a football team that needs something to build on for the future.
"I want to leave this program on a good note," Benjamin says. "I think a lot of guys like me are trying to bring this program up, and try and leave it in a good spot. That is definitely the goal right now."
Whatever the team's fortunes over the rest of the season, Benjamin hopes that Husky fans remember him for his toughness, for the way his motor never stopped running even in the face of tough times.
"I just want people to think, `He was tough and did things right,'" Benjamin says. "We have a lot of guys who do that, but I want to be one of those people who, when the coaches are talking to players in the future, they can say, `Remember Evan? He was a tough guy. He knew how to do things right, and he worked hard in practice.' Those are the things that are important to me."
Toughness, humility, poise -- even genetic testing can't measure those intangibles. Combine those qualities with a hefty dose of fast-twitch muscles and a genetic predilection for football, and you'll have the ingredients for a football player whose talent is off the charts.
You'll have an Evan Benjamin.