By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The way he tells the story, Justin Glenn’s ascension from a University of Washington afterthought to the leader of the Huskies’ defense was simply a matter of chronology and happenstance. He showed up for his fifth and final season as a UW football player, and a bunch of young players were mostly looking to him for answers.
“It kind of fell into place over the offseason,” the safety from Mukilteo said.
If only it could be that simple.
Blood, sweat and tears were only a small part of Glenn’s rise to team leader, while it took broken bones, a fractured family and a sudden life change to teach him just what it means to be a leader.
“It has been crazy,” Glenn said of his UW career — both on and off the field. “It’s just been a roller coaster. … But I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s been fun. I’ve just got to be thankful for what I’ve done.”
One of only five remaining members of the 2008 team that went 0-12 and dropped the UW football program to unprecedented depths, Glenn has experienced plenty of ups and downs on the gridiron but has gained most of his maturity because of what has happened off the field.
In the span of a year that bridged his freshman and sophomore years at UW, Glenn found out that the coach who had recruited him to UW (Tyrone Willingham) had been fired, that his longtime girlfriend was pregnant, that he had to learn a new defense and impress a new coaching staff, that he’d broken his leg, and that his parents were getting divorced.
Suddenly, his whole world was caught up in a tornado of change.
“Everything happened right at once,” Glenn said earlier this week. “It was this big swarm of stuff.”
By the time his third year at UW began in 2010, he had become a father, both literally and figuratively, while helping ease the load on his mother and two younger siblings back in Mukilteo and also raising a son of his own, Julian.
That season, Glenn also was being thrust back onto the field before he was ready — physically, or mentally. It was the only time in Glenn’s football career that he felt under-prepared.
“That was the year when I was out there, and I didn’t have my confidence,” he said. “I didn’t feel like myself out on that field.”
Glenn played in eight games during the 2010 season but made very little impact. The starting jobs he once held at cornerback and safety were being manned by younger players with more potential. In some ways, it looked like the train was leaving the station with Glenn stuck at the terminal.
But the longtime Husky fan never gave up on his dream of being a leader on the UW defense. He continued to impress the coaches with his work ethic and off-field preparation, and the Huskies eventually found a role for Glenn as a nickel back last season.
What also happened along the way was that Glenn matured into a natural leader. His parents’ divorce and the blindsided push into fatherhood prepared him for his new role as the go-to voice of the UW defense.
“There was a lot going on in my life outside of football that a lot of people don’t know about — that affected me mentally,” he said. “It was rough. That first year when I came back, my leg wasn’t right, I wasn’t there mentally, and it took about a year-and-a-half, two years to get right, to get every phase of my life in order. That’s why now, everything’s kind of clicking and it’s shaping up to finish off strong.”
Glenn, who is in the process of having to learn his third defense since arriving at UW, continued his tradition of winning over coaching staffs and has the inside track on the starting strong safety job as the Huskies prepare for the Sept. 1 opener against San Diego State. Prized freshman Shaq Thompson will have to wait his turn, since Glenn has a hold on the starting job.
“When he gets in,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said, “there’s a comfort level with the coach when he knows what to do.”
Both coaches and teammates have been impressed by the way he goes about his business.
“He’s the leader” of the defense, linebacker Taz Stevenson said. “He brings the energy and the passion for the game every day. He works as hard as he can, and when other people see that, it rubs off on them.”
Said new defensive backs coach Keith Heyward: “He’s just a smart player. He’s played a lot of ball here. When you’ve got guys like that, then they’re going to understand concepts and what you’re talking about.”
In many ways, Glenn has used football to help push him through all the changes in his life. He said his parents’ divorce “hurts, but it’s life. I knew that life’s going to have to go on. I just tried to stay positive and keep going.”
Being the father of Julian, now 2 years old, also has been an unforeseen life experience.
“That was big, man,” he said of the unplanned pregnancy. “That just made me have to become a man a lot younger than most people do.”
A communications major who is taking his final class at UW this fall, Glenn has already started networking in the so-called real world to provide for his son and longtime girlfriend, Emily, whom he’s known since their days at Kamiak High School.
“Wherever I am, I’m going to be a hard-working guy,” he said. “I bring a lot of life experiences to the table.”
But Glenn still has a few more months of business to tend to on the football field. And he believes his senior year will be his most memorable season yet.
“To me, I’m thinking I have nothing to lose,” he said of his final year at UW. “I’m going to just go out there and play with reckless abandon, just go out there and give it my all every down. This is it. It’s my last year, and I’ve got to give it everything I have.”
Having gone from a wide-eyed kid coming out of Kamiak High School to a father and the leader of UW’s defense, Glenn couldn’t imagine his college experience going any other way.
“It really has been a roller coaster of emotions,” he said. “I never knew, coming in, what life was going to bring. But it is my life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way now.”