No Limits: CSU Football player with Asperger’s did the impossible
Communication Studies | November 19, 2015
By Matt L. Stephens, as appearing in the Coloradoan
Justin Hansen is 16 years old and doesn’t want to say a word. He won’t make eye contact.
We’re at Hughes Stadium. It’s the middle of July. The Colorado sun has been shining down on us for hours and I want to be done covering this CSU football camp and go home. But I can’t. Because I promised Justin Hansen’s dad I’d meet his son. And he doesn’t want to look me in the eye.
He was a big kid then. Nearly 6-foot-5 heading into his junior year at Longmont High School. Other than size, little stood out compared to the other defensive linemen trying to earn a scholarship to Colorado State University that day. So I’m tolerating this sunburn as a courtesy to a polite parent who hopes my connection to Steve Fairchild’s coaching staff will help pay for his son’s college education.
Justin doesn’t remember this story. He apologized when I brought it up last week during our first conversation in seven years. But he had no recollection.
“Tunnel vision,” his mother, Kara, calls it.
Human interaction has always been difficult for him. If his dad hadn’t dragged him out of the house and to the football field in grade school, Justin would be in his parents’ basement playing video games. Strategy games. Grand strategy allowing him to study logistics and take time to consider his actions and their consequences. This kind of pro-con analysis spills into reality and makes him hesitant to conduct our interview.
The hesitancy comes with Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum that impedes empathy, communication and motor skills. But as we talked about his maturation over the past five years at CSU, he looks directly at me and shakes my hand, tells me he’s excited about the snow in the forecast and didn’t need a cue to laugh at my jokes.
This is the kid with Asperger’s?
“It’s known around the locker room that you don’t cross Big J,” CSU tight end Kivon Cartwright said.
“Let’s just say you don’t do that. The passion he plays with on the field? He’ll also take that in the back alley.”
Justin was surprised to hear this. Boys will be boys and have their “tussles,” but he never thought he won any of those skirmishes. He’s used to having to defend himself. Being the biggest kid on his block growing up didn’t make him immune from being bullied at the bus stop. Kids prey on their peers’ slightest deviations from the norm, and Justin’s fashion choice of a T-shirt, gym shorts and high tops (every day), his rarely groomed hair and his introverted mannerisms made him a target.
He never had many friends. Most kids went out of their way to not invite him to birthday parties. And if he wasn’t hanging out with Colt Van Eaton, whom he met the day he moved to Colorado from Washington in seventh grade and with whom he remains best friends, he was playing football. Because dad forced him to.
It’s a timeless tale. That of an overbearing parent wanting their kid to succeed at athletics. And in his youth, that’s how Justin felt. He hated football. Hated the coaches who didn’t want to deal with a player diagnosed with Asperger’s. Who told him he’d never be smart enough to play organized sports. Being out there was a chore to please his father, Thomas, who’d later coach him at Longmont.
But after a couple of years of playing, he realized he enjoyed it. And he was good at it. And those pent up emotions from being picked on in the morning waiting for the bus? He could unleash them on the unsuspecting sucker sitting across the line and be applauded for it.
Dad wasn’t trying to live vicariously through Justin; he knew what he was doing.
“From the initial parts, my dad believed in me a lot more than I did,” Justin said. “There have been a lot of people who didn’t believe in me. That problem is not unique to me. There are a lot of people with my condition who are told they can’t do something. But with the help of my supporting family, I’ve been able to reach great heights, almost the highest a football player can go. I’m still surprised to this day how far I’ve come.”
CSU was one of two schools to offer him a Division I scholarship, and given its proximity to home, a half-hour up U.S. Highway 287, it was an easy decision over San Diego State. For Justin, and more importantly, for mom. Because before Justin celebrated senior day at Hughes Stadium last weekend, before he became a starting CSU defensive lineman, before he built the courage to finally move out of the dorms as a senior, Kara had her concerns.
Never doubts. Concerns. Moms worry. She wouldn’t be there to remind him to do his homework or laundry or manage his checking account. And what if students make fun of him like they did when was young? And his teammates? Will they alienate him?
Five years after sending her son off to college, those fears feel silly.
So there were money-management issues early on, and Justin joked about his grade-point average as a freshman; those problems are universal to college students, and they corrected themselves. Inclusion was never an issue within the locker room. If anything, his teammates and three head coaches — Fairchild, Jim McElwain and Mike Bobo — are the reason he never quit football and returned to his parents’ basement.
Until junior year, he’d only leave his dorm for class, practice or dinner. But teammates convinced him to come out with them on the weekends (Grateful as Thomas and Kara are to watch their son grow, they have no interest in learning what happened during those excursions.), and McElwain regularly invited him to his office for no reason other than to discuss life.
Asperger’s didn’t make Justin broken. He didn’t need fixing. He was just different. But coming to CSU and meeting the perfect blend of people changed him. And he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“CSU gave him a purpose and built up his confidence with what he’s been able to accomplish,” Kara said. “He’s always heard what’s ‘impossible’ for him to do, and it’s such a proud thing for us as parents to see him push through that and give a collective ‘FU’ to all those people who told us he was weird, or teased and bullied him.
“Oh yeah? Well now look where he is.”
Justin Hansen has 36 career tackles and hopes to play in the NFL. Not the Arena Football League. Not sign a contract with some foreign team. The NFL. Doesn’t have to be the active roster, he’ll take the practice squad. Just to prove he can.
He’s been told his entire life what he can’t do. I wouldn’t dare add myself to that list. But if you don’t reach the NFL, I asked, what’s next?
“I know this is going to sound cliché,” he prefaced. “But I would like to go somewhere and meet people. I’m not sure what kind of job that would be. Socializing took time to develop. Talking to people could be very difficult. Like all things, social skills take practice. After sharpening my skills as an athlete, I’d like to sharpen my skills as a person.”
Seven years ago he wouldn’t tell me his name. Last week, I had to cut him off.
Someone with Asperger’s wanting to meet as many strangers as they can isn’t cliché, it’s the anomaly anyone diagnosed strives for. And Justin did it.
“What I’ve come to learn from talking to people is that everyone is different and they all have something to teach you. The places they’ve gone, the things they’ve seen, what they’ve done may be very different from what you’re used to,” Justin said. “Who knows? Maybe they have a great story to tell.”
And Justin’s story, what can it teach?
“People face great challenges in work, love, leisure. I want people to remember to never give up, to keep an open mind. Don’t get discouraged, because you never know what the future may hold for you. There are always new possibilities. Please don’t give up.”
For insight and analysis on athletics around Northern Colorado and the Mountain West, follow sports columnist Matt L. Stephens at twitter.com/mattstephens and facebook.com/stephensreporting.