The first time he tagged along to track down bad guys, T.J. Semke threw on jeans, boots and a cut-off T-shirt—the standard outfit for someone living in Lee's Summit, Mo.—in hopes that his toned frame might intimidate the law-breaker from running.
It didn't work.
When the man he was there to bring in took off upstairs, Semke sprinted after him, corralling him just before the intended target tried to escape through an attic window. And that was day one of bounty hunting, Semke's part-time gig.
After 20 years on the job, Mike Ippolito, a certified bail bondsman in Missouri and the boyfriend of Semke's mother, Audrey, describes himself as old and fat. So, if someone is going to chase people, why not have it be a hulking 6' 2", 248-pound college senior who doubles as a Division I walk-on defensive lineman? "T.J. has the legs and wind to do it," Ippolito says. "I'll just stand there and watch him jump over trees and fences going after guys. The rest of us can catch up later."
Good walk-on stories can be found everywhere in college football, but Semke's ranks among the best. Certainly it gets points for originality. After fracturing a vertebra during his junior year at Lee's Summit North High, Semke thought his football career was over. A neurosurgeon told him back surgery was inevitable, and the decisions Semke made when he was young would determine if he needed it at 40 or 70. Semke, the younger of two brothers who had a handful of small college scholarship offers, told Audrey, "I'm not going to destroy my back for some D-II school." He played through pain his senior year, accepted an invite to the Kansas-Missouri high school all-star game, turned down an opportunity to play in the Arena Football League and packed away his cleats. Though he didn't know it at the time, he'd pull them out two years later to join Kansas's team. Before any of that, though, he wanted one more adrenaline rush.
Fascinated by Ippolito's rugged, edgy career since the day they met, Semke begged to accompany him on bounty-hunting jobs. In the summer of 2011, when Semke had free time and was finally 18, Ippolito gave in.
A brief orientation, for the uneducated: What you see on TV—particularly on A&E's hit show Dog the Bounty Hunter—is, not surprisingly, an incomplete picture of what happens in real life. Ippolito says Dog focuses on "the last four hours of about two weeks' worth of work." There is no specific skill set necessary to be a bounty hunter, and if Ippolito had a business card he says it would coin him an "old-school bail bondsman." He is certified—basically, he filled out paperwork, took a class and passed a background check—but is not a police officer. He tries to use force only when necessary. He does not carry a badge, and neither he nor Semke have any sort of cool nickname. (Semke would welcome suggestions, though.)
When Ippolito bonds someone out of jail, that person "is my problem all the way through, dismissed or convicted. And if they miss court, that person becomes my headache." He estimates that for every 100 people he bails out, 20 will miss their court date. "Ten of those people usually have a legitimate reason, like they were at work," Ippolito says. "The other five are usually already in jail for something else. It's only about five percent that take some work to track down … and then about three of them run." Ippolito figures if he shows up with enough people, "that'll take the fight right outta them," and the odds of a person resisting decrease considerably. "What I've learned is that when you've got a kid as big as T.J., that tends to make people cooperate."
Audrey had reservations about her baby boy walking into bounty-hunting situations, but Ippolito assured her he would send T.J. to the car if anything got dicey. In the last two decades Ippolito has been shot at a few times and once had an elderly woman jump on his back howling, "But that's my grandson!" Semke says the scariest encounter he had came at his first job: After stopping the attic window escape, Semke found needles all over the floor, thankful he didn't get pricked.
Ippolito raves about Semke's determination and grit, and says Semke is the best recruit he ever landed. Ippolito marvels at the memory of one job, when a "jackrabbit of a guy" took off with a 40-yard head start. Semke ran him down and tackled him, "and it only took about 60 yards to do it." Semke laughs at the notion that bounty hunting requires the same fundamentals—get low, wrap up—as football tackling. His preferred move during bounty hunting, a headlock, would be a penalty on the field. "Chasing random guys is harder than chasing quarterbacks," says the defensive end, who started six games for the Jayhawks in 2014 and recorded 21 tackles, including two for loss. "With non-athletes, you don't have anyone blocking you. And none of those guys run a 4.4 or 4.7."
