Standing on the Kenosha practice field Tuesday afternoon, a gentle breeze and high expectations in the air, linebacker Chris Jeske was exactly where he belonged.
He was where the fruits of a grueling summer workout regimen are realized, where a sun-bathed team readies itself for a stab at the Big Ten title, where seniors like Jeske soak up the anticipation of their final go-around as Northwestern Wildcats.
But despite his surroundings – which to a football player could be mistaken for Heaven – all was not right with Jeske. Because while Jeske was at practice, he wasn’t practicing.
That's something he'll never do again.
Chronic knee and back problems prevented the former high school star from flourishing at NU, marring a career that once had so much potential. And this week, injuries ultimately forced Jeske to quit playing, a decision that was made on Aug. 13 and confirmed Monday in a release by NU Sports.
“I try not to think about it as much as possible,” Jeske said Tuesday in an interview with Purple Reign. “It was a very difficult decision. Football has pretty much been my life since middle school, and I came to Northwestern with some very high personal goals. And to not be able to play with the guys you’ve been with for four, five years – the word ‘difficult’ doesn’t begin to do it justice.
“But I just had to be honest with myself and move on and realize that I can contribute to the team this season in a different manner.”
His contributions this season will come as an assistant coach, working with the linebackers. And while Jeske, who has been with the program since 2005, will no doubt lend knowledge and experience to the linebacking corps, this was not how his Northwestern career was supposed to pan out.
Dubbed by the Chicago Sun-Times as the Illinois High School Player of the Year as a senior at Joliet Catholic Academy in Yorkville, Ill., the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Jeske was a ballyhooed recruit and big-time signing when he joined the Wildcats. With size to go with 4.6 speed, he was rated as a top 20 linebacker in the nation and top 20 prospect in Illinois.
And he had the ambition to go with that résumé.
“When I first came in (to NU),” Jeske said, “I had very high expectations with the high school accolades. But those are just high school accolades. I expected to do a lot more in college.”
But a back injury – and subsequent surgery – marred his first season with NU, and Jeske never saw the field as a freshman. Or as a sophomore, as the back problems lingered.
In two seasons, the would-be stud didn’t play a single game.
Jeske was poised to finally break through in 2007. He was named to the Sporting News “All-Spring Team,” identified in spring practices as a player who was sure to contribute in a big way – just like people thought when he arrived.
He played his first game as a Cat in the 2007 season-opener against Northeastern, ready to fulfill the expectations he brought with him to Evanston. But that was his only game of the season, a knee injury keeping him on the sidelines the rest of ‘07.
In 2008, still battling injuries, he appeared in three games, his biggest contribution coming in the form of a block that sprung a big punt return against Illinois. Four years at NU, and the three-star linebacker had yet to record a tackle.
But his enthusiasm for the game was hardly dampened. And heading into this season, Jeske was ready to contribute. No, his career wasn’t going exactly as planned, and he admits he had “to step back and reevaluate” his expectations. But he wasn’t about to pack it in.
So Jeske put himself through what he called his most grueling summer of training ever. The visions of stardom had been derailed, but after a good summer, Jeske had every intention of playing this fall.
His body, though, simply wouldn’t comply.
“When camp started up – you can't really replicate that intensity,” Jeske said. “You’re pushing yourself as hard as you can, and my body wasn’t letting me perform at the level I wanted to, and at the level that I thought would be necessary to live up to the standard that our team has set.”
It’s odd calling it a retirement, but it’s far less accurate to say he quit. Because, even though his playing days are through, Jeske never quit on football. Instead, his body quit on him.
“My body just wasn’t holding up,” he said, “so I understood what the situation was and I didn’t see a positive future with the way it was acting so early in camp….
“I could dwell on it and beat myself up, or I could just move on. You know, it’s something that I can’t dwell upon. I can’t struggle with the decision I made. I struggled enough making it, and now it’s just time to help as much as possible.”
Now Jeske will be back on the sidelines, where he’s found himself for a large chunk of his Northwestern career. But he’ll be coaching over there, not sulking.
He loves the game – still – too much for that.
“I’m out here with the guys that I’ve been with for a while. I’m just using my enthusiasm for the game. I’m trying to live vicariously through them, so I’m just trying to use my energy and I’m just tying to coach them the best I can.”
David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.