SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Ryan Jensen & J.J. Williams
Sept. 7, 2011
Ryan Jensen came to the Old Dominion program, not only to build a program, but to build it with his best friend.
"I came to Old Dominion with Tobin (Cameron), my best friend who I played with in both high school and junior college," said Jensen.
Being from the left coast and the Monarchs just starting up their football program, neither had heard of the school before, but it posed an interesting proposition for the two.
"We could be a part of something special here," said Jensen of their decision to make their way to Norfolk. "We were getting to start a program as starting offensive tackles at ODU. I thought that was a great opportunity."
The minute his junior college class ended, Jensen flew out on his own money and started working out on his own. Not only did he want to earn a starting job on ODU's very first team, he wanted to do it with his best friend at his side.
"I was always a hard worker and it was hard being away from Tobin, who came out here in December as a mid-year transfer," recalled Jensen who had played side-by-side and competed with Cameron all these years. "Our coaches would grade our film in junior college about how we would play that game and we'd always tell each other `I beat you' and stuff like that. Our coach, to this day, has still not graded our final game so we don't argue."
Being a part of that first game and the first team turned out to be more than special. Going from playing in front of 200 people tops to a jaw dropping 20,000 people became a memory Ryan will never forget "I think about that first game all the time - coming out of that tunnel, the airplane dropping the ball," Jensen said as he got goosebumps recalling the memory. "I'll never forget it."
"I wasn't sure what to expect, but we kept winning," he said of the first season "I performed very well and I think our whole offensive line did as a unit."
Jensen, Cameron, and the rest of the offensive line helped pave the way for Old Dominion to rank ninth among FCS schools in rushing offense, 18th in total offense, and they allowed only seven sacks.
"I think we should have gone undefeated," he said with a smile. "Those were close games. That first year, 9-2, is something I can always talk about. The best start-up ever."
However, during the Monarchs' inaugural season, Jensen knew something was wrong.
"It got to the point where my arm, it was my right shoulder, that every time I hit somebody it would fall down and feel like it was dead. I didn't know what was going on."
It was a minor torn labrum of the shoulder.
"I couldn't hold a squat bar. I couldn't bench. My body fat went from 22 to 31. I was in bad shape," he remembered. "I played through spring ball with it."
Going home for the summer, Ryan's first step was to have arthroscopic surgery and from there work his way back on to the field. But getting there was not easy.
"Coach Martin and Coach Mak, our strength coaches did a great job in helping, as did Marty our athletic trainer," Ryan was quick to credit.
"It was really hard, especially coming out of the Jacksonville game and I felt bad because Matt Carrillo was forced to play right tackle where he was a tight end his whole career," Ryan said looking back on having to sit out what was supposed to be his senior season. "It was a rough time. I got accolades (Phil Steele's Preseason All-Independent Team) to be something special for ODU that season and I didn't do it. I didn't perform. I was on the sideline and felt guilty."
It was tough knowing that him and Tobin were not going to be on the field for their senior seasons together, but he also knew that he was not only working his way back to the field, he was also going to have to work his way back to his starting position.
"The main thing I worked on was my body fat, which came with my injury," said Ryan. "I had dropped to about 260 pounds and I hadn't seen that since high school. From there I started gaining weight."
During spring strength and conditioning competitions, Ryan saw his body fat drop from 31 to 22 and he got his weight back up to 280 pounds. He also got the "Blue Monarch" award from the strength coaches, one of only two offensive linemen along with Jake Lowney to receive the award.
"I knew my shoulders were back, my body was back, but my strength wasn't what it was so I knew we had a big summer coming up," he said in getting prepped for the CAA season. "Over the summer I focused on diet and nutrition and I gained 25 pounds and my strength has gone through the roof."
While Ryan and Cameron have helped build the foundation of the Monarch program, it's now up to Ryan to help build ODU's foundation in the CAA. Coming to the start of the season, Ryan is projected to be the Monarchs' starting left tackle after starting at right tackle in 2009. Even though his best friend might not be at his side come this fall, it might have actually been a blessing in disguise.
"I play left tackle better than right, which I never knew because I've always had Tobin at left tackle," Ryan joked.
When the Monarchs take off for Georgia State this weekend, there are several members of the squad who will be flying for the first time ever. If they are a little nervous, they might want to look to senior linebacker J.J. Williams for advice on traveling - after all, he is probably the most well traveled Monarch on the team.
Born at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, J.J. has lived not only all over the United States, but globally as well. Already at the ripe age of 21, he has lived in Colorado, Japan, England, Florida, Kansas, and Virginia, while also visiting relatives in Hawaii, Texas, and Maryland.
J.J. can remember first being introduced to the sport of football as a youngster in Colorado. His father coached at a local high school and first introduced him to the game, while his babysitter had four sons in high school that played that he would try and emulate.
J.J.'s next stop was across the Pacific to Japan, where of all the places he's lived was the biggest culture shock.
"In school, we had to sit on the ground like in a traditional Japanese setting and learn how to use the abacus for math. If you were to go off base, it was a big production. Then there was dealing with the money, the yen. I remember going to this one store off base to buy candy. It was cheap, but the amount of yen, or actual paper money, you had to use was nuts."
While football wasn't a popular sport in Japan, J.J.'s time in the land of the rising sun introduced him to two of his other loves - karate and soccer.
It was in Japan where he started karate, but it was on his next stop where he finished his black belt. J.J. and his family next moved to merry old England.
"I also played a lot of soccer in England and actually went to a Manchester United camp. Soccer was played year round. It didn't matter what season it was, you played soccer," said J.J. "I still go kick the ball around and love watching the World Cup."
Football was still the background and a connection though. J.J.'s father was a coach with a semi-pro team and began instructing J.J. and getting him ready to play again on the family's next move.
While the move from the United State to Japan was a culture shock, the move from England to Florida was more of a weather shock.
"It was a big change. In England, I'd wake up and we'd have a two-hour fog delay. It would happen at least twice a month," he recalled. "Then in Florida, it was always nice outside, it was always sunny. There, they'd think it was going to snow and everything would shut down."
However, it was in Florida where football, sports wise, moved to the forefront.
"Everything in Florida was football, football, football," said J.J. "There really wasn't a sport in the fall for me to play, so I started playing football. Once I got to high school, I started filling out and getting a lot faster. They wanted me move to linebacker right before I moved."
It was on the next move that J.J.'s football career really began to flourish.
Playing for Derby High School, the largest high school in the state of Kansas, the school was able to fill out rosters for freshmen, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity squads.
"Even though I was younger, I was on the varsity team, and even made the playoffs. I was only a sophomore at the time. They kept pulling me up every week. I was always playing games, so I never felt like I was practicing," joked J.J.
After two seasons at Garden City Community College in Kansas having earned honorable mention KJCCC and registering 71 tackles in 2008, J.J. moved east to join the Monarchs' squad. But, he certainly wasn't alone in making the move.
"My aunt lives right outside of Charlottesville and I have a lot family in Pennsylvania," noting his mom's twin came down to help J.J. move into campus helping to stock his dorm room full of food and settle in.
More importantly, J.J.'s parents will also be closer to their son to watch him in action in a Monarch uniform. Just this past summer, his parents moved to Maryland, where they work at Andrews Air Force Base.
However, the travel bug hasn't stopped biting J.J. in the meantime. When J.J. wraps up his double major in sociology and criminal justice, and hoping to land a career working with the U.S. government, he has aspirations of traveling to South America and Peru with his family.
So the next time you're in line at the airport, it just might be world traveler J.J. Williams in line next to you.