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Unleashed: John Timu, And How We View Football Players
Release: 04/10/2013
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April 10, 2013

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.

SEATTLE - The Huskies have been playing intercollegiate athletics for more than 121 years.

The University of Washington's Department of Anthropology has existed for about a century.

This week, John Timu made history for both.

The starting linebacker, the first in his family of two parents and four children to attend college, found out Tuesday he had won Washington's prestigious Brett E. Baldwin Memorial Scholarship for Anthropology.

How big a deal is this? The sophomore co-captain of the Huskies' defense last season is the first UW student-athlete to win the scholarship.

As in, ever.

Last year, as a freshman, he became one of the first Washington football players to present at UW's Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Huskies fans still loving and missing Jake Locker, there's a new No. 10 to adore - for far more than just his football.

The Baldwin Scholarship is named after the 1979 UW graduate who died shortly after earning his bachelor's degree in anthropology. The university has been awarding it since 1987, when Mr. and Mrs. Brooks Baldwin established the scholarship in memory of their son. Timu was selected from a field open to all current and newly admitted undergraduate and graduate students.

"What an honor," Timu told me as he hustled from class Tuesday afternoon following another spring football practice in the morning and learning he'd won the Baldwin Scholarship by noon.

What an honor, indeed. Yet he's far from done.

Forget the fact the 6-foot-1, 231-pound Timu still has two more seasons to fly around the field at middle linebacker inside coordinator Justin Wilcox's remade, aggressive defense. Forget for now that last year the Huskies made him one of the only sophomore captains they've ever had. Or that he was driven off the Husky Stadium turf in the back of an ambulance while strapped to a board following a scary helmet hit in a game during his freshman season.

On May 17 he will be the featured presenter at the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. Director of athletics Scott Woodward and coach Steve Sarkisian will be there when Timu and teammate Hau'oli Jamora present their findings of this question they've posed: Why doesn't our society accept football intelligence as correlating into real-world intelligence, though it makes a similar correlation for intelligence in, say, chess?

"We are using anthropological-based research such as interviewing, focus groups, group dialogue, and discourse analysis," Timu said. "We are also analyzing traditional media, using social-media analysis and even video-game analysis."

No wonder UW trusts him to call as its defensive signals, eh?

"Why do people consider chess players to be smarter than football players?" Timu asks. "To me, football and chess are the same thing - except for the physical aspect. In both, you have strategies. You have to anticipate your opponent's next move and weigh the consequences of your move. You have to think to perform."

College sports today take so many shots, often deservedly so. Not even the staunchest supporter of intercollegiate athletics can defend some of what's made news the last few weeks from the nation's campuses.

But college athletics today also has John Timu.

Admit it. You see Timu with his long, braided hair pulled back into a ponytail and poking from his helmet slamming into ball carriers for some of his 91 tackles last season, you see him breaking up passes and having games like his last one - 15 tackles, one sack, 1½ tackles for loss in December's MAACO Bowl Las Vegas against Boise State - and you assume he's all baller, no scholar.

Timu knows what you perceive when you found out he's the youngest of four children by native Samoan parents. He knows what you think when you learn he's a product of an urban high school in Long Beach, Jordan High, that has a student body of 4,200-plus, 97-percent of which is non-white. He knows what you assume when you see he can run - he was a high-school quarterback and safety - and hit, then learn he had scholarship offers from Oregon, Hawaii and Washington entering his senior season at Jordan in 2009.

Your perceptions are exactly what he is seeking to disprove in his research.

"Being a football player, people just see us for the physical aspects of it," he said. "They don't get the behind-the-scenes intelligence it takes to succeed in football, to balance being both a student and an athlete at a school like Washington. It's not easy, the class work, the practices, the games, the travel, the film work and weight training."

No, it's not easy to pull down a 3.14 grade-point average through two years at UW, as Timu has while starting 21 games for the Huskies and playing in 25 games as a freshman and sophomore. His GPA was 3.20 in the recently completed winter quarter.

Kim Durand, UW's associate athletic director for student development, simply says of Timu: "He's amazing."


Dr. Holly M. Barker is the full-time lecturer in the anthropology department who nominated Timu for the Baldwin scholarship. She has taught Timu in four, 400-level anthropology courses and has been his advisor for five internship credits, as well. Some of that internship work has included Timu volunteering at an elementary school in Seattle.

She noted the main qualification for the Baldwin award is scholastic merit. Technically, Timu isn't eligible for the scholarship's $1,200 award because he is already on a full-ride athletic scholarship at UW.

So what? She found Timu to be so deserving of the honor and recognition she nominated him anyway - with a letter that is among the most impressive I've read from a teacher about a student.

"Mr. Timu is very visible in the classroom as a student-athlete ... he sits up front and takes his studies so seriously encourages his classmates to do the same," Dr. Barker wrote. "I believe that Mr. Timu's obvious commitment to academics is one of the factors shaping the culture of the football team as I now see other football players trying to follow Mr. Timu's academic lead.

"Last year, Mr. Timu volunteered at a local public elementary school to better understand the factors that influence educational outcomes for children. Mr. Timu's site supervisor at the school submitted perhaps the strongest evaluation report I have ever received for a student intern. The teacher raved about Mr. Timu's devotion to the children and the professional way he conducted himself at the school."

