There aren’t many 21-year olds who would or could do what I just watched Austin Seferian-Jenkins do.
Stand in front of 700 juniors and seniors at Ballard High School, young men and women almost his peers, 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. Of being humbled inconceivably by being “just another number” in an orange jumpsuit while in jail this past summer. He talked of feeling before his arrest, while coming off a big sophomore season for UW, he was “invincible” and that being arrested “can’t happen to me.”
"Yeah, I’m nervous. I’ve never done this before," he told me this afternoon as the teenagers, all recently of driving age, and their teachers packed the school’s auditorium.
They sat in the aisles and even on the steps to the stage to listen to the Huskies’ junior and finalist for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s premier tight end describe the night March 9 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 in 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 today to the Ballard students.
Seferian-Jenkins, who was alone in his vehicle and wasn’t wearing a seat belt, smashed his head almost through his windshield. He suffered a concussion — and worse blows personally, to his family and to his reputation. He was also suspended for five months of the offseason and 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.
"I have a criminal record now. Coming up here from where I came from, from Fox Island, Washington, I never thought I’d have a criminal record."
The visit and talk was Seferian-Jenkins’ idea. He’s already completed his community-service requirements mandated after his guilty plea to DUI in Seattle Municipal Court 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.
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 it would reveal a sweaty, black shirt underneath and thus how nervous he was. Worked off a sheet of paper with bullet points to which he referred but did not often, 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 by his mother Linda, who “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 Linda, who has been a social worker, worked in schools and been a behavioral specialist, was in Las Vegas with Michaela for a youth volleyball camp at the time of Austin’s arrest. He told of the helplessness his mother later explained to him she felt of knowing he had crashed his car and had a head injury but not being able to talk with her only son because he had lost his phone in the incident. Austin told the Ballard students about the humiliation he felt of his sister quitting 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. "Myself decisions made my mom panicked.
"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.
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 day or night.
"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. 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."
The entire, tiered auditorium, 700 students and teachers, sat silent, intently listening to each of his steady words.
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. The first was Kelly Jones, mother of Kellen “Bobo” Jones, a former Ballard High School football player and 2008 BHS graduate, who died in 2010 a few blocks south of his old school as a passenger in a car driven by a drunken friend.
"If they would let me come here to speak every week, I would," Jones said. "It’s that important."
Michl, the Seattle Police Department’s DUI-unit officer who rushed to the scene of Seferian-Jenkins’ crash and assessed him as under the influence, also spoke.
"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."
Kirk, the attorney, spoke of the legal and financial consequences of DUI.
In the end, a still-nervous but somewhat relieved looking Seferian-Jenkins looked at me backstage and said, “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.
"I was thinking maybe there’d be a few hundred kids. They kept pouring in and pouring in," he said.
"It felt good to talk about it. It felt really good to talk about it.
"I was in their seat three years ago. If it can happen to me, it can happen to any one of them."