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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 and Katharine amassed a collection of Indian artifacts. He read "everything I could get my hands on." He was enjoying life, strengthened, not weakened, by the knowledge of its ephemerality. "When you have a heart attack, you realize you won't live to be 90. You learn to be thankful for each new day," Jensen says. He began attending classes at the University of Nevada and, at 44, completed the remaining 17 units for the degree in rhetoric he had passed up at Berkeley 22 years earlier.

Then his job was phased out because of budget cutbacks, and from January to June of 1973 Jensen again found himself with little to do except indulge his new passion for reading. On June 15 his telephone rang. He set aside his book and answered. It was Maggard, inquiring if he would be interested in returning to Berkeley as baseball coach. This was the strangest twist of all, he told himself. He was being asked to go back to where it all started. He said yes.

On a brisk February day last year, the beginning of his second season as coach, the ex-Golden Boy, Cal's greatest athlete, wandered the steep slopes of the Berkeley campus wearing a sandwich board advertising BALL GAME TODAY! He bellowed the news through a blue and gold megaphone, the sound of his baritone voice halting curious students on their way to classes. There were not many that day who knew who he was, that he was not only a coach but also a legend. Jensen joined his audience in laughter. He was making a spectacle of himself, but in a good cause: promoting attendance for his baseball team. There were a few there who did remember another Jensen. This, surely, was not the same man. They were right—he was not.

"Wearing that sandwich board took more moral courage than I thought any man had," said Truck Cullom, Jensen's old teammate and friend. "I couldn't imagine someone like Jack doing it. People used to think he was aloof, conceited. Hell, how can a guy be that good, and not be conceited? The thing is, Jack never was, and he isn't now. He's just one helluva human being."

In the batting cage down the right-field line at Cal's Evans Field, a thin boy wearing glasses, shoulder-length hair, a sweat shirt, fatigue pants and, improbably, kneepads, is swinging ineffectually at baseballs propelled at him by a pitching machine. It is late afternoon, warm and clear, and the setting sun has turned nearby Harmon Gym a deep orange. Church steeples appear above the left-held fence, and the Campanile, its bells tolling for homecoming students, rises in the distance.

Jensen, wearing a blue warmup jacket and a gray road uniform, watches the young batsman. The boy is a "walk-on" candidate for his baseball team, a player of limited experience and with almost no chance of even winning a position on the junior varsity squad. And yet Jensen watches him as if he were a potential batting champion. The coach looks sturdy, ruddy. His health is good, and he is only a few pounds over his old playing weight.

"I'm not a sentimentalist," he says, "but I have such a warm feeling about being back here. It's not that people remember me. Oh, sure, some of the parents do, because I guess I was as famous then as some of the superstars are now. But the kids really don't know me. And that's the way it should be. I don't live in the past. Right now I couldn't be happier. It's a beautiful day, and we're playing a little baseball."

The boy misses a pitch, so Jensen steps into the cage. "You've got to open up your hips and be quick with those hands, son," he says, then flicks his thick wrists. The boy, whose exposure to this professional advice will become apparent only in intramural softball games, watches gratefully as Jensen, with effortless, powerful swings, makes perfect contact. "See, no extra motion. Keep it short and sweet."

Jensen steps out of the cage, first patting the youngster on his thin shoulders. He is smiling about something. "There's an assistant coach, a young man, who maybe summed me up best," Jensen says. "He'd see me coming in from practice every day with a big smile on my face, and he'd look kind of puzzled. Then one day he spoke up. 'Coach,' he said to me, 'don't you ever have bad moods?' Now, I don't know whether or not he was implying that I was an idiot for being so cheerful, but I took him seriously. Bad moods? I thought about myself and all that had happened. Bad moods? No, not now. The truth is, I just happen to think that life is pretty damn good."

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