Nov. 27, 2013
After 11 years playing football, senior wide receiver and special teams leader Mike Jensen talks to Skip Myslenski about what he'll miss most about the game after he takes the field for the final time Saturday at Illinois.
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His mind was engaged last week as he prepared to play Michigan State, and his emotions were then centered on Senior Day and his last appearance at Ryan Field. But now that game is past, as are the ceremonies that preceded it, and at last 'Cats wideout Mike Jensen is all alone. He is alone on the stool in front of his locker, slowly stripping off tape and shedding his uniform, and suddenly he is blindsided by a sobering thought. "I," he here thinks, "only have one week left to play this game."
"After 11 years of playing it and learning it, it's a weird realization that that might be the truth. It's interesting," he will say days later.
How's it leave you?
"It's a mix of feelings. It's something I'm going to miss a lot because I've spent so much time doing it and it's been ... athletics have been, a huge part of my life. I tried to make football not be the thing that defined me, so it's not like I'm losing everything. I'm grateful for that, that I have other things going on in my life and other opportunities to look forward to. But it's going to hurt. I'm going to miss it."
Eons ago, while researching a story, we found ourselves opposite Mike Adamle in a booth in Shaw's Crab House. He was once a Wildcats All-American, was once a running back for the Bears, was then -- as now -- a successful sports broadcaster. So he had clearly gone on with his life and seized other opportunities. Yet here, a full nine years removed from his last NFL game, there was still an ineffable look of longing in his eyes as he said, "When I wake up on Sunday mornings in the fall, my pulse is racing, my palms are sweaty, it's like Pavlov's dog. I know it's Sunday. I know it's brisk and there's a breeze in the air. It's an incredible hook (playing football). It's a natural high like no other. Sometimes I wish I never played it."
Mike Jensen first played tackle football in the seventh grade. But its siren call hooked him much earlier, infected him back when he was just a tyke attending the high school games of older brothers Steve and Dave. He went with his best friend to these affairs and, soon enough, they wearied of viewing, gathered up younger brothers of his brothers' teammates and started a game of their own.
Later, as he developed into an all-state defensive back at The Bishop's School in California, he likened himself to John Lynch, the former NFL All-Pro safety (Bucs, Broncos, Patriots) notorious for his aggressive style. But here, while playing in the dirt behind the stands of a high school field, he was the elusive Barry Sanders, the magical running back of the Detroit Lions. "He seemed cool," Jensen recalls with a grin. "He had the moves and I tried to follow up with that. And a soft-spoken guy, seemed really cool. So he was my favorite."
The game itself was soon his favorite and now he relentlessly pursued his passion. He just would not give it up, not even when he was spurned by major college recruiters, and so he joined the `Cats as a walk on, as a lowly name on the depth chart. All around him were acclaimed performers, performers who were bigger and stronger and faster, yet he labored relentlessly, toiled diligently, persevered until he both earned a scholarship and a spot in the wideout rotation. "I think I fell in love with football simply because it was part of my life for so long," he will say when asked what kept him going.
"I think I fell in love with football watching my brothers play it in high school and have a lot of success. Growing up I was like, that is something I want to do. This sport is amazing. Every week it would bring our family together and we would go watch the games. I was like, `This is an awesome sport, and I love to play it, and I love to watch it.'"
Those eons ago, while reflecting on his experiences, Mike Adamle also said, "It's a very tight world on a team. It's not a good feeling being on the outside."
It is difficult to truly know what you miss until it is gone and that is not yet the case for Mike Jensen. He and all the `Cats still have a Saturday date at Illinois. But he can try. "I know I'm really going to miss the guys on the team and the time in the locker room and the time here at practice. All that, all the relationships," he will say here. "Then in terms of the game, I'm going to miss. I don't know" -- and here he pauses -- "It's a special game. It's" -- and here there is another pause -- "it's the ultimate team game in my mind. It's physical. It's fast. There's a lot of strategy, and it requires everyone to do his part in order for it to work. I'm going to miss that team unity it takes to be successful."
He pauses now, and then laughs out loud, and finally adds this. "Outside of that," he adds, "I'm going to miss the ability to hit people for free."
Last May, when they traveled to Lincoln for the Big Ten Tournament, the women on the Northwestern softball team did not know just when they would play their last game. The postseason was still a possibility here, yet their end came quickly with a 3-0 loss to Wisconsin in the quarterfinals.
Mike Jensen could not be there for that game. He had other commitments on campus. But he was there when Kristin Scharkey, his wife and the centerfielder on that team, returned home with her career so suddenly over. "She went through it. It was tough," recalls Jensen.
Did he console her?
"A little bit. When she got back, we spent some time and talked about it. But she did really well with it, actually. Which is awesome. I really commend her for that."
He has a touchstone, then, for the stark reality that now confronts him, an experienced voice there to advise him and a buffer to deflect the blow that comes with the game's absence.
"Have fun with it and enjoy the whole experience. Just go out there and do your thing," she has told him this week.
"That building up from her is awesome," Mike Jensen then says with a soft smile. "It's cool to get guidance from someone who's already been through it."
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