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Austin Seferian-Jenkins strives to seize day after reckless night

  • By Manouk Akopyan NFL.com
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Austin Seferian-Jenkins has meticulously mapped every major step of his life with detailed precision.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins' lifelong goals still decorate his childhood room to this day. (Courtesy of Linda Seferian)
Austin Seferian-Jenkins' lifelong goals still decorate his childhood room to this day. (Courtesy of Linda Seferian)

Strips of blue masking tape with inscribed goals intricately line the wall of his childhood home in Fox Island, Washington, like seeds planted in a garden.

Be a good brother and son. ... Make Gig Harbor High School's varsity football and basketball teams. ... Be a good teammate. ... Play college ball at the University of Washington. ... Break school records. ... Be a role model. ... Play in the NFL.

When Seferian-Jenkins' name is called in Radio City Music Hall this weekend -- somewhere between pick Nos. 20 and 40 overall, according to most draft prognosticators -- another tape target will have materialized. But certainly not out of thin air.

One year ago at this time, the 6-foot-5 1/2, 262-pound tight end was waiting tables for $10 an hour. Seferian-Jenkins had returned to Sebi's Bistro for a second summer, working the only paying job he's ever had. If tips were good, he'd pull in close to $200 a weekend. He spent the summer serving tables and taking the necessary steps to overcome a new mark on his reputation. He sought some semblance of normalcy, having just pleaded guilty to drunken-driving charges after taking his SUV over a sidewalk and into a tree.

Those close to him called it a mental lapse that was out of character. He was a good kid doing everything right. Until one day, he didn't.

* * * * *

With Seferian-Jenkins rapidly approaching the biggest day of his life, evaluators are busy measuring his game-changing talent against a potential character concern. Will this athletic wonder -- a red-zone terror who has drawn comparisons to Rob Gronkowski -- provide instant returns? Or is there a risk of another mishap?

Seferian-Jenkins is confident he will reward the team that believes in him, and that his ill-fated decision was an isolated incident for a person who has long been praised for his integrity and maturity.

"I think people make a really big deal that I'm this big character-issue guy and I've got red flags. I'm not," he said. "I made a bad mistake drinking and driving. It's really unfortunate that I did, and I wish I didn't. It was a great learning experience. It's not indicative of my character.

"You have setbacks in your life, and adversity. You can be discouraged about it or have courage to get through it and be better."

Twenty years old when the incident occurred, Seferian-Jenkins strived to embrace accountability. He wanted to redeem himself -- and he had a piece of tape for that, too. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. found a place on the wall:

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

Seferian-Jenkins tasked himself with setting the public embarrassment aside and speaking at a Seattle-area high school. He wanted to be a positive influence. He also wanted to do what he loves most: helping others. It is a trait inherited from his parents. Mother Linda is a social worker and family therapist; father John, a retired train conductor, served in the military.

"I love donating my time and serving other people," Seferian-Jenkins said. "Just seeing the faces of people in need light up when they see you. ... There is no way I can put it into words. You feel like you did something right."

Encouraged by his mother (Seferian-Jenkins' parents divorced when he was in the second grade), the American ethnic studies major routinely frequented hospitals throughout his college tenure, hoping to provide joy to those who needed it.

One such trip in 2012 led him to Seattle Children's Hospital, where he met a 17-year-old diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma. Within minutes, Ruby Smith, with a feeding tube running through her nose, asked for and received a date commitment to her prom. Mere days after her cancer relapsed, Seferian-Jenkins brought the prom to Ruby's hospital room. One week later, the highly aggressive tumor took Smith's life.

Then a sophomore at Washington, Seferian-Jenkins says the sequence of events brought a new appreciation to his own life by furthering perspective and personal growth -- qualities his mother always helped with along the way.

"(My mother) really has put compassion into my heart," Seferian-Jenkins said. "She taught me my work ethic, how to care about others, open up my heart to them and love others."

Steve Sarkisian, who recruited the U.S. Army All-American to Washington and coached him for three seasons, confirms these sentiments.

"With Austin, it was not always about catching touchdowns and football; it was about his role to the community of Seattle," said Sarkisian, who accepted the USC head-coaching job in December. "He's a really good kid, and quite giving."

But the kid always had dreams of his own.

* * * * *

When Austin was in the sixth grade, he took to the wall and scribbled a simple -- yet specific -- goal: "Win John Mackey Award."

