Matt L. Stephens, a journalist for the Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colorado, can’t believe the transformation Justin Hansen has made.
Seven years ago, Stephens went to a Colorado State football camp for high schoolers and talked (well, tried to talk) to the 16-year-old. It was a favor to his parents Thomas and Kara Hansen. They hoped he might help their son earn a college scholarship.
Justin wouldn’t look Stephens in the eyes and getting him to talk was agony. He’s a big guy at six-foot-five, not out of the ordinary for a defensive lineman. But he also has Asperger’s, a condition on the autism spectrum that hampers empathy and communication skills.
It accounted for his uncomfortable behavior that day.
Now, talking to Stephens for the first time in years, Justin (who did get that scholarship to Colorado State) shook his hand and looked him directly in the eye. Stephens even had to cut off the young athlete’s chatter at one point. The change has been remarkable, and Justin and his parents attribute it to football and the supportive program at Colorado State.
It’s a far cry from his younger years.
Justin was always a big kid, but his size didn’t stop others from noticing his behavior. It didn’t stop bullying. His fashion choices (basketball shorts, t-shirt, and high tops worn every day), unkempt hair, and withdrawn personality made him a target for other kids.
Justin had a few close friends–but not many. He would have been perfectly content to pass his days in the basement with his best friend Cole. However, Thomas made him play football. At first, he hated it. He hated practice and his coaches, and he thought Thomas was being unfair. It turns out that his father knew what he was doing, though.
After a while, he started to like football. He was good at it, and it provided a way for him to unleash his frustration.
“From the initial parts, my dad believed in me a lot more than I did,” Justin told the Coloradoan. “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.”
Even though his parents were excited about the opportunity at Colorado State, Kara worried about her son. She wouldn’t be there to take care of him. She also worried about how he would deal with his teammates and the coaching staff.
Admittedly, there were some rough patches in the beginning. Justin’s grades weren’t fantastic, and he had trouble managing money. That could be said of many college freshmen, though. After that year, he got things under control.
As for interacting with the team, Kara really didn’t have much to worry about. His teammates were exceptionally supportive. By junior year, they convinced him to go out with them on the weekends and socialize. Jim McElwain, one of his coaches, always had an open door and would invite Justin to stop by and talk. These seemingly small actions meant a great deal.
Justin benefitted from the supportive environment, and it helped him make some positive changes.
“CSU gave him a purpose and built up his confidence with what he’s been able to accomplish,” Kara said.
Justin hopes to accomplish much more, too. He wants to play in the NFL, even if it’s just on a practice squad. Stephens asked what he would do if that didn’t happen. The answer was a bit surprising for someone with Asperger’s.
“I know this is going to sound cliché,” he said. “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.”
As Justin continues his journey, he has message for young people:
“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.”