Dr. Barker is exemplary in her own right. She recently won one of UW's Distinguished Teaching Awards, and her work with Durand and the Huskies' Student-Athlete Academic Services department is well-known.

She says she is "excessively, incredibly proud" of Timu.

Timu, conversely, is excessively bashful over me even asking about his honor. He sounded almost sheepish on the phone while discussing it. When I told him this story would appear here Wednesday he blurted, "Oh, great."

Dr. Barker started spreading the news around campus Tuesday that Timu had won the scholarship because she knew he would likely keep it a secret - even to his family.

He admits he doesn't tell his folks back in Long Beach all his accomplishments.

"They find out from other people," he said, "like, a month later.

"I know, that probably is terrible of me."

That seems to me to be his only fault.

Timu has participated in a summer program for Pacific Islander youth to help them develop both their academic and football skills. Dr. Barker notes how Timu is constantly thinking about ways he can help the kids of his neighborhood back in Long Beach. She calls him "both a role model and an advocate for improving college access for students from his community."

He has volunteered Children's Hospital in Seattle. He has joined Huskies football team visits to local public schools to emphasize the importance of education.

As you may be able to tell by now, he's just a good guy.

More than that, he's a living, sprinting, hitting, and researching example of an athlete who doesn't take his fortune of a college scholarship for granted. Instead of essentially majoring in football and waiting for an NFL that may or (odds say, more likely) may not call, he is seizing this opportunity to excel.


"It's pretty hard for us to manage both football and academics. But I just want kids to see that if I can do this, you can, too," Timu said. "College sports can open great opportunities for younger people. Kids can do more than just play football."


Timu realizes more than most guys his age that football isn't a given, that a degree and fall-back plan is more important than a 40-time or sack total.

In the second game of his senior season at Jordan High School he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his knee while cutting awkwardly in the open field, without getting hit.

His parents were both unemployed, and he was playing without insurance. It took him four, crucial recruiting months of wading almost solo through bureaucratic paperwork and processing before he could secure his own insurance for reconstructive knee surgery.

Goodbye scholarship offers.

All but one, that is.

"Everyone pretty much backed off -- except for the Huskies," Timu said.

UW assistant head coach and special-teams coach Johnny Nansen went to Long Beach Jordan. He has friends who have known Timu since he was a tyke.

Nansen wasn't about to abandon him.

"The other schools, after that they backed off. But Coach Nansen was always there, checking in, asking how I was doing, making sure I was rehabbing and getting the surgery as soon as possible," Timu told me before he became a starter as a UW freshman. "I kept positive, and he kept me going. He's the reason why I am here."

Timu was so anxious to get back during that senior year of high school, so fearful UW would back off its scholarship offer, too, he went out for Jordan's volleyball team -- two weeks after that reconstructive knee surgery in January 2010.

Timu realizes now he was being "hard headed ... it wasn't the best thing." But in fact he was being resourceful. He essentially used volleyball, which he had never played before, and its training as free physical therapy to offset his lack of insurance for more conventional rehabilitation for football.

Nansen and Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian did the right thing. They didn't bail on Timu because of a bad knee. They didn't turn their backs on that fortitude, intelligence and desire.

Now, Timu's many qualities are central assets to the Huskies' defense - and the entire program.

"We stuck with the kid," Nansen said. "We knew he was going to come in and help us. And now, obviously, he is.

"He was a great kid, and he fought off a lot things. That's just standard here. That's how we recruit kids. No matter what happens, you keep sticking with them."

Once Timu arrived as a freshman - a teen months removed from finding his own insurance so he could get his knee fixed - he finished his first research project. It was in a class studying the anthropology of sports. In the spring of 2012 he, Jonathan Amosa and Jamora followed Eric Guttorp and Kiel Rasp in 2008 and Guttorp again last year in becoming the first football players to present at the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium.

"It analyzed the media discourse of races in the NBA," Timu said of his initial project. "We talked about the stereotypes, the language used in and about the league and in the media."

Other Husky student-athletes who presented at last year's symposium included: gymnast Kylie Sharp, whose remarkable story is here (; runner Megan Morgan; and Hannes Heppner, from UW's national-champion rowing team.

For his latest research and featured presentation next month Timu is taking Dr. Barker's class in qualitative research methods. His classmates are many, more-senior honors students from the anthropology department.

"The football team may recruit him for his football skills," Dr. Barker wrote in her scholarship nomination, "but I recruit him to my classrooms because he makes the learning environment better for all students.

"It is an honor to work with Mr. Timu."

The appreciation is mutual.

The initiative? That's all Timu's.

Not only is he the first in his family to attend college, he already has his sights on a possible graduate degree. He is exploring taking extra classes so he can complete his undergraduate work in three years. That would allow him to possibly start course work towards a master's of arts degree while school is still being paid for by his UW athletic scholarship.

"I'm just taking advantage of what's available to me," Timu said, sounding like he didn't understand all this fuss over what he's accomplished. "For me, my athletic scholarship has opened up a lot of doors.

"Being a Polynesian athlete -- just being Polynesian itself - there's a stigma against me succeeding. For me, I'm using athletics to take for advancement in my life.

"In three or four years, whenever I am done with my studies and have my degrees, those will be as much a blessing as I've ever had."

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 each Wednesday.

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