What is your passion? If you looked up to someone in the field you wanted to work in would you contact that person? Well Sean Jensen did just that. During his high school years Sean was living with his family in Virginia. He loved sports. He loved reading about sports in the Washington Post and USA Today. Two of his favorite journalists are Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of the Washington Post. He’d ask them about what they wrote. He’d ask them about what they were going to write. Wilbon even gave Sean some career advice.
Fast forward to his time right out of college he started working for a newspaper covering the Green Bay Packers. He went to fourteen Super Bowls for work. He got cover the Olympics. He got to cover The Masters. He was living the dream. He accomplished his high school goal of becoming a sports journalist. Then he gave it all up.
What would make Sean leave his dream job? Fatherhood. When Sean saw that his son needed him around instead of covering the ins and outs of the NFL, Jensen left his career. He wanted to be there for his son and daughter. Being adopted and not knowing his biological father made him vow to make sure that if he had kids that he would be there for him.
While reading to his kids Sean found that the books on athletes were not putting a spotlight on the person. Sean wanted to make children’s books that focused more on the person than the athlete. He came up with a concept and worked with Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher, to create the book “Middle School Rules.”
I had the great pleasure of talking with Sean about the book, “Middle School Rules,” fatherhood, and his passion for sports and journalism.
Art Eddy: Tell me about the book you wrote with former Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher called “Middle School Rules.”
Sean Jensen: I covered the Chicago Bears from 2010 to 2013. In that time I got to know Brian and a lot of the other Bears. Honestly the inspiration came from me reading to my son, Elijah. I would try to read to my son every day. He loves sports. He is very excitable. I noticed that he was drawn to the naughty characters in books. He thought that was hilarious.
The stories that are about the male character that do mischievous things and then people forgive him and that is the end of the story. I really felt frustrated that those were the stories that he felt drawn to. I really challenged myself. Anything that is happening for me is either a positive or a negative. What kind of food am I putting into my body? Is it positive or negative? What time of music am I listening to? Is it positive or negative?
So when it comes to books is it a positive thing that my son is consuming or is it negative. I found the ones that my son was enjoying were negative. There was no redeeming value to what we were reading. It would be the naughty character does this. Then people forgive and then the story was over. There is no lesson. There is no takeaway.
I challenged myself. I am a writer. What could I possibly write that my son was interested in? I love sports and my son loves sports. I started to look out at what sports books were out there for kids. What I didn’t see was actual stories of real athletes. If there were it would be like hey its Peyton Manning. He played at Tennessee and he won a Super Bowl. That would be the book. There is really no story to it. It is just a summation with some pictures. You don’t find out who Peyton Manning really is.
That’s where the idea came from. That is what my passion is. My passion is storytelling. Who is this person? Every person that I meet I find is fascinating. I wanted to focus on who the athlete was. Not as an athlete in that sport, but as a person. What was it about their childhood that help shape who they are? That was the initial idea. Fortunately I had offers to write books before. I talked to a publisher that I liked. He loved the idea. We developed it. That is how the project came to be.
AE: How was it to work with Brian on this book and what did you learn about Brian while working with him?
SJ: One of the things that fascinated me about Brian was that he was very well known in Chicago, but I really felt that Brian really never shared. I felt that Brian really never opened up about himself and revealed himself and who he is about. Brian likes to talk about other people, but he doesn’t like to talk about himself. That intrigued me. I knew he grew up with a single mom. I knew he grew up in a little town. There really wasn’t all that much about his childhood which fascinated me more.
If you are picking an athlete to work with especially for a kid book you want to make sure that you pick someone who won’t embarrass you. You want someone with high character because what parent is going to want to read a book to their child who they don’t view in a positive light.
Brian had a great story. In my interaction with him I found him to be a person of very high character. We have a mutual respect for one another. He respected the way I did my job. I respected that he was a player that was easy to deal with from a media perspective. When I pitched the idea to him he loved it. His story and the challenges he dealt with might inspire kids out there.
AE: I loved reading your story and how you would call up Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser when you were in high school to learn how they write. What inspired you to do that?
SJ: It had to do with my personality. I was born in Korea. I was adopted. My father who adopted me was in the Air Force. We moved a couple times. One of the things about moving a few times is that you have to make friends. You have to learn how to make friends quickly. One of my gifts is being able to connect with people quickly.
When I was in Alexandria, Virginia going to high school in Mt. Vernon I loved reading The Washington Post. Obviously some phenomenal sports writers were there. USA Today was based out there as well. I was fortunate to have these amazing news outlets very close to me. Back then it was before the internet. At the bottom of every story that every reporter at The Washington Post wrote was their phone number. If you have any questions call this person. I still can remember Michael Wilbon’s phone number.
I would just start calling them. Some people marveled at the fact that I did it. Well I was a kid. I was interested in journalism. I was interested in writing. I thought Michael Wilbon was pretty cool. I thought Tony Kornheiser was pretty cool. There was a lot of these people that I would reach out to. I started a sports section for a student run newspaper called Young D.C. I was the founding sports editor. I would reach out to notable sports personalities and get their sports predictions. Every Friday after school I would go home and call Wilbon and Kornheiser. I would ask them about the different events that they were covering. I would be very respectful. I wouldn’t take up too much of their time. I would have three or four questions ready for them every time I called.
AE: What was the best piece of advice that they gave you?
SJ: I told Mike that I wanted to be like him one day. He said that is easy. You got to go to Medill. I asked him what Medill was. He said it was the journalism school at Northwestern University. I had never even heard of the school. Because of Michael Wilbon I ended up applying to Northwestern University early decision for their journalism program. I got in. That is why I ended up at Northwestern University. It was because of Michael Wilbon.
