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March 13, 2013EVANSTON-There are still more than five months until the opening game of the Northwestern football season, but fifth-year senior wide receiver Mike Jensen has already scored the biggest catch of his career.
On the morning after Northwestern's softball team returned from a recent tournament in California, Jensen was at the door of senior center fielder Kristin Scharkey. In hand were a dozen roses and a diamond ring.
Considering Scharkey has only been caught stealing 11 times in 64 attempts during her career, Jensen is quite proud of his catch.
"It was a great moment, she was very surprised,'' Jensen says. "She had told me the type of diamond she wanted and I was able to pick it out and design it myself.''
The couple has not scheduled a wedding date as of yet. Most likely it will be in 2014, but there are still some pressing issues, such as graduation later this spring. Jensen will be receiving a mechanical engineering degree with a certificate in design while Scharkey will earn her journalism degree.
Oh, and there's still that 2013 football season. Both Jensen and Scharkey, who both hail from California, will return to Northwestern this fall as graduate students. And if Jensen plays the way he practices, the former walkon could be making a lot of big catches on the gridiron, maybe enough to remind Northwestern fans of another productive walkon wide receiver -- Zeke Markhausen.
Similar in size (Jensen is 6-foot, 180 pounds and Markhausen was 5-foot-11, 185), the two players have taken similar paths, including the same bachelor's degree. Both players were awarded scholarships from head coach Pat Fitzgerald entering their senior seasons.
Jensen has four catches (46 yards) entering his final campaign and Markhausen had one (6 yards) prior to the 2009 season. But what Markhausen did in that final year was one for the record books -- 91 catches (second in Wildcat history) for 858 yards.
"I want to beat him. Why not, right?'' Jensen says with a big smile. "What Zeke did that season was unbelievable.''
Considering the stable of receivers returning along with a 1,000-yard tailback, odds are against anyone approaching that 91-catch mark in 2013. But what Northwestern fans may soon find out is Jensen might just have the best pair of hands on the team.
"Mike came here as a defensive back, but he didn't have the magical hips and feet,'' Fitzgerald says. "However, he could run, so we transitioned him to wide receiver in the spring. He caught the ball OK, but now he is outstanding at catching the ball and is having a great spring.'
"Northwestern was the only school that offered me the opportunity to play football,'' says the former all-state defensive back. "And you can't say no to the academics here. I wanted to play football at the highest level possible and I wanted to give this my best shot. It's been a lot of fun.''
Most of Jensen's playing time has been relegated to special teams. He posted nine tackles as a redshirt freshman and followed that up with six tackles and a forced fumble in 2011 and 10 tackles last year.
But it didn't take long for the coaching staff to notice the leadership abilities of the Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. native. Following his freshman year, he became the first walkon to be named to the team's Leadership Council. He now enters his fourth year in the same capacity.
"Most of our walkons are special young men and we've got a great track record with walkons,'' Fitzgerald says. "There is no better example currently than Michael Jensen. He's the ultimate team player and if he's not our most consistent special teams player, he's certainly in the conversation.''
Jensen says it was a great honor when he was first named to the Leadership Council, "and to keep being voted back is very special. It made me feel like what I was doing was of value and working in what I was trying to bring to the table.''
And what does Jensen bring to the table?
"Tenacity, focus and a really hard work ethic where I don't allow myself to slip up,'' he says. "I'm not going to allow my level of play to drop, nor am I going to allow the play of my other receivers to drop.
"As a leader, the biggest thing I am trying to instill is camaraderie and community, trying to make teammates understand we can have fun off the field and in the meeting rooms and have that translate onto the field. You understand the guy next to you and what he needs going through practice.
"When I came in, I found that every position group was very close, and from then I think we have brought it from every position room being close, to the defense being close and the offense being close, and now the team is coming together. That's what coach Fitz is always talking about, through the offseason and spring we're trying to get that community going.''
According to both Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall, Jensen's work ethic has been a model for others to follow.
"He's a try-hard guy that's going to keep pounding at you,'' McCall says. "He just does stuff right. He's not the fastest guy, not the tallest guy, not the strongest guy nor does he have a great wiggle, but he just does stuff right.
"There are a lot of similarities between Zeke and Mike. Zeke got playing time in his last year and made some big catches. Mike is going to be in the rotation this year and is going to help us. With our tempo, we need all the depth we can get at wide receiver.''
Jensen says that he learned a lot on the job from former Wildcat receivers.
"It was great to have guys like Zeke, Jeremy Ebert and Demetrius Fields as friends and role models,'' Jensen says. "It's been very helpful to grow up under those guys and talk through things with them in the meeting room. I still talk to Zeke every now and then.
"The hardest things to learn about being a wide receiver are learning all the little skills, like pad level, catching the ball, and how to run routes in order to throw the defensive back off. Instead of running the route as drawn on paper, you have to understand the defense and how you can make that line on the paper come alive and change it to make it work better.''
According to Jensen, the easiest thing to learn was blocking.
"Remember, I was a defensive player growing up,'' he says. "As a defensive player, I loved to hit. I enjoy the physical aspect.''