How Ryan Jensen became the best – and meanest – center in the game
- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
NOBODY BESIDES A quarterback or a nose tackle has ever seen more of a center than the entire world saw of Tampa Bay’s Ryan Jensen in the NFC divisional-round playoff against New Orleans. His red hair flying outside his helmet like a contrail, Jensen bounced from defensive tackle to linebacker to safety and back to linebacker, truffle hunting for Saints, his 66 jersey just one 6 shy of biblical accuracy.
It was a remarkable show of physical endurance and sustained vitriol, sure to be repeated Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. It was so comprehensive it prompted rap impresario Rick Ross to publicly recommend that Tom Brady purchase Jensen “an Escalade, one of the new ones.” And while Jensen spread himself throughout the Saints’ defense, he reserved an exclusive strain of antipathy for linebacker Alex Anzalone, who found himself on his back underneath Jensen in all kinds of places, some likely — three yards downfield, more than once — and some unlikely — on his own sideline after being shoved across the field and then landed upon during a screen pass. Jensen’s targeting of Anzalone was so weirdly persistent it demanded some sort of backstory.
“No, nothing personal, none of that,” Jensen says, laughing. “I’ve been asked that a lot, though. Like, ‘What did he do, kick your dog?’ Nah, I just play nasty, old-school football, and all that is just business. I’ve just known nothing else. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t. I’ve had defensive coordinators and players from other teams come up to me after games and say, ‘I hate you, but I love you.'”
Jensen fashions himself a 6-foot-4, 315-pound mosquito, once describing his style by telling his father, “I like to be the guy who annoys you just enough to make you want to take a swat at him.” He seeks the edge, nudging right up against it before raising his hands in a move that looks like an admittance of guilt but is intended to profess innocence. The style — blocking until the play is over and the defender slackens, and then giving one more push — was developed at Colorado State University-Pueblo, in a Division II program with an offensive line coach Jensen lovingly calls “a f—ing maniac.” Chris Symington taught his linemen to play “through the echo of the whistle,” and there are times when it appears Jensen is the only one on the field whose ears are tuned to hear its distant and fading notes.
Jensen’s operation manual is based on a traffic-signal approach: red means go back to the huddle, yellow means give them a little extra, and green, in the words of his father, means “unleash Captain A–hole.” He gained his first measure of notoriety three seasons ago when, as a member of the Ravens, he unleashed the green light on Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso after Alonso delivered a cheap shot to the head of Joe Flacco. (Followed by Ndamukong Suh, now a teammate in Tampa, taking a shot at Jensen.) But the defining moment of the Jensen oeuvre came far from the limelight, during his junior season at CSU-Pueblo, when he was flagged for a personal foul that seemed unwarranted. (There were many others, for the record, that were well and duly earned.) Symington demanded an explanation, and the official looked at him and said, “Excessive blocking.”
“Excessive blocking?” Symington says now, repeating it several times, the anger still fresh. “Whoever heard of excessive blocking?”
And while it might not be a penalty in the literal sense, it’s absolutely the best description of what Jensen does. In terms of accuracy and brevity, it’s damned near poetic. Watch him now, wilding his way through opposing secondaries, and you can see the world through the eyes of that very same official.
That’s the tricky thing about the edge. It doesn’t truly exist until it’s crossed.
AMONG SYMINGTON’S FIRST orders of business for incoming offensive linemen is this speech: “I coach college so I don’t have to deal with parents. If your parents ask me why you’re not playing, I’m going to tell them the truth: You’re soft, you’re nonathletic, you don’t play hard, and you’re not good enough.”
Dean and Jane Jensen are involved parents. They planned their lives around the sporting lives of their two sons, Ryan and his older brother Seth, a major recruit who went to Nebraska before transferring to CSU-Pueblo but never played at either because of shoulder and knee injuries. As kids, the boys were trained in taekwondo by Dean, who owned a martial-arts studio in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and reached the Olympic Trials in the discipline; both Seth and Ryan became black belts and youth national champions.
And so after Ryan listened to Symington’s views on parents, he called his father.
“Dad, you guys can’t talk to Coach Symo,” he said. “He doesn’t like parents.”
The Jensens attended the final fall scrimmage during Ryan’s freshman year, as they would attend every game in his four-year career at CSU-Pueblo, and when it was over Dean and Jane were walking out of the stadium through an end zone when Dean heard someone calling them. “Mr. and Mrs. Jensen! Mr. and Mrs. Jensen!” Dean looked over his shoulder and saw it was Symington. Dean tried to stay cool, pretend he didn’t hear, maybe slip out of the stadium like he’d been caught shoplifting. They walked a little faster, but Symington kept chasing and caught up. They could see Ryan watching from the other end of the field.
“We’ve been told not to talk to you,” Dean told Symington.
“It’s OK, I just want to thank you for sending your son here,” Symington said. “Your son has a chance to be really good, but don’t you dare tell him I said that.”
Symington walked away. Dean turned to Jane. “You saw that, right? When Ryan asks, you can say he initiated it?”
Predictably, after they met up with their son, Ryan said, “Dad, I told you: You’re not supposed to talk to the coaches.”
“Look, Ryan, he came up to me. I didn’t come up to him. You can ask your mom.”
Ryan thought about this for a moment, looked at his shoes and then sheepishly asked his father, “All right, but what did he say?”
