By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Austin Seferian-Jenkins just became the first Husky to win the John Mackey Award given annually to the nation’s premier tight end.
The announcement came at 5 a.m. Wednesday. He is the first Washington player to win a national player of the year award since defensive tackle Steve Emtman won the Lombardi Award and the Outland trophies following the 1991 national-championship season. He and teammate Bishop Sankey, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the country’s top running back, were heading to Orlando, Fla., Wednesday to attend Thursday’s college football national awards show that will air live on ESPN.
Yet as prestigious as Seferian-Jenkins’ honor is, it’s not nearly as important and potentially impacting as what the mammoth tight end accomplished last week on an auditorium stage in front of 500-plus juniors and seniors at Ballard High School.
There aren’t many 21-year-old college juniors who would -- or could -- do what I watched Seferian-Jenkins do: Stand in front of teenagers who are almost his peers, only a few years younger than he, and talk about being convicted of driving under the influence. Of realizing “I should have been dead right there” when he sent his car into a draining ditch last March. Of being humbled inconceivably by being “just another number” in an orange jumpsuit while in jail this past summer.
An obviously nervous Seferian-Jenkins talked to the Ballard High students last Thursday afternoon for about 10 minutes. He told them before his arrest, coming off a big sophomore season for UW, that he felt he was “invincible.” That being arrested “can’t happen to me.”
Seferian-Jenkins speaks to over 500 Ballard High School students. (Shane Harms/Ballard News-Tribune)
Last Thursday afternoon for a 60-minute program he designed, he was so far from the field that has made him a national star. Last week he applied to the NFL’s draft evaluation committee for advice on where he might be selected should he decide to come out of college a year early and enter April’s draft.
That process is a snap compared to this.
“Yeah, I’m nervous. I’ve never done this before," he told me as the teenagers, all recently of driving age, all entering party age, plus their teachers packed the high school’s maroon-carpeted auditorium.
They sat in every chair the room had, and in the aisles and even on the steps leading to the stage to listen to the owner of most Husky records for receiving by a tight end describe the March 9 night when he tried to drive home with a blood-alcohol level later found to be 0.18.
He smashed his Toyota over a curb north of the UW campus, through a recently planted tree and into a culvert well off a street at the bottom of Seattle’s Ravenna Park. Police found him alone near the smashed vehicle with a smashed head.
The officer who screened and arrested him that night, Eric Michl of the Seattle Police Department, also spoke on the dangers of DUI Thursday to the Ballard students, just before Seferian-Jenkins did.
Seferian-Jenkins, who was alone in his vehicle and wasn’t wearing a seat belt, slammed his head almost through his windshield. He suffered a concussion — and worse blows personally. To his family and to his reputation. He was suspended for five months of the offseason, until after the first two weeks of preseason practice, by then-Huskies football coach Steve Sarkisian.
"Thanks for having me," Seferian-Jenkins told the high-schoolers. "It’s humbling being here.
"I could have been killed ... or paralyzed. ... I don’t remember how fast I was going, but I was going at a high rate of speed. All I remember is hearing a loud noise and then everything went black.
"I really should have been shot out through my windshield, and I should have been dead right there. ... I was lucky enough to just have a concussion and some scraped knees.”
The room was silent as he spoke, 500-plus teenagers absorbing his sobering message.
"I have a criminal record now,” he said, flatly. “Coming up here from where I came from, from Fox Island, Washington, I never thought I’d have a criminal record."
The best part of this awful decision and the consequences of it: This visit and talk were Seferian-Jenkins’ ideas.
This wasn’t a court-mandated appearance. He’s already completed his community-service requirements stemming from his guilty plea to DUI in Seattle Municipal Court and then one day in jail in July.
His attorney who represented him through his sentence to 364 days in jail with 363 days suspended, Bill Kirk, helped him arrange the visit with Ballard High School principal Keven Wynkoop. Seferian-Jenkins wants to give at least two more talks to teenagers before Christmas, at Seattle’s Ingraham and Garfield high schools.
