SI Vault
 
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.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Dick Erickson, Jensen's teammate on California's 1948 Rose Bowl team and now an assistant chancellor of development at Berkeley, admits that until Jensen's return in 1974, he had thought of his old teammate simply as "the most versatile athlete, the best-coordinated human being I'd ever known." The self-assured, thoughtful Jensen he sees now is a newcomer. "Why, he's a step above most people," says Erickson. "New vistas seem to have opened up for him. He has talents we never suspected he had—a great facility with language, for example. He is comfortable with people now. He was a loner then. He's no longer dependent on his athletic prowess. We are all seeing sides of Jack that we didn't know existed."

Cal Athletic Director Dave Maggard says that when he first considered hiring Jensen as baseball coach, he was surprised at the almost negative reaction he received from those who were supposedly Jensen admirers. "Nobody could tell me what he was like," Maggard says. "They'd all say he was a great athlete, and stop there. It occurred to me that for all of his fame, nobody really knew this man. Some even described him as a loser who seemed to have the knack for making a mess out of everything he got into. The negative publicity he'd had over the years had definitely tarnished that Golden Boy image."

But the more Maggard talked with Jensen, the more he was convinced that the detractors were talking about somebody else. "I had the advantage of not knowing Jack before," Maggard says. "I was pleased with what I saw. He was so open about himself, so honest. There was humility there. And pride. Loyalty is a difficult word to define, but he has it. He's loyal to the university and he's been loyal to me. He is becoming a fine teacher, and he'll be even better because he wants to be better. Jack's been through a lot, and he's been able to put himself in perspective. He has really found himself."

How odd these words must sound to those who were at Berkeley at the time of Jensen's glorious ascent. Jackie Jensen finding himself? How could he have lost what was there? In an age of heroes he was a hero supreme; he seemed to be exactly what an All-America football player was supposed to be—a clean-cut, modest Adonis with a storybook girl friend. He had an aura about him. On closer examination, all of this proved to be a facade. Jensen's lessers mistook his shyness for conceit; his idolaters accepted his public humility as just another saintly virtue, not as genuine insecurity. Jensen was truly confident of what his body could do for him; after all, it had been performing athletic miracles since he was a child. He was much less sure of who he was. He had done less than find himself—he had not even started to look.

Jensen's parents were divorced when he was five. His father was the second of his mother's four husbands, and when he departed, she and her three young sons moved from San Francisco, where Jensen had been born on March 9, 1927, to Oakland. She continued working in San Francisco, commuting by ferry across the Bay six days a week to her job in a warehouse where she performed, Jensen says, "tough, man's work." She was absent from home for more than 12 hours each day, and would return in the evening too exhausted for family amenities. For Jensen it was virtually an orphan's existence, only it was much less stable. By the time he entered Oakland High School the Jensens had moved 16 times or, as Jackie puts it, "every time the rent came due." He would spend most of the next 30 years searching for the homelife he never had, hoping to realize for his own children his childhood vision of what it must be like to have a father, a mother and a house. For such a man the breakup of a marriage can be much more than an unpleasant experience; it can represent a betrayal of principle, the defeat of a life's ambition.

By the time he reached junior high school, Jensen had acquired a surrogate father in Ralph Kerchum, his physical education teacher. Kerchum, a robust, genial outdoorsman, instantly recognized in young Jensen a wondrous athlete and a human being of unusual potential. He became Jackie's coach, counselor and lifelong friend, and Jensen has never forgotten his kindnesses.

"The fact that I had no father embarrassed me deeply," Jensen says. "I think there was more emphasis on family life then. Ralph was instrumental at a time when I needed someone. He gave me direction and self-confidence. It's funny, but when I see him today, we do the same things we did back then. We'll have a steak, go to a movie and pick up some ice cream. I'll say to him, 'Ralph, it never changes. Can't we go to a bar like other people?' "

At Oakland High School Jensen created a legend. He was twice All-City in both baseball and football and honorable mention All-City in basketball, although he played only a half season of that sport. He was the student body president, the most popular kid in town. For years, Oakland High athletes would emulate his style, his dress, his manner of speech, his distinctive floating gait.

He came to Cal after a year in the Navy, and though the football turnout of more than 230 players in 1946 was the largest in the university's history, he became an instant star. The first time he touched the ball in the season's opener against Wisconsin he returned a punt 56 yards for a touchdown. The run was a masterwork of improvisation, since Jensen's blockers barely knew who he was, let alone where he was going. "He was all over the field, dodging and leaping over guys," says Charles (Boots) Erb, a quarterback who had been Jensen's friend since both were in the fourth grade. "The rest of us just stood there on the sidelines with our mouths open. Finally somebody said, 'Who in the hell is that guy?' "

Jensen was selected to play in the East-West Shrine All-Star game as a freshman, a rare honor. In fact, he is the only athlete to have performed in an East-West game, a Rose Bowl, a World Series and a baseball All-Star Game. In 1947 and 1948 he became the "Golden Boy of the Golden Bears," playing both offense and defense, returning kicks, punting, passing and, most of all, dazzling everyone with his twisting, darting, shoulder-faking runs from scrimmage. At 195 pounds he was powerful and swift, but more than that, he was deceptive, a runner who, as Pappy Waldorf said, "Can elude the hand he cannot see."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6