Dean looked his son in the eyes. “Well, Red,” Dean said. “He told me if you plan on making this team, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than you are now.”
EARLY IN THE morning of March 20, 2020, Jensen was at his offseason home in Evergreen, Colorado, with his wife and two children when the phone rang. Bucs general manager Jason Licht’s name popped up on the caller ID, which caused Jensen to bounce out of bed, wondering what message might be urgent enough for a pre-7 a.m. call on a Friday.
“We just signed Brady,” Licht said, “and I wanted to give you a heads-up. He’s going to call you in 15 minutes.”
Jensen got back in bed to calm his heart and wait for Brady’s call. At the appointed minute, the phone buzzed: FaceTime. Jensen wasn’t expecting this, so he hustled out of bed and put on a shirt.
He congratulated Brady and welcomed him to the team. He estimates there were two minutes of pleasantries before Brady got to the point: a center’s butt sweat. He doesn’t like it, not even a little, and through the years he has developed a system to combat it.
“Yeah, the first couple of minutes was just, ‘Hey, where do you live in Tampa?'” Jensen says, “and then it was right to 20 minutes of ‘We’re going to shove a towel down your ass and put powder everywhere.’ Well … OK. I guess you don’t get to be as good as he is for that long without some quirks.”
JENSEN IS THE NFL’s highest-paid center, in the third year of a four-year, $42 million contract, and it still doesn’t seem real. When he received the contract offer, he sent his father a text: DAD CALL ME NOW. Dean, alarmed, called and asked, “Hey, Red. What’s going on?” Ryan started crying, eventually getting around to spitting out the basics in between sobs.
“Forty-two million and 22 guaranteed for four years,” he said. “That’s what they’re giving me to play this stupid game.”
Every NFL player has an origin story, some great overcoming that has led to a big moment. At the risk of naivete, Jensen’s seems less plausible than most. He started at tackle as a freshman at Pueblo carrying 230 pounds and zero aspirations for an NFL career. (“All I had was effort and attitude,” he says. “I had to play nasty and through the whistle just to survive.”) In fact, the Jensen brothers had major plans for their future: Seth was supposed to be the rich professional football player, and the two of them would open a string of barbecue restaurants called Chickie Red’s.
“Life has a sense of humor,” says Seth, a Pueblo police officer. “I didn’t think where we are today was what was going to happen. But when those doors closed for me, they opened for him.”
During his sophomore year in college, Ryan wrote “HDTM” on his wrist tape on game days. The first time he wore it, he cut the tape after the game and handed it to Seth. “What the hell is this?” Seth asked. “His dream through me,” Ryan answered.
“I gave him s— at the time,” Seth says, “but I went home and bawled my eyes out.”
Ryan kept growing, and the next season an NFL scout came to campus to watch a quarterback, and Jensen was in the study lounge in the football facility when the scout asked him if he could help him reboot the film system.
Jensen stood up, and the scout asked, “Wait a minute — are you 66?”
“Put your feet shoulder-width apart, squat down and raise your hands over your head.”
This is weird, Jensen thought, but OK.
When that exercise was complete, the scout said, “Keep playing the way you’re playing and with your size, you’ll get a camp invite.”
Jensen asked Symington about it, and his coach said, “He’s not wrong.”
Symington knew of what he spoke: He coached former Packers offensive tackle T.J. Lang at Eastern Michigan, and there’s an 8-by-10 photo of Lang in uniform hanging in Symington’s office. The inscription reads, “Symo — thanks for teaching me to f— people up.”
Jensen treated that photo like a holy relic, and by the time he was a junior he worked up the nerve to ask Symo, “How do I get one of those?”
Symington had been waiting for this. He told Jensen to sell his dirt bike, a favorite but risky hobby, quit his summer job as a roofer for his uncle, and break up with his girlfriend. Jensen quit the job to dedicate the summer to working out, and got $4,500 for the dirt bike — “my most valuable possession,” he says — to help with room and board. (He and his girlfriend, however, stayed together through his senior season.)
Even after all that, though, Symington knew Jensen had to give the scouts a reason to care. “They don’t want to come all the way out here and work your ass out,” he told Jensen. “You have to make it impossible for them not to. You’ve got to be different. Play through the edge, wherever that edge is.”
Flags trailed in his wake. He got thrown out of a game for punching someone during a PAT. Opponents railed against his style, charging Symington with teaching dirty play. The NCAA called the program and threatened a suspension if Jensen — and, by inference, Symington — didn’t exercise more self-control.
“It got to the point where every play I was worried I’d see a flag coming out,” Symington says. “So we got together and figured out a strategy: How can we get the other guy to get the flag?” Symington says. “We worked it out: irritate, frustrate and dominate.”
(The edge exists in life, too, out there on the horizon, waiting to be crossed. Jensen is self-deprecating and mild-mannered, by all accounts a stand-up citizen and devoted father/husband, and it’s only fair to point out he’s had just one unnecessary-roughness penalty in the past two seasons. “I’ve always been able to go back to normal-person behavior when football is over,” he says. “Having our own martial arts studio in a small town helped — we couldn’t be out fighting in the streets.”)
Jensen was drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round in 2013. And so now, as Symo talks fondly of eye-gouging and index fingers to the Adam’s apple and “always having a presence around the pile,” there are two photos on the wall. Jensen’s hangs just below Lang’s, same 8-by-10, exact same inscription.
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