University of Washington

You DON'T want to be this guy

SAN DIEGO - Tattoos tell a significant story about those who wear them.

It’s no different with junior Cort Dennison, the University of Washington starting middle linebacker who is one Holiday Bowl game away from inheriting a defense of his own to lead.

All of Dennison’s blue-inked markings have spiritual themes. The one that lines his back is a cross with the words “Guardian Angels” written inside the image. It’s in memory of three dear family members who have died – ones he notes are looking over him.

On his right shoulder is the Latin phrase “Carpe Diem,” recognizing a close high school friend who died, and consequently has reminded him to seize every opportunity he can every day of his life.

The tattoo down his right arm is a Biblical passage out of the book of Isaiah (41:10). Surrounding the words is the image of a dark, violent storm.

“I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life – personal stuff – and I feel like I’ve been able to get through a lot of things,” Dennison said.

It’s the biggest reason why Dennison carries a chip on his shoulder. He notes he is the ultimate longshot – in football and in life – and he is OK with that. It motivates him. It has shaped him.

And Thursday, he gets to be part of one of the biggest underdogs of this bowl season. Oddsmakers have his Huskies as 14 points inferior to a vaunted Nebraska offense that demolished anything the Huskies tried to do in the first meeting – a 56-21 Nebraska victory in September in Seattle.

Dennison did not play in that game, sidelined by a concussion.

“He’s the main guy who tells us where to line up, and he’s the main guy who gives us all of our checks and everything,” UW safety Nate Williams said. “To have Cort back, he’s a really smart player and he helps out a lot.”

From the time he was a youth in Salt Lake City, Dennison was a sports nut. He learned math from adding up the scores in basketball games.

“He was never the kind of kid who watched a Disney movie,” said Marianne Dennison, his mother.

When Dennison began establishing himself as a standout in baseball and basketball as a teenager, he didn’t get his best piece of advice from his father or close friend down the street.

It came from a family friend: John Stockton, the NBA Hall of Famer from Spokane who played with the Utah Jazz. His four sons – Houston, Michael, David and Samuel – were some of Dennison’s best friends growing up.

“When I wasn’t around to say things to Cort, it was John who took him under his wing,” Marianne said. “And one of those things he taught him was lead by example.”

Because of the Stockton family, Dennison almost chose basketball as his athletic pursuit.

“I was always around hoop,” Dennison said.

Dennison was an exceptional baseball player, a good hitter. Many thought that would be his route. And when he was also voted an all-state basketball player at Judge Memorial High, some figured he could play basketball in college, too.

But when his growth spurt stopped, and his muscles began bulging, Dennison chose football as his athletic pursuit – much to the chagrin of doubters. One local high school coach projected Dennison as nothing more than a reserve linebacker at the NCAA Division I level.

Even his mother thought otherwise: “If you had asked me if football was the sport I thought he’d play at the next level,” Marianne said, “I would have said, ‘No.’ ”

Coaches at Utah – the college his parents attended – ignored him. So did other prominent programs in the area, and in nearby Nevada and California. Instead, it was the University of Washington which showed the most interest in him as a senior in 2007.

“I’ve always been an underdog. It is how it is. Don’t know why it is, but I like being overlooked because it’s a challenge to me,” Dennison said. “I’m as competitive as it gets. If somebody writes me off, I’m going to take it as a slap in the face, and I’m going to come right back at him.”

Dennison redshirted his first season, but was named the defensive scout team player of the year. In 2008, he played in 10 games, mostly on special teams. And last season, the first under coach Steve Sarkisian, he saw limited snaps until a shoulder injury to E.J. Savannah thrust Dennison into the starting lineup at the midway point.

“When we were playing really good defense those last two games, Cort was playing,” Sarkisian said. “We knew right then he could do this (be a Pacific-10 Conference starter). And we slid him into the middle backer slot this season, and he’s adjusted fine. He’s a really smart kid.” Todd Milles: 253-597-8442