Austin Jensen stutter-stepped through the agility ladder and accelerated, sprinting another 20 yards across the track infield under the summer sun.
“Yes, Yesss, YESSS!” shouted Mike Smith, Manatee High School’s track coach. “Dude, that was pretty.”
Then he had Jensen run it again. And again.
The 21-year-old former Hurricane did so with abandon, despite the heat and humidity, flying down his grass comeback trail marked off by small orange traffic cones.
There was no crowd to roar its approval, like so many memorable Friday nights the two-time all-state linebacker enjoyed at Hawkins Stadium, but it didn’t matter.
Austin Jensen was euphoric.
“I feel freedom. Release. Being able to do what I really like doing,” said the senior Florida Atlantic University safety and special teamer. “I was skittish at first, feeling it out. But once I knew I was fine, it was exhilarating.”
Smith was buoyed, too.
After a near-fatal car accident six months ago, Jensen’s revival is remarkable.
“Looking back at what happened and all he’s been through? He’s much further than where I thought he’d be, much further,” Smith said. “He’s doing something I didn’t expect we would be doing.”
Neither did Jensen.
“I really shouldn’t be here at all,” he said. “I should’ve been dead.”
Lucky to be alive
Kim Jensen had feared the worst when she finally reached Delray Medical Center’s ICU after a frantic cross-state drive late on Saturday, Feb. 13.
“I thought he was going to be dead because of all the people there,” Austin Jensen’s mother recalled. “It was intense.”
She was in New Port Richey at the girls’ state weightlifting meet with daughter Lacie, an MHS senior, when they got the phone call about the accident.
Austin is the second of Kim and Mark Jensen’s three children. Son Tyler is their oldest.
“I had no idea what shape he was in,” his mother said. “I was out of it when they got me up to the room. It wasn’t what I expected to see. He was in a tremendous amount of pain.”
Austin Jensen had been a passenger in teammate Mickey Groody’s Ford Explorer, heading to FAU’s football banquet at a Boca Raton hotel just up Interstate 95.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the driver of a blue Nissan SUV was speeding north and abruptly changed lanes, causing the driver of a black Pontiac to swerve, clipping Groody’s vehicle in front of the left rear tire.
“I was sitting behind the driver and the car that hit us turned us sideways and we flipped three to four times,” Jensen said. “I went out the window, right through the glass. I wore my seat belt. I guess it unclicked or snapped off me.
“I hit shoulder first, then my head hit, then my bottom hit. I slid quite a ways, and our truck stopped rolling five feet from me.”
The Nissan SUV driver was never apprehended.
Groody and the other passengers were able to remain inside the tumbling vehicle, suffered minor cuts and bruises and were treated and released from the hospital.
Jensen’s injuries were life-threatening:
Two skull fractures.
Bleeding on the brain stem and a bruised front temporal lobe.
Four pelvic fractures.
Abrasions covered his body.
Miraculously, he survived.
“Doctors said if he hadn’t been in such good shape, he wouldn’t be here,” Jensen’s mom said.
“My neck should’ve snapped on impact,” Jensen said. “I just know God has different plans for me than lying on I-95.”
Divine intervention, indeed.
Close behind, as more teammates spilled out of other cars and stopped traffic, were an off-duty paramedic on a motorcycle and an empty ambulance, too.
“Austin was very, very lucky,” his mom said.
Amen, Howard Schnellenberger said.
“It’s terrible, what happened, very touch-and-go,” said FAU’s head football coach. “He’s a first-class person, a disciplined player, a leader on and off the field. This hurt us badly.”
Word of Jensen’s accident stunned people in Bradenton.
He’s the boy next door.
“How does something like that happen to a good kid like him?” said Steve Peebles, Manatee’s longtime offensive line coach.
Josh McCoy hurt for Jensen, too.
They had been teammates since their youth football days with the Manatee Wildcats, and both were linebackers on the 2004-05 Hurricane teams that reached consecutive state semifinals.
And come January, Jensen is going to be McCoy’s best man at his wedding to Yolanda Ibasfalean.
“I was in disbelief when I heard,” McCoy said. “He was the last person I expected something like this to happen to — somebody you love and is in your life.”
When McCoy arrived at Jensen’s hospital room, he was shocked.
“His head was so swollen, you couldn’t see his right ear,” he said. “It scared me. I didn’t want to leave him. I didn’t want to come home until I knew he was OK.
“It made me realize what’s really important. It makes you not take people for granted.”
That realization was hundredfold for Jensen.
Teammates and friends crowded his hospital room.
There were many encouraging letters and posters from Bradenton, including pictures of heartening messages at the Shake Pit, where he signed his FAU scholarship papers four years ago.
Jensen was deeply moved.
“It really opens up your perspective, thinking football is not that important compared to what you should be thinking about — your family, your friends, your town,” he said. “I can’t individually go up and thank everybody for what they did, giving me support, but it was overwhelming.”
Jensen was originally expected to be hospitalized indefinitely.
Instead, his condition improved rapidly.
“I ended up healing a lot faster than what they initially thought,” Jensen said.
The blood on his brain stem cleared up.
The swelling went down.
The road rash all over his body was gone, though scarring on both knuckles, an ankle and shoulder remain.
“I still had numerous things going through my mind, but I was just thankful he was alive,” his mom said.
Austin Jensen was released two weeks later, and he returned to Bradenton to recuperate and eventually begin rehabilitation.
Before the discharge, a registered nurse who looked after Jensen told him she wanted tickets to his first football game back for FAU.
It’s a promise he intends to keep.
