By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Three years ago, John Timu shredded his knee as a 185-pound quarterback in high school.
Two years ago, Timu was sitting out a second straight football
season. He enrolled late to Washington, in January, 2011, after having
reconstructive knee surgery delayed.
Last year, four games into his UW career, Timu left Husky Stadium
in the back of an ambulance while strapped to board in after a scary
Last Friday, coach Steve Sarkisian
gathered his Huskies at midfield following a morning walkthrough
practice to announce the players' voting for 2012 team captains. When he
told them Timu was the captain of the defense, the Huskies roared for
their sophomore who has persevered through so much.
"Pretty exciting," Timu said Tuesday following UW's preparations
for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. opener against San Diego State (Pac-12 Networks
television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on
GoHuskies.com with the only Huskies real-time play-by-play, pictures and
analysis on the web).
When he was congratulated again on Tuesday for his captaincy, his eyes briefly lit up.
"Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise," he said. "But, you know, I've come a long way. And I think I deserve it.
"It's a big deal for me. It shows me that my teammates have trust in me and I just got to lead the system."
The high-school QB who arrived here as a safety before starting
as a freshman outside linebacker is the 238-pound inside backer now,
replacing departed 2011 senior and captain Cort Dennison as the quarterback of the Huskies' defense. Timu has gained 20 pounds for the role since last fall.
"Last year I was playing a little bit underweight and I was
getting tossed around by the linemen," Timu said. "Since I have put on
20-plus pounds it's given me a little more muscle and a little more to
take on blockers."
He is the Huskies' only linebacker currently healthy who played
the position last season. And he's the one who will be calling out San
Diego State's varying motions, formations and personnel groupings to a
young, aggressive UW defense.
Justin Wilcox, Washington's new defensive coordinator, says he "absolutely" sees the quarterback in Timu when he plays middle linebacker.
"The game of football makes sense to him," Wilcox said. "For some
guys it does and for some it doesn't. And that's a hard thing to judge
when you recruit, how does football in that guy's mind work? For John,
it's natural. You can see it. A lot of great quarterbacks are the same
"John does a lot for us. He is very important for us."
Wilcox doesn't believe he's ever had a sophomore captain of any
defense he's been on. Not at Oregon, where he played defensive back. Not
at Boise State or Tennessee, where he was defensive coordinator before
coming to UW in January.
"Yeah, it is rare," Wilcox said.
"He played a lot last year. His presence on the defense has a
calming effect for those guys. He knows what he is doing. He is
confident in what he is doing. He can help a guy get lined up if he
needs to. He moves in practices the right way.
"That's why they elected him captain."
The Huskies moved Timu inside during spring practice in April. Though he's not showing it, it all still feels different to him.
"It's new. It's all new," he said. "Last year we had Cort, and we relied on him heavily - which was our downfall.
"But I've learned to pick things up quickly. That's helped me out a lot."
So has his determination and refusal to be daunted by setbacks. Repeated, recently annual setbacks.
The youngest of four children by native Samoan parents accounted
for 20 touchdowns as a junior quarterback and safety at Long Beach
Jordan. That led to scholarship offers from Oregon, Hawaii and
Washington entering his senior season of 2009. But in the second game
that fall -- "seventh play," he said, remembering like it was last
weekend -- he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his
knee cutting awkwardly in the open field, without getting hit.
His parents are both unemployed, and he was playing without
insurance. It took him four months before he could secure his own
insurance for reconstructive knee surgery, after he waded through
bureaucratic paperwork and processing.
Goodbye scholarship offers. All but one, that is.
"Everyone pretty much backed off - except for the Huskies," Timu said.
UW recruiting coordinator and special-teams coach Jonny Nansen
went to Long Beach Jordan, and has friends who have known Timu since he
was a tyke. He wasn't about to abandon him.
"Oregon and Hawaii, 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 said. "I
kept positive, and he kept me going.
"He's the reason why I am here."
Then last September Timu dropped his head on a helmet-to-helmet
stop of California running back Isi Sofele for no gain in the third
quarter of UW's eventual, last-second victory. The game was delayed for
several scary minutes while Timu was strapped to a board and loaded into
an ambulance that drove him off the field. Cal coach Jeff Tedford
joined Sarkisian, eight medical personnel and the Huskies defense on the
field near the linebacker. An ambulance then drove him off the field to
the trauma center at Harborview Medical Center.
Was he afraid he may never play again?
"Had a flash of it. But as soon as I was able to move everything
was fine," he said. "I was a little weak. It kind of shocked me a little
bit, but as soon as I got in the ambulance I was able to move. So that
gave me hope."
A series of MRIs, CT-scans at Harborview that night confirmed
there was nothing structurally wrong in the head or neck. He was moving
at the hospital, called home to tell his worried family - some members
were in tears that Saturday after learning of his injury - that he was
OK. He walked out of Harborview that night with what he likened to "a
Still, he says, "it was scary." Yet he said he never had a why-me
moment. But it did take a week of practicing and then his return game
against Colorado in mid-October for him to feel back to himself, playing
with speed and without much caution or concern for injury.
"I had to stay positive and just keep grindin'," he says now.
"Injuries happen. They are part of the game. I just had to keep
Through the knee reconstruction, the scary injury and ambulance
ride, Timu remained as the Huskies have come to know him. Poised.
Assured. And reassuring.
We aren't likely to see Timu exploding in a spasm of celebration
while hovering over a fallen Aztec if he makes a big play Saturday
night. He's more old-school, more composed. He's more apt to get back to
the huddle so he can get the next call from Wilcox and put more
teammates in the right place for the next play.
"He's a really mature guy," Sarkisian said. "Sometimes he doesn't
show all the emotion some of us would like. But that calming effect, I
think, is how he's been able to persevere so much."
Sarkisian said Timu's poised demeanor has even helped Huskies coaches.
"There is some natural leadership that comes out of him that I
think guys recognize," the coach said. "It speaks volumes to his
From a smallish quarterback and potential Duck to a safety, then
outside linebacker, inside linebacker and now captain and key signal
caller to Washington's remade defense. Yes, John Timu is proud of his accomplishments not even midway through his Huskies career, though he's far from satisfied.
"Like I said, I've come a long way," he said. "Started at 185
(pounds) in high school. I've put on 20, 30 pounds in a couple years."
And now, middle linebacker and team co-captain as a sophomore.
"Yeah," he said, "it's a big shock to my friends back home."