In August 2013, Jon Christenson had $200 in his bank account, a starting spot on the Minnesota offensive line and a tough reality to face: It was time to give up football.
A 6' 4", 305-pounder who starred at Minnetonka High just down the road from Minneapolis, Christenson had grown up a Minnesota fan and dreamed of one day suiting up for the Golden Gophers. In a move that surprised outsiders but was supported by his family, Christenson turned down Ivy League opportunities to walk on at Minnesota, pledging his commitment before he'd ever met head coach Jerry Kill.
He worked odd jobs like umpiring baseball games throughout high school, and saved up for two years' worth of tuition. He redshirted his freshman year while living in the dorms, moved into his older brother's basement to conserve money and started six games in 2012. But low on cash with a tuition bill due, Christenson recalls thinking it was time to "grow up and be an adult."
Then Kill called Christenson into his office. As someone who walked on at NAIA Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., "forever ago," Kill has a soft spot for guys who play their guts out with no guarantees. His reasoning for extending aid was simple: "He was starting for us!" And the Gophers didn't want to lose him.
"We've scholarshiped I don't know how many walk-ons since I've been there," Kill says. "And if they come in, they're starting for us and they're contributing, we're gonna scholarship them."
When Kill's staff initially approached Christenson with the idea of walking on three days before National Signing Day in 2011, he hesitated. "I'd seen the movie Rudy and he was a bag-holder," Christenson says. "I didn't want to be that."
He had toured and seriously considered going to Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth, all of which would have provided an ideal degree for someone who plans to become a doctor. But he chose Minnesota after reading that Kill had been named the Fellowship of Christian Athlete coach of the year. Christenson, who describes himself as "a man of deep faith," wanted to play for someone whose values matched his own.
Within a week, Christenson says, "I realized, hey, I can play with these guys." In a bid to catch up to the rest of the Big Ten physically, he estimates he consumed almost 5,000 calories a day as a redshirt in 2011, adding 40 pounds of muscle to what was then a lean 265-pound frame. By '13 he was the starting center, helping Minnesota set rushing records—like when the offense went for 353 yards in a 24–7 win over San Jose State last September, its most since '05—before a broken leg sidelined him.
Christenson, Kill says, has the type of charismatic, easygoing personality that makes him popular in the locker room. He's also a little different than the average college football player.
Christenson has already graduated with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and is now pursuing his master's in public health. (Older brother James is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry and Jon jokes that it was "nice having a personal TA" as a roommate.) When a defender rammed into his left leg on the goal line at Indiana on Nov. 2, 2013, snapping his tibia and fibula in half, Christenson held up his leg, saw "the ankle complex dangling," and correctly diagnosed his injury to the medical staff.
He had surgery, got a rod inserted from his ankle to knee and, before hopping on the fan charter to attend the Gophers' bowl game in Houston, drove 10 hours to surprise his then-girlfriend, Erika, and propose to her with a ring purchased from saving scholarship checks. "I even managed to get down on one knee!" he recalls, adding that it took practice to make the gesture smooth and crutch-free.
Photo courtesy of Erika Christenson
At 23, he's the only married student-athlete at Minnesota, a fact his teammates both admire and use as ammunition. (Erika, a former Minnesota student, now works as an office manager.) He tells them "going home to your best friend every day is the best feeling in the world," and a great way to learn "exactly how selfish you are." He speaks at team chapel, wowing coaches and players with his thoughtfulness.
Christenson shucks technology, refusing to pay for cable at his apartment. Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media are unnecessary and "a distraction from marriage," he says, so he's good without those, too. He and Erika own a TV, but only because it came as a gift at the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl. Mostly they use it to watch NFL and college games—"she likes football quite a bit," Christenson says, which prompts a hearty laugh from Erika—and Netflix, a service gifted to them on their wedding day. And in a move that belies his generation, Christenson only recently purchased a smart phone. As in, six months ago.
"My flip phone could go a week without charging," he says wistfully. "Now, I have to charge my Android every night."
Adds Kill: "Between football and studying to be a doctor and being married, I don't think TV and that [other] stuff is a priority."
Christenson has battled his share of injuries this season, too, missing four games as he healed from torn cartilage and a scope on his right knee. He returned last week in the Gophers' 41–13 win over Purdue, helping Minnesota rack up 326 rushing yards.
Despite a rash of injuries, Christenson has never been deterred from chasing his football goals—which has made an impression on his wife. "One of the things I really admire about Jon his that he has remarkable diligence," Erika says. "It's so neat to be around someone who works for their dream. Someday, we'll be able to tell our kids, 'Look what he did, look what he sacrificed for his dream.'"
He isn't sure what's next. In the short term, he'll attempt to help the Gophers (4–2) get to the eight-win mark for the third consecutive season. His long-term future lies in the medical world, at least according to family history: "On my dad's side of the family, there are more people with 'Dr.' in front of their names than 'Mr.' or 'Mrs.'," he says. Like most college football players, he dreams of playing in the NFL. Canada, he says, is not an option. "Being in football, it's tough for my wife," he says. "She's a trooper. I don't want to drag her all over the place."
Five years ago, for a skinny kid with nothing more than a work ethic and crazy aspirations, the NFL might have seemed a ridiculous reach. But given what he's already accomplished, Kill says no one should assume anything. "He's got a lot of fight, faith and believes in himself," Kill says. "I wouldn't put anything past Jon."