SJ: I have been fortunate to have covered fourteen Super Bowls. That number just blows some people’s minds. Yet two things stand out. One was covering the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. That was a moment where I was like wow. I got paid to cover the Olympics. When I was a kid I loved the Olympics. I love the summer Olympics in particular. To be able to go to China and cover the Olympic was amazing.
The other event was the year that Zach Johnson won The Masters. I covered it for AOL. I had so much fun. As an adult I became a golf fan. I was able to play that course the next day after The Masters was done. I was a terrible golfer at the time, but it was a great opportunity. How many people can say that have played at Augusta National?
AE: Now switching to fatherhood, what are some of the morals you look to pass on to your children as they grow up?
SJ: Wow that is such a deep question. I became a Christian late in life. I didn’t grow up going to church. Then started going to church in my late twenties. I was just thankful. I became a deacon at my church. I truly try to live my life to love the Lord. What my wife and I try to instill in our children is just that. God loves them. The grace and love of Jesus is what we want them to feel at all times. We want that to be a big part of who they are.
Another thing that I try to teach my kids is to be resilient. My son loves football. My wife is horrified by the fact that he loves football so much. He plays Madden any time we will let him. We try to minimize his screen time. He wants to play catch with me every single day. I tell him that talent is never enough. I try to highlight to him perseverance and grit. Those are the kinds of qualities that are really going to separate people. I tell him that Tom Brady was a sixth round pick. He only played a full year at Michigan. My son loves Tom Brady. I tell him that Tom is not a great athlete. That is not what makes Tom Brady special. Tom Brady has grit. Tom has always persevered. He has always believed in himself when other people haven’t. That is what I try to instill into my kids.
SJ: That is a great question. That is part of the reason of why I doing what I am doing now. I covered the NFL right after I graduated from Northwestern. I was very fortunate to cover the NFL right away. I covered the Packers in 1998. Then I covered the Minnesota Vikings. Then I covered the Chicago Bears. I worked for a lot of major newspapers and wrote for different websites.
In 2013 Elijah was going to start Kindergarten. He was having behavioral issues. My wife would tell me that when I was out of town for several days she would have a hard time reaching him. He wouldn’t listen and would go into a little bit of a funk. Growing up and being adopted and not knowing my biological mother and not having any sort of relationship with my biological father was always something on my heart.
I always said that if I have kids that I always want to be there for my kids. So here I was hearing my wife tell me that my son really needs me. I just decided that I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be this Mr. NFL writer that is traveling and on his phone twenty hours a day. I couldn’t be a father. It is just not realistic. So I decided that I wasn’t going to cover the NFL anymore.
My wife was working for a good company in Minnesota. I was commuting from Chicago to Minnesota. It was working fine, but I realized that it wasn’t feasible anymore. I decided that I was going to move back to Minnesota. I didn’t have a job lined up, but I was there. So when he started school in the fall of 2013 I drove him to school every day. I picked him up from school every day. I started picking up some consulting and freelance jobs. It was hard. It was really hard. I just decided to abandon my regular career so I could help my son get acclimated to school. The books were kind of a thing that through faith just came as an inspiration. I am hoping that these books are a way for me to be able to provide for my family.
AE: What advice do you have for new dads out there?
SJ: There is no substitute for time. There really isn’t. No matter what you do. There is no toy. There is no trip. There is no one singular thing that makes up for giving your kids a bath or reading to your kids or having breakfast with your kids. Being there to change diapers. Being there to stay home with them on the days that they are sick and can’t go to school. There is no substitute for it.
I am so grateful. Sure professionally I have taken a hit, but personally I couldn’t be happier to be present in my kids’ lives. Another secret that I would share is embrace the mundane. The things that we sometimes overlook like giving our kids a bath. Those are the things I think kids remember the most. I try to sing to my daughter every night. She loves that. If you asked her what her favorite thing about her dad is, she would probably say the singing. I think that is what she remembers. It isn’t the fact that I took her to the Kids Choice Awards last year.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: What is your favorite family movie you guys like to watch together?
SJ: Ugh. I don’t have a favorite, but if you ask collectively as a whole family, it would be “Frozen.” My daughter loves “Frozen.” My son can tolerate “Frozen.” The wife and I just don’t have a choice. (Both laugh.)
AE: Do you guys have a favorite song that you all like to sing and dance to as a family?
SJ: The song both my kids like and I find it very ironic that they like this song is “Cats in the Cradle.” They both like the song, which is funny because if you think of the words of the song. So when I sing this song it is almost like a reminder that I don’t want to be like this dad. Right now they also like the song “Big, Big House.” It is a Christian song. They also like “All About That Bass.” We listen to the Kidz Bop version.
SJ: We might be on it right now. We are in Los Angeles. We are on our way to the Nickelodeon for the Kids Choice Awards. We went last year. It was really fun. Nickelodeon really does a terrific job of making it a family friendly event.
AE: Favorite book growing up was?
SJ: When I was a kid the book that I remember the most was reading “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I really, really enjoyed that book.
AE: Which athlete would you love to work with for your next book?
SJ: I would love to tell the story of Kevin Durant. Here is a kid that was on nobody’s radar when he was 14 years old. All of a sudden things just change for him when he has a growth spurt and ends up at the University of Texas. Athletes like KD I am fascinated by.
Follow Sean on Twitter @seankjensen
Get “Middle School Rules” by clicking HERE.