It's an unconventional job, to be sure. But it fits perfectly with Semke's personality. As an adrenaline junkie—he likes riding motorcycles, jumping off cliffs into lakes and can't wait to try skydiving—he needed something to substitute the charge he felt running on to the football field. "You've kinda got to be a nut to do it," Semke says, and it's possible he's talking about both of his passions.
Still, Semke came to be a college football player purely by happenstance. One day in 2012, while sitting in a philosophy class and flipping through the student paper, he noticed a 2" x 2" advertisement placed by former Kansas coach Charlie Weis looking for walk-ons. "I thought he was done with football," Audrey says now. "But he just couldn't let go."
Four days later Semke found himself on the football field, bent over and sucking in air after a dizzying number of conditioning drills. Turns out, chasing bad guys didn't get him into playing shape. But he made the cut as a fullback (he played receiver and linebacker in high school) and, after redshirting that season to get his back healthy, found a place on special teams. Initially "devastated" to hear he had taken up the sport again—"I don't want my son to be crippled," Audrey says—his mom relented when she learned about the care he would receive from the program's doctors and trainers. His back is better than ever, Audrey says, aided by that year away from the game.
After Semke played sparingly as a sophomore in 2013, news of his side job started filtering through the team as he climbed up the defensive depth chart last season. "Talk about diversity in the locker room!" says Ben Goodman, a senior defensive end. "I was pretty shocked when I heard. He's had a different lifestyle, that's for sure—and it gives us something to talk about, definitely."
It also gives them a method to intimidate newcomers. Goodman says coaches will occasionally point out Semke—and his bulging, tattoo-covered arms—to freshmen and warn the newbies, "You don't want to make that guy mad. He's a bounty hunter, so he's a little crazy."
"When I heard it, I just dismissed it because I didn't believe it," first-year Kansas coach David Beaty says. "Then I started looking at him, and he looks kinda like an MMA guy and I thought, 'Hmm, maybe you are.' But it's a dangerous trade. I'm not sure how much I want him doing it. We need him healthy." (Semke says the last time he went along with Ippolito for a bounty-hunting job was in May and, with football here, he will put it on hold until after the season. He'll fill a backup role for the Jayhawks again this fall.)
Weis awarded Semke a scholarship at the beginning of preseason camp last year, and Audrey cried when T.J. shared the news, emotional at the accomplishment, and at who wasn't there to share it. "If your dad were here …" she trailed off that night.
Robert Semke, Jr. passed away when T.J. was 8, after a three-year battle with a brain tumor. Before he died he taught T.J. everything he knew about sports. He preached toughness and perseverance, and told his boys a hard or scary situation was no reason to run away. He joined three fantasy football leagues, played on a slow-pitch softball team and quizzed T.J. on NFL teams' mascots and locations. (T.J. says proudly that by the first grade he could name every pro football team.) He passed on an outgoing, competitive personality to his youngest son. In elementary school, T.J. came home complaining about a lack of talent on his neighborhood basketball team, which had games that took place in driveways. When Audrey told him other kids had as much a right to play as him, he cried out, "But they're messing up my stats!" "Stats?" she asked incredulously. "What stats? You're in the second grade!"
"It makes me really sad, because his dad was such a football fan," she says now. "Even T.J.'s Pop Warner days, his team had an awesome ride, went to the national championship two years in a row. His dad would have loved that."
Death forced T.J. to grow up quickly. In junior high Audrey told T.J. it was time to "be a man." He responded with a hard look and a sad truth. "I've been a man since I was 8," he told her.
T.J. recalls long conversations about playing college and professional football, the dreams many young boys share with their fathers. He wonders what it would be like for Robert to see those accomplishments. But he knows this much for sure: His dad would be proud of everything he has done on the field. And he would approve of his off-field activities, too.
"Oh, I'm sure he'd love bounty hunting," T.J. says. "He was a tough guy, with a tough attitude. It would be something right up his alley. He'd probably want to be running right next to me."
This is the debut of The Walk-on, a weekly feature on Campus Rush. Check back every Wednesday for the latest installment. Know of a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.