Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Sports / Recreation

Future Ram lives, thrives, with Asperger's

April 27, 2011
By Tony Phifer

Justin Hansen, an outstanding all-around athlete from Longmont High School, will play football for CSU in the fall despite living with Asperger's syndrome.

Longmont High School senior Justin Hansen will play football at CSU in the fall. Hansen is a standout athlete and student despite living with Asperger's syndrome.By almost any measure, Justin Hansen’s athletic accomplishments are outstanding.

A senior at Longmont High School, Hansen was an all-Colorado selection by the Denver Post as an offensive lineman in football. He recently finished sixth in the state tournament in the heavyweight division even though this was his first season in wrestling. And he currently ranks among the state’s best in the shot put and discus for the Trojans’ track and field team.

The 6-foot-5, 280-pound Hansen is also a standout student who had completed all of his core academic courses prior to his senior year and currently is enrolled in advanced placement courses. According to his high school football coach, Hansen is a respected and well-liked member of the student body.

When you look at his list of accomplishments, it’s easy to understand why CSU coaches were so excited when Hansen committed to play football at CSU starting in fall 2011.

What makes this story so interesting, however, is that Hansen has accomplished all of these feats while living with Asperger’s syndrome.

Athleticism not a typical trait

Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder that impacts behavioral patterns and can make social interaction very difficult. While people with Asperger’s often are high academic achievers, the disorder also is often associated with physical clumsiness.

Hansen, who excelled in reading and spelling but struggled socially in his youth, was diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s while attending grade school in Arlington, Wash. His parents, Tom and Kara Hansen, had no previous exposure to Asperger’s but they knew one thing: their son was gifted athletically.

Overcoming obstacles

When the family moved to Longmont in 2005, it was imperative to find Justin a high school that was the right fit, both academically and athletically. His parents chose Longmont High, and it didn’t take long for Justin to make his presence known. He started Longmont’s first state playoff game as a freshman defensive tackle, and was a starting offensive tackle as a sophomore. He started on both offense and defense as a junior and a senior.

“Early on, it was hard for him,” Longmont coach Doug Johnson said. “Things didn’t always shake out on the field the way Justin had been taught, and that was hard for him. But his desire to succeed was very strong, and the coaches who worked with him learned that if they were patient with him, Justin would figure things out and then become very good at the things he was taught.”

Going into his junior season, Justin already was attracting attention from numerous college recruiters, who marveled at his combination of size and agility. CSU defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Larry Kerr first noticed Hansen when Longmont’s team attended a summer camp on campus, and he very quickly was convinced the talented lineman could play for the Rams.

In addition to his football skills, Hansen was one of the top heavyweight wrestlers in Colorado and ranks among the state leaders in the shot put.“I wasn’t familiar with Asperger’s and how it could affect him as a player and a student,” Kerr said. “But his coach (Johnson) told us that Justin is incredibly focused and works hard not to make mistakes. Knowing that he had persevered as a student, teammate and football player really made an impact on me. I saw what he had overcome and was very encouraged, and I became convinced that he could succeed at CSU.”

Finding a home at CSU

By the time he had decided to attend CSU, San Diego State, Washington, Kansas and several other major colleges had expressed interest in signing him to a letter-of-intent. In the end, though, it was the relationship built by Kerr, fellow assistant coach Pat Meyer and head coach Steve Fairchild that convinced Justin and his parents that CSU was the right place.

“The first thing coach Fairchild said to me was that if Justin came to CSU, he would make sure he gets his diploma,” Kara said. “That made a big impression on me, because the other schools always talked about football over academics. When we talked to CSU’s coaches, we always felt like we were part of a family. We felt very comfortable when Justin decided to come to CSU.”

Johnson, too, was pleased when Justin decided we wanted to be a Ram.

“I have worked with CSU’s coaches for many years, and the thing that has always impressed me about them is that CSU is an honest program. They say what they’re going to do, and they do what they say,” he said. “I think the match of CSU and Justin is perfect. They are going to take the time to help Justin adjust and they will be rewarded for it. He’s going to be a player they really appreciate.”

CSU welcomes students with Asperger's

While CSU’s coaches have not worked with a player with Asperger’s, the campus has opened its arms to welcome students living with disorders within the autism spectrum. Several programs are in place to help those students succeed both academically and socially.

Dr. Lee Rosen, a professor of psychology at CSU since 1984, said he has never heard of a major-college athlete with Asperger’s, but added that being part of a team will help Justin adjust to college life.

“I would think he’s going to have a great time here because this is a very supportive environment,” said Rosen, who was worked with students with Asperger’s, High Functioning Autism and other social skills problems for the past 15 years. “CSU embraces diversity of all types and holds that as a strong institutional value. The school has made special efforts to include students within the autism spectrum as part of that diversity, and that will make his time here better than it might have been at another university.”

Rosen said Hansen, like all similar students, likely will face struggles – particularly when it comes to fitting in socially. Because he will be part of a 100-member team and supported by numerous coaches, however, his transition should be much easier than for many students.

“Asperger’s doesn’t put a cap on how far a person can go, but it might put some parameters on what direction they have to take,” he said. “The social stuff is hard, but if he can follow his passion and his special interests, those will be areas of excellence for him.”

Ready for the challenge

Justin, who plans to study computer science and business, knows he is facing a challenge. He’s ready, however, to embrace the unknown.

“When it comes to academics, I’m taking advanced placement courses in high school, which should give me a good idea of what college courses will be like,” he said. “As for football, I think it will be like high school times four. I know I’ll have to start on the bottom rung of the ladder and work my way up, but I’m confident I will make it. I’m ready to take that next step in my sports career and my education. Really, I can’t lose.”