The award is presented annually to the most outstanding tight end in college football. But Seferian-Jenkins' attraction to the honor went beyond this simple distinction; he was in awe of the hardware's namesake. Seferian-Jenkins says he's long been enthralled by everything John Mackey stood for, as a player and as a person. At Washington, he even wore No. 88 in honor of the Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Seferian-Jenkins came close to achieving his sixth-grade ambition with a monster 2012 campaign for the Huskies. Named one of three finalists for the Mackey Award, he ultimately lost out to Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert.

The following year, adversity struck.

After his DUI arrest in March, Seferian-Jenkins was suspended for the season opener. And even when he returned, the eye-popping numbers from 2012 stayed behind. The pro-style offense Seferian-Jenkins had thrived in was a thing of the past. In 2013, the Huskies transitioned to a more up-tempo, spread attack that featured a heavy dose of running back Bishop Sankey. His receptions (from 69 in 2012 to 36 in '13) and receiving yards (from 852 to 450) plummeted. But at the same time, he accepted an increased blocking role and continued to hit pay dirt, scoring a touchdown in eight of his 12 games.

"I thought he was very giving his last season, developing and helping some of the younger players through the hard times, which I thought was very impressive of him," Sarkisian said.

And in December, Seferian-Jenkins received an email from the Mackey Award's selection committee. He was shocked. He didn't know how to respond, so he forwarded the dispatch to his mother.



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"It was almost surreal for him," Linda Seferian said. "From such an early age, he followed through with being a tight end. He loved the position. Austin was like, 'I don't know, mom. I got an email saying I won. Do you think this is real?' It was his lifelong goal, but he didn't think he was going to get it."

He did indeed, edging out Florida State's Nick O'Leary and North Carolina's Eric Ebron, who is widely considered the No. 1 tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sarkisian, a father figure to Seferian-Jenkins during their time together in Seattle, couldn't have been prouder. He says the tight end dealt with the DUI transgression like a man and continually put the interests of the team above his own during the 9-4 campaign -- Washington's best since 2000.

"I think things became a little clearer for what's important," Sarkisian said. "Austin is a leader, without a doubt."

In the postgame celebration following Washington's 31-16 bowl victory over BYU, Seferian-Jenkins declared for the draft.

He felt that he was primed for the NFL. He also wanted to begin providing for his mother, who worked several jobs throughout his adolescence to raise Austin and his younger sister, Michaela.

"I just want to support my mom," he said. "I have everything I need. I don't need to buy anything."

* * * * *

What remains to be seen is whether Seferian-Jenkins will be selected on the draft's opening night or get the call early in Day 2.

At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Ebron further cemented himself as the darling of this tight end class with a 4.60 40-yard dash. Meanwhile, Seferian-Jenkins suffered another setback: Doctors discovered a hairline stress fracture in his left foot, preventing him from working out. Seferian-Jenkins, who said he didn't even know about the injury, immediately underwent surgery and stresses he'll be 100 percent recovered by the time offseason training activities begin. Even with the ailment, he's managed to further sculpt his frame by shedding 20 pounds since January. And just last month, he erased many doubts about his health and speed in 4.56 seconds -- his reported 40 time in a workout for the Jets.

Sarkisian, along with an array of analysts and scouts, envision the pass catcher's versatility and athleticism translating very well to the NFL. Armed with an 80-inch wingspan, explosiveness, vertical ability and body control, the mammoth specimen credits basketball -- he also played hoops during his freshman year at Washington before fully concentrating on football -- for helping him develop into the most fashionable kind of NFL tight end: a matchup nightmare.

The scariest part?

"Austin has not reached his potential yet, and I think that's the beauty of drafting a player like him," Sarkisian said. "He's still got plenty of room to improve."

NFL Media draft analyst Mike Mayock agrees, saying Seferian-Jenkins "could play in any scheme" (before adding that there's still room for improvement in his blocking).

Seferian-Jenkins himself says he does similar things to Gronkowski, but molds his game more after Heath Miller.

"I don't want to compare myself to anyone else, but I definitely have the best hands in the class," Seferian-Jenkins said. "No question about that."

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Whichever day he's drafted on, Seferian-Jenkins will be at his Fox Island home, mere steps away from the blue tape that's driven him to this point.

"It's not in my control where they draft me, but I'm in control of what I do after the day they draft me," Seferian-Jenkins said. "I'm going to get the best out of myself. You'll never hear anything (bad) about me ever again. Ten years from now, they won't even remember a DUI."

Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan

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