Staying Connected: Jensen’s paths cross familiar places and faces
It took one play for Nate Jensen to fall in love with the game of football.
“A good friend of mine from the suburbs of Lansing, Michigan, where my mom and dad still reside, told them you could play football beginning in fifth grade,” Jensen reflected. “I had always been a basketball person because that’s what our family was in to.
“The first game I played in that youth league changed everything,” he added with a smile. “I picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown … it’s been part of my blood ever since.”
The rest, as they say, is history … but a very interesting history.
“My dad, Al, and my uncles Bob, Pat, Larry and Kevin were all big into sports,” he said of his athletic upbringing. “Dad played hoops for Montcalm Community College, Bob was a baseball player at Grand Valley State University and on down the line.
“I was tall for my age early on which helped me be successful (in basketball and football),” he added. “I guess that’s the reason I got moved into the quarterback role which I kept until my sophomore year of high school. After that, I was moved around to wide receiver, tight end, linebacker and fullback.”
That “jack-of-all-trades” mentality that the Grand Ledge High School staff had with Jensen and many others helped the Comets advance to the playoffs a few times in his prep career. However, unlike his younger brother Nic, who played for a state champion team at Grand Ledge, Nate’s squads ran into traditional high school powers along the way.
“Yes, Nic does like to bring up the fact that’s he’s the only member of the family that’s won a state championship,” Jensen wryly noted. “It’s one of many topics we have at some super-charged family dinner conversions in our household.”
While the fifth grade decision to play football was key in the Spartans’ skipper moving into a life-long love affair with the gridiron, connections, whether it be from family or along the 100-yard trail, have been important, too.
The first case of that was his college decision. After visiting many different states with family members during Saturdays of his senior year, a trip to Defiance, Ohio, stuck in his mind for one big reason … Coach Greg Pscodna.
“It’s funny, talking about connections, but my relationship with Coach P is a huge example of that,” he said. “He was a Lansing guy, but the only reason I knew about him was due to another friend’s father playing baseball with him which got to the attention of our family.
“On an overnight trip to Defiance, I had it down to walking on at GVSU, Alma College, sort of following Uncle Bob’s and Pat’s footsteps, or going to DC,” he added. “I had an awesome time with the other players, but I still thought it was too far away. As I was heading home, my car broke down. Cell phones, as they are now, weren’t that way at that time, so I tried to get in touch with my parents to come get me … they weren’t around. I called Coach P. He drove to where I was and helped me get my car fixed … It was something minor, but it stuck with me.”
And, as former head coach Rob Taylor and Pscodna found out soon after, they were glad it did. Jensen’s collegiate career in the Purple and Gold included starring as a three-year starter at defensive end and playing on the 2001 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship team. He appeared in 27 games during his career and earned all-HCAC honors as a senior, when he set career-highs with 32 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and four sacks.
The second instance of connections dealt post-collegiately with Taylor and the DC coaching staff.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, but (Coach Taylor) kept pointing me towards coaching,” Jensen said. “Because of that, I worked as a student assistant at Defiance and loved it. When I was done, Coach Taylor and Coach P had heard about (former Spartans head coach Shannon) Griffith taking over the Manchester University program and knew he needed assistants. They told me to reach out to him.
“Those early years at MU really solidified that I wanted to stay in coaching,” he added. “I had a chance to go back to Defiance as a coordinator from that point and then one day, during Christmas break, my phone rang. It was Coach P. He asked one thing ‘What would it take for you to come with me to Alma?’. It was going to be a leap of faith … my wife, Missy, and I had to sell our home; we really liked Defiance and then we found out we were going to be having a baby. The timing wasn’t the best, but we packed up and headed north to live in my parents’ two-bedroom, one-bath lake house. Looking back, it was the best decision we made.”
Along with the trials of being a young assistant coach and having a family, the accolades and attention grew and why not. Jensen’s resume included 12 players named all-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference on the defensive side of the ball for then Manchester College and, due in large part to his leadership as a defensive line and linebackers coach, turning that unit into one of the league’s top defensive outfits from 2004-08; Mentoring 16 student-athletes who earned all-league honors at Defiance, the Yellow Jackets ranking second in the conference in scoring defense, rushing defense and total sacks during the 2009 and 2010 seasons and having one all-region and All-American honoree after the 2010 campaign; and seven Alma defensive players earned All-Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors, including two first-team selections in 2014 and 2015 and the conference’s Most Valuable Player in 2015.
Not long after the 2015 season, Griffith decided to step down and move into a role in the university’s advancement office. Jensen got wind of the news and his connections went into high gear to help land him the Black and Gold’s top football coaching spot in January 2016.
“(Those connections) have led me to this point … there isn’t a doubt in my mind,” the Spartans’ 15th head coach said. “When I take into account what I saw from those coaches I interacted with and then remembered back to how my dad was in his business, it came down on how to treat people.
“I’ve been able to meet (great people) wherever I’ve been including previously (at Manchester University)” he added. “I still stay in contact with many of them on those campuses and in the communities. It’s helped greatly with our family coming back … (Head women’s basketball and softball coach and assistant Director of Athletics Josh) Dzurick, Shaun Tilghman and Coach Grififth are good examples of that.”
Two more connections are evident in his life. One led him to establish a wonderful family and the other to strong cohesiveness with assistant coaches Vince Cashdollar and Brad Higginson.
Along family lines, his wife Missy King-Jensen, an ’06 MU alum who keeps the athletic theme running in the Jensen clan as she was the all-time goal scoring leader for women’s soccer and is an athletic department Hall of Famer, and young son Matthew are a strong source, as he admits “of constant fun and the ability to be able to get away from things.”
“I cherish the time spent with Missy and Matthew,” he said. “You could say connections brought Missy and I together. Living with Tilghman on Bond Street during my days as an assistant coach, we had another bedroom open, and Missy was wanting to stay close to campus due to her coaching work in the soccer program and not having to drive back to Fort Wayne where her apartment was.
“We would happen to get home at the same time and started talking about many topics for hours upon end … we had so much in common,” he added. “All of the sudden, we started getting lunch together. She was and is my best friend because of those times we shared together. I knew, too, she was the perfect person for me because she loved being a part of the family dinner nights we had at (former MU defensive coordinator Ron) Planz’ house. When dinner was over, the coaches went into the living room and broke down game film and the wives and significant others watched Grey’s Anatomy.”
The family itinerary is as many a Midwest one can relate to … Matthew’s soccer and t-ball games in Fort Wayne, where they reside; Missy coaching club soccer, taking trips to the lake and his family’s home in Lansing included.
A similar type of personal relationship and connection carries over with his staff.
“I’ll tell you right now … there aren’t too many people I respect more in the profession than Vince and Brad,” he said. “They’ve done so much to help develop this program. I’ve enjoyed and will continue to value their opinions and friendships on and off the field. I hope to see us make that same connection with our new players and coaches going into 2016 and beyond.”
Making avenues in the game and profession he loves … something Manchester University head football coach Nate Jensen knows well.