AMES — Brandon Jensen didn’t flinch.
For four-plus months during Iowa’s coldest winter in 30 years, the Iowa State defense tackle stuck by his decision to leave the team.
School had intensified. Life had, too.
“No one wanted me to leave,” Jensen said this week, “but they understood the reasons for it.”
Recurring conversations with Cyclone strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight helped create cracks in Jensen’s previously iron-clad decision. Follow-up talks with defensive tackles coach Shane Burnham made the cracks develop into wide fissures.
Finally, by April — and after the spring game — Jensen relented. He would return to the team and the trenches. He’d finish up his five-year tour of duty with an eye on the future, not the past.
“It was more about me just getting away,” said Jensen, who will make his team-leading 19th-straight start in Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big 12 game against No. 19 Oklahoma at Jack Trice Stadium. “To truly get away you have to stay away, so that’s what I tried to do and it kind of opened my eyes a little bit. Yeah I missed it. But, also, when I came back I was really refreshed and open-minded, like, ‘OK, I think I just needed break.’ And I think it helped me a lot.”
Helped the Cyclones, too.
Promising returning interior defensive linemen Rodney Coe and David Irving had been kicked off the team. Other than Jensen, Devlyn Cousin was the only defensive tackle who’d played Division I snaps at the time — and he’s now out with an elbow injury.
So while the defense’s struggles are well-documented, Jensen’s quietly piecing together his most productive season while lining up at nose guard, a position defined by its lack of glory.
He struck for two tackles-for-loss and a sack in the 20-17 Iowa win. He added a quarterback hurry in the loss at Oklahoma State and a pass break-up in the win over Toledo. He has five more regular season games to add to his legacy as a grinder andplugger, but he doesn’t focus on his career closing. He looks at what’s coming up.
“It’s fun being with people even when we’re not winning,” Jensen said. “I see the excitement from (them), because I was like that when I was younger. Just seeing everyone else feel the same way I felt is exciting for me.”
No one likes or accepts losing, of course — or giving up 48 points as ISU’s defense did in its most recent loss at Texas. But Jensen’s intent on leaving a legacy that transcends the team’s 2-5 start to the 2014 season.
When Burnham leaves the room to go coach special teams, Jensen morphs fully into mentor mode for younger players such as Robby Garcia.
“Whatever they want, I’m here for them,” he said.
Extra film study? Jensen leads it.
Questions? He fields them.
Support? He’s steadfast.
“I’ve always liked the way B.J. has worked,” Burnham told Cyclone Fanatic in late April. “I like the way that he studies the opponent with film. He’s always gotten after it on the practice field. With a room full of young guys, they will benefit because of the depth but also for him to help mentally.”
That’s where playing in the trenches gets tricky and perilous.
No one’s catching or throwing touchdown passes, nor making highlight reel-worthy open-field tackles. Doing one’s job often means someone else can and should make the play. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
“I think the best way to put it is the way Shane told me — ‘You’re in a car wreck every single play,’” Jensen said. “People always look at the skill players. They don’t really pay attention to the line. But it’s you versus two guys every single play and who can be the tougher guy. And that’s really what the position’s about.”
Jensen’s happy to face down the long odds for as long as the remainder of his final season will allow.
He’s perpetually banged up, but said he’s good to go for Saturday.
He’s good to go for life, too.
Jensen will graduate in December and already is employed by a company that, appropriately, fabricates and erects steel structures.
He’s also engaged to be married in January.
“Right after football’s over,” Jensen said.
Endings and beginnings often blur, but looking forward tends to bring hope, not despair.
Football will be "over" for Jensen, but only as it pertains to his eligibility.
“We’re so young, that’s the thing,” he said. “I can’t wait to see them next year or the year after that when they’re all upperclassmen. It’s going to be fun to watch them.”