“It took me awhile for me to be able to talk about this, especially, you know, identifying myself with the term ‘DUI’ -- obviously, the negative connotations that come with it,” he said, backstage behind the curtain at Ballard High’s auditorium after his talk.
“I am at a place now – with the help of Bill, who has done a phenomenal job of helping me through the whole entire process, with my mother – of just embracing the fact of what happened, and be reactionary and act upon it. And make something positive out of it. That’s the biggest thing out of this.”
"If we can plant the seed of thought that they aren’t invincible, that the decisions they make really do matter, then I think that’s a stepping stone in the right direction."
Seferian-Jenkins, now 21, wore a black, down jacket over jeans and sneakers; afterward he said he didn’t want to take the jacket off because he had a sweaty, black shirt underneath that would reveal to all how nervous he was.
No Husky gear. This wasn’t a football story. It was a life one.
"I was thinking maybe there’d be a few hundred kids,” he said. “They kept pouring in and pouring in.”
He worked off a sheet of paper with bullet points to which he referred but not that often. He walked around the stage rather than stay confined behind the podium set off to the left front of the stage. He talked of how a series of bad decisions led to him driving after drinking that March night.
"These were poor decisions, not just one but on the daily," he said.
"Walking around campus, I was embarrassed. Every day I had to walk around with a hood over me, embarrassed."
He showed a picture of his family and talked of how he was raised in Fox Island, near Gig Harbor across the “Narrows” from Tacoma, by his mother Linda. Austin said his mom “worked two, three, four jobs at once to care for me and my (younger) sister,” Michaela, who is now in high school weighing her options for college.
"When I got this DUI, the hardest thing was seeing my mom and seeing her face," Seferian-Jenkins said.
His mother has been a social worker, worked in schools and been a behavioral specialist. She was in Las Vegas with Michaela for a youth volleyball camp at the time of Austin’s arrest. Austin told of the helplessness his mother felt knowing her only son had crashed his car and had a head injury -- but not being able to talk with him because he had lost his phone in the incident. Austin told the Ballard students about the humiliation he felt of his sister having to quit the prestigious volleyball camp and she and their mother having to rush back to Seattle to check on his condition.
"My mom, she’s thinking something’s wrong — did I die?" Seferian-Jenkins said. "My selfish decisions made my mom panicked.”
He flashed a slide on a projection screen with title “Consequences.”
"Consequences? There are a lot. I had to go to jail, probably THE most humbling thing I’ve had to deal with in my life," he said of the July 31 day and night he spent locked up in a facility in Issaquah.
Later he told me his cell mate was a middle-aged man that Seferian-Jenkins said “was all tatted up” and didn’t speak a word to him that entire, sobering day and night, two weeks before Sarkisian reinstated him for preseason practice.
"Playing on Saturdays, you know, in front of 75,000 people yelling your name — you know, ‘88! ASJ!’ all that stuff, that’s great — but all that changed once I went to jail,” he told the students. “In jail, I was a just a number. I had an orange jumpsuit and I had a number. That was it. There was no more me. There was no more football — none of that.
"There were guys in there who didn’t care if I played football. They didn’t care anything about that."
Seferian-Jenkins submitted his paperwork this week for an assessment by the NFL’s draft evaluation committee, a routine practice for draft-eligible underclassmen. He spoke in front of a projection screen with an NFL logo on it when he said: “Anyone who plays college sports has professional dreams. Doing this could have completely ruined it. I don’t even know. I really don’t know what the NFL has in my future, because of my poor decisions.
"And for the rest of my life, especially as a football player, I am going to be answering questions about my drinking and driving, because of my poor decision making."
He was the fourth of four speakers during the approximately one-hour program on the dangers and consequences of driving under the influence. As effective as he seemed to be on the enraptured audience, Seferian-Jenkins was not as impacting as the first speaker of the program.
Kelly Jones is the mother of Kellen “Bobo” Jones. The former Ballard High School football player and 2008 BHS graduate died in 2010 a few blocks south of his old school as a passenger in a car driven by a drunken friend.
