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A Fear Of Flying
Ron Fimrite
April 12, 1976
Jackie Jensen was the ultimate hero, an all-sports star who married a storybook girl. But the Golden Boy's world and marriage collapsed, and his shining baseball career ended in torment brought on by a dread of air travel. Today Jensen is a college coach and a changed man.
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April 12, 1976

A Fear Of Flying

Jackie Jensen was the ultimate hero, an all-sports star who married a storybook girl. But the Golden Boy's world and marriage collapsed, and his shining baseball career ended in torment brought on by a dread of air travel. Today Jensen is a college coach and a changed man.

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He was the Golden Boy, and never had he glittered so brightly as on his wedding day, Oct. 16, 1949. Jackie Jensen was 22 years old. He was blond and broad-shouldered; his body looked as if it had been sculpted instead of grown. He had been an All-America in football and baseball at the University of California, acclaimed as both the greatest running back in the school's history and its finest all-round athlete. Even the legend of Brick Muller and the Wonder Teams paled before his brilliance. The previous spring the Golden Boy had signed an extraordinary $75,000 contract to play baseball with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Four days before the wedding he and teammate Billy Martin had been sold to the Yankees for a reported $100,000. It was a dream realized, for in a few months Jensen would be playing alongside his idol, Joe DiMaggio, in the Yankee outfield.

Jensen's bride, Zoe Ann Olsen, shone almost as brightly as he. She was only 18, but she had won 14 national diving championships and a silver medal in the 1948 Olympics. She was blonde and intelligent, and as pretty as he was handsome. The San Francisco Chronicle called them "the sports world's most famous sweethearts." Together they looked like a Nordic god and goddess.

Oakland motorcycle police escorted the city's favorite son and daughter from the ceremony at the First Presbyterian Church to a reception at the plush Athens Athletic Club, where they had first met. She had trained there; he had been the lifeguard. More than 1,000 persons attended the reception, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, songwriter Jimmy (I'm in the Mood for Love) McHugh, Olympic diving champion Vicki Draves, Cal Football Coach Lynn (Pappy) Waldorf, most of Jensen's Rose Bowl teammates, many of the Oaks and dozens of other nationally known sports figures.

"It was the wedding of the century," says Frank Brunk, Jensen's football teammate and fraternity brother. "They were on top and they had the whole world in front of them." "I thought the bubble would never burst," says Jensen. The young bride and groom drove off under a hailstorm of rice in a yellow Cadillac convertible toward a golden future.

Late in April 1961 Zoe Ann went to the Reno railroad station to meet the City of San Francisco arriving from Chicago. She was there in response to a cryptic wire received at the Jensen home in nearby Lake Tahoe: CANCEL L.A. PLANS. ARRIVING ON TRAIN IN RENO. She burst into tears when her husband stepped off the train. Seen through the steam, he looked ghostly, a tired and troubled man who was old for his years. He had quit baseball the previous year at the height of his success. During six seasons as a star outfielder with the Boston Red Sox, he had driven in more runs than anyone in the American League, including Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. But the marriage that had begun so auspiciously was deteriorating, and as a side effect, Jensen's merely irritating fear of flying had escalated into a demoralizing phobia.

The year away from baseball had neither salvaged Jensen's marriage nor cured his neurosis. In 1961 he was trying a comeback. But a season's absence from the game had diminished his skills, and by the end of the first month he was hitting .130 with only one run batted in. He had avoided flying whenever possible—by driving the 700 miles from Boston to Detroit on one occasion—but it was an exhausting regimen, and the phobia remained unconquered. The physical and mental ordeal finally had proved too arduous.

On April 29, with the Red Sox playing in Cleveland and scheduled to fly to Kansas City, Jensen bolted the team and headed west. He came to seek the ministrations of a nightclub hypnotist named Arthur Ellen, who had a reputation for succeeding where psychiatrists had failed in relieving aerophobia. Jackie and Zoe Ann drove from Reno to Las Vegas, where Ellen was closing out an engagement. After several days of hypnotic sessions, Jensen was able to rejoin the Red Sox in Los Angeles.

He finished the 1961 season, but played well below his usual standards, and hit only .263. This time he quit for good, voluntarily terminating a career that had approached brilliance. Retiring from the game did not accomplish what Jensen hoped it might. His marriage would soon fail, and the fear of flying would continue to torment him. He would experience a bewildering series of business mishaps, lose his closest friend and suffer a near-fatal illness. The golden future had turned to dust.

All of us are several persons in a lifetime. The 40-year-old looks back on himself at 20 and sees a distant relation, a person whose ambitions, affections, triumphs and fears seem slightly absurd. We are never wholly what we were, nor will we remain what we are. From the vantage point of his present serenity, both the Golden Boy of 1949 and the neurotic of 1961 appear to be strangers to Jensen. He has come full cycle, back home to his university, not as a returning hero but as the baseball coach. It is a modest job, but one ideally suited to him now. Those who had been there before, who had been warmed by the glow of his achievements, are occasionally startled to see him pass by. It is as if they are seeing a ghost. Jensen is real enough, but certainly not the man he once was.

At 49 years old, he is an ardent jock grown pensive, a man of action transformed into a collector of Indian arrowheads and a student of Western history, a provincial metamorphosed into a world traveler (if only by ship), a tempestuous spouse turned doting husband to a new wife whose pursuits are intellectual, not athletic.

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