Football: Injuries no match for Jeske’s perseverance

Andrew Simon

Near the bottom of the statistics sheet from Northwestern’s spring football game, an inconspicuous line reveals that Chris Jeske recorded one tackle, a mark 16 other NU defenders surpassed.

None of those 16 overcame more just to be on the field.

Entering his fifth year at NU, Jeske has spent far more time on the operating table than he has playing. With a horrific back injury, three knee surgeries and only four games played behind him, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound middle linebacker is finally healthy and ready to contribute to the Wildcats’ defense.

Listed as the backup at middle linebacker to junior Nate Williams on the 2009 preseason depth chart, Jeske played with both the first and second units during the spring football game at Ryan Field.

“I’m going to tell you the honest truth,” he said after the game. “It was awesome.”

It also was difficult for Jeske, who had not played linebacker in a game situation since his senior year of high school in 2004. He still is trying to get back in shape and redevelop the skills that come naturally with playing time.

“Your eyes have to develop, to be able to read the keys and everything like that, and then your body in space,” Jeske said. “If you’re not used to your body doing two or three things at once, like shedding a block while planting your feet and coming around, it’s a little difficult.”

Back in 2004, nobody could have predicted the course of Jeske’s NU career.

Rivals.com ranked him 19th nationally among inside linebackers as he led Joliet Catholic Academy to a No. 1 ranking in Illinois during his senior season. He never dealt with a serious injury.

But before his collegiate career could begin, Jeske suffered a severe back injury that took him out of action for two seasons. He returned for the Cats’ 2007 opener but hurt his knee and missed the rest of the season. Since then, he tore his ACL and had surgery on his meniscus, returning in time to play in three games at the end of last season.

“You wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy, the injuries he’s gone through,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But he’s never wavered and he’s worked hard, and that’s all you can ask.”

A few doctors told Jeske his football career was over after his back surgery, and although he lost feeling in his left foot for six months, Jeske said he never considered quitting.

“I thought maybe sometimes my playing days were over, but I didn’t want to be away from these guys,” he said. “These are the guys who helped me push through a lot of hard things, and I just wanted to be there for them, even if it was contributing in different ways.”

Jeske did exactly that, making an impact on special teams in 2008. Against Illinois in the regular season finale, he threw a block on a punt return that took out two Illini players and bought returner Brendan Smith an extra 20 yards.

As a fellow fifth-year senior, who is also Jeske’s roommate, Smith has been impressed not only with Jeske’s blocking but also with his attitude.

“It’s very tough when you think you’re healthy when you come off the back surgery and then – boom! You hurt your knee,” Smith said. “I can only imagine what he has gone through, but he has been positive the whole time, and he has worked hard to get back on the field.”

While Fitzgerald declined to speculate on Jeske’s exact role for 2009, he said there was “no question,” that it would be significant.

“I’m very pleased with the way his attitude has been, the way he’s been able to battle through injuries, when a lot of lesser men would have hung it up and called it a day, ” Fitzgerald said. “So at the end of the day, I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

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