“He goes to the hospital and ends up with lifelong friends,” Kim Jensen said. “He’s just that kind of kid.”
Long, tough rehab
One day in April, after his headaches finally disappeared, Jensen was trying to get the hang of using a walker from John Walz at Request Physical Therapy in Bradenton.
It must have been some sight.
“So John’s trying to teach me ... and there goes this 99-year-old guy walking right by me,” Jensen said. “I’m like, dang. I’m 21 on a walker and that old man was like he’s on cruise control.
“I had to laugh at it — and learn from it at the same time.”
Learning to walk again one step at a time wasn’t easy for an NCAA Division I athlete capable of running sub-4.4 40-yard dashes with regularity.
Yet, Jensen managed. He had no choice.
“First time I put my feet on a hard floor and tried to walk it was really, really weird. Like being paralyzed, and the next day you’re able to walk,” he said. “It really makes you appreciate being able to put on your shoes, stand up or get dressed by myself, which I wasn’t able to do. I’m usually a pretty independent person, but I needed help.”
Jensen received plenty of it.
To monitor his recovery, Dr. Joe Ganey pulled together a team that, besides Walz, included neurologist Dr. Doug Sinclair, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Allen Boyce and general surgeon Dr. Richard Rizzuto.
“I never really listened to my body before, how it feels,” said Jensen, an exercise science major. “If it hurt, I just worked through the pain. This time I knew if I didn’t listen to my body, I’d hurt myself worse.”
Jensen spent six weeks with the walker, two weeks on crutches and another week with a cane.
“He progressed quickly. I had to hold him back, pace him along,” Walz said. “He’s so motivated and focused on getting back to the field.”
The physical therapist had more than a vested interest in helping Jensen get there.
Walz played defensive end on Manatee’s 1989 state championship team.
“I appreciated watching Austin play, chasing down people from the backside, catching the ball carrier and they’re thinking, ‘Where’d this guy come from?’” he said.
As Jensen’s pelvic fractures healed, Walz put him through exercises involving core strengthening, range of motion, flexibility and mobility in the hips, trying to influence the pelvis to realign correctly.
“He’ll be able to run and jump and do all those things, but a year from now how’s his back going to feel, how are his knees going to feel if his pelvis is out of whack?” Walz said. “The body is amazing. It can heal itself and align itself when you encourage it along.”
Jensen was cleared to begin running with Mike Smith and lifting with MHS defensive line coach Steve Gulash on May 25.
Jensen’s recovery also benefited from the encouragement of strangers.
He’d enter a grocery or pharmacy on his walker, someone would spot his FAU ballcap, walk up and greet him.
“They’d say, ‘You don’t know me, but we’re praying for you.’ So many have done that,” Jensen said. “Or the woman behind the counter would go, ‘Oh, my gosh. How are you?’ You can’t believe they care so much. It makes you feel really loved. Everybody’s rooting for you.”
Surprised? Not Mom.
“It could’ve been their kid,” Kim Jensen said. “It touched their hearts and they gave back to him. It motivated him more, gave him more incentive to get well — ‘I owe something to these people who supported me.’”
Getting back on the field
Austin Jensen’s fervent objective was to begin his senior season, playing when FAU opens Sept. 2 at Alabama-Birmingham.
Then get into some NFL camp next summer.
“It’s why I’m here four days a week working my butt off,” he said during one workout with coach Smith.
Alas, Jensen, now a fit 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, will have to wait for another year.
FAU decided to give him a medical redshirt this season, granting him another year of eligibility.
Schnellenberger indicated such a decision was forthcoming on Jensen before it was official.
“Reports I get are he’s making progress and is antsy to return, but it’ll take time for him to get back into playing shape,” he said. “When he comes back to school, our doctors will continue to have conversations with his home and slowly take over.
“Whether he plays football is questionable, but that he gets his degree and has a great life is not under scrutiny.”
Dr. Ganey said it was prudent for Jensen long-term.
“Physically, he has come a long ways by sheer determination, but with a skull fracture you want to err on the conservative side,” he said. “I know he’s disappointed, but the longer we wait the better.”
Joe Kinnan agrees.
“It gives Austin a chance to start afresh,” said the veteran Hurricanes head coach. “It’s in his best interest to take time, do more rehab, then be ready to go next year. I know he’s bigger and faster than he’s ever been, but it will benefit him in the long run.”
Kim Jensen’s concerns were assuaged, considering the alternative.
“To get out of an accident like that?” she said. “It’s been an amazing transformation in four months. He’s the old Austin — and then some. He’s impressed the heck out of his mom, I’ll tell you that.”
Austin Jensen said he’s made his peace with FAU’s decision.
It will be his first season not playing football since his days as a Manatee Wildcat.
“I’m feeling out of sorts, like I’m not where I’m supposed to be at this time of year,” he said. “If it does ruin my chances of playing in the NFL, I’ve got my education and someone (Walz) who can show me what’s what in sports medicine.”
Jensen knows how tough it will be to watch from the sidelines.
He got a taste of it when he returned to Boca Raton to withdraw from classes at FAU.
Spring football was under way.
“I went down to practice on my crutches,” Jensen said. “The players stopped and stared. They’d seen me weeks before in the hospital, practically on my death bed. I got all choked up. It hit me I wasn’t going to play for awhile.”
So he continues to run and lift.
Austin Jensen is on a mission.
“My mentality has always been when you tell me I can’t do something, that’s when I try to prove you wrong,” he said.
“I’ll come back in 2011 and wreak havoc.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.