The car – and its occupants -- ended up wrapped around a Taco Time sign beyond a sidewalk.
“I’m going to speak from the heart of a mother,” Jones told the students.
She was wearing a black T-shirt with the message: “Drive And Ride Responsibly.”
“It is your responsibility to drive – and to ride – responsibly,” Jones told the teens.
Seferian-Jenkins fidgeted and shifted his weight back and forth as he listened about 15 feet to Jones’ left, off the stage’s side.
"If they would let me come here to speak every week, I would," Jones said. "It’s that important."
Michl, a DUI-unit officer in the Seattle Police Department, rushed to the scene of Seferian-Jenkins’ crash. He assessed him as under the influence that night.
His goal is to eliminate the hundreds such calls he gets in any given month or two in this city, at all hours of any day or night.
"I’d like to seek prevention. If I can stop one person from drinking and driving, that’s a win," Officer Michl told me before the talk. "If I roll up to a scene of an alcohol-related crash, that’s a loss."
He told the teenagers that for anyone under the legal-drinking age of 21, a blood-alcohol level of .02 is considered by law to be under the influence.
“This is our opportunity to reach out to you,” Michl said. “If you drive cars, if you ride in cars, I’m pleading with you.”
Kirk, the attorney, then spoke of the legal and financial consequences of DUI.
“I’m a DUI lawyer,” Kirk told the Ballard students. “What I am asking you to do is put guys like me out of business.”
“HOW’D I DO?”
Seferian-Jenkins went last.
When he was finished, a still-nervous but somewhat relieved looking Seferian-Jenkins asked me backstage, “How’d I do?”
He did what most his age and in his position would not have. No way, not unless dragged into it by a court mandate. He didn’t merely check the block, either. He showed character.
He admitted his mistake, publicly and many times. Now he is trying to help prevent someone else from making the same one — while perhaps saving a life.
"It felt good to talk about it. It felt really good to talk about it,” he said, smiling.
“I felt all right about it. It could have gone a little smoother. But I tried.”
Seferian-Jenkins seemed happy with how well-rounded the talk was. That he had planned it to not only be him on a stage saying, “Don’t do what I did.”
“It brought really all sides of DUI,” he said. “You had the person who lost someone, the victim. You had the person who has committed the crime, myself. Then you had the people who deal with it on a regular basis with Bill and with Officer Michl.
“So I think the kids got a really all-encompassing (presentation), all sides of it. And I think the people got that on all sides of it there’s no one winning. There is nothing positive coming out from DUI.”
He knows there are going to be cynics – there always are, with everyone everywhere – who question his motives here.
“Cynics? I don’t listen to cynics,” he said. “The people that know me, the people around the University of Washington and the program ... I think anyone that knows me know that I made a bad choice, but that was led up by bad choices. All I’m trying to do is just be me. I’m not trying to get in the good graces of anybody. I just want to be myself and be a guy that helps out the community, because that’s who I am.
“People are going to like me or not going to like me. I don’t care. The fact of the matter is, I want to make a difference, for the kids. That’s my goal.”
Seferian-Jenkins also knows many believe he should have received far more than the one-game suspension Sarkisian gave him this season in which he ended up voted as the best tight end in college football.
“The people that have always been in my corner have been really supportive. Obviously, I can’t expect everyone to be supportive of me after doing something like that,” he said.
“But I think they can support the idea of me trying to make a change for other people and help support other people. Help the growth of the community – and possibly help save a life, to help a kid make a better decision. I don’t think anyone can not be for that.”
“I want to do this because it means something to me. I’m passionate about it, because doing this I can help a kid, you know? Maybe change the outcome of his life. .. If we can plant the seed of thought that they aren’t invincible, that the decisions they make really do matter, then I think that’s a stepping stone in the right direction.”
That is value all the national player-of-the-year award trophies and NFL adulation can’t buy.
"I was in their seat three years ago,” he said, nodding back out toward the now-emptying auditorium after this chilling hour was done.
“This was me three years ago. And if it can happen to me, it can happen to any one of them."
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or 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.
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