Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
Tick, tick, tick. So goes the chime of club striking ball as Jenny Hansen stands on a range in the heart of America hitting shots, steady as a metronome. It's a sound that's been echoing since July 2006, when Hansen wrote a letter that in essence asked a single question: Should I attempt to play professional golf?
The notion was not outrageous. In 2002, as a senior at the University of Nebraska-Kearny, Hansen won the individual championship of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and the NCAA Division II Western Regional and was named a D-II All-America. She might have made the jump to pro golf right then, but there was this guy.
His name was Jeff Hansen. A police officer five years her senior, Jeff had met Jenny during her junior year and had since become the most enthusiastic member of her very exclusive gallery. When Jeff proposed, it was on the 18th green after the final round of the NCAA Division II Golf Championship.
Jenny literally put down her clubs to put on her ring. She didn't want to start a marriage with the travel, emotional stress and financial strain of grinding her way up through the mini-tours. "I made a choice to work and have a family and be small-town Nebraska, and I was very happy with it," she says.
But in June '02 Jeff's National Guard Reserve unit was activated, so on Oct. 12, Jeff and Jenny were married and two days later he shipped out to Bosnia. Eleven months later, Jeff was back among the civilian ranks, where he landed a job as a federal police officer while Jenny worked as a restaurant manager. They bought a house, got a dog and settled in.
Uncle Sam wasn't done with Jeff. In March of '06 Jeff was sent to Iraq. Jenny had never completely stopped playing golf but now found herself on the course more, a way to keep her mind off what her husband was going through. She joined a local league. Tick. She won the state amateur championship. Tick. She qualified for the Women's U.S. Mid-Amateur. Tick. That last accomplishment "got that fire burning again," she says. So one night, locked up in the little house, alone with the dog, she wrote that letter: Should I attempt to play professional golf?
A few days later, on August 22, Jenny was at work when a call came in. There had been an accident. The humvee Jeff had been riding in hit a sinkhole and flipped over, landing upside down in a canal. Medical personnel were able to revive Jeff, but he was in a coma and being airlifted to Landstuhl Medical Center, a U.S. Army installation in Germany.
Five days later Jenny arrived. "I knew as soon as I walked into the room that he never left Iraq," she says. Along with her mother and father-in-law she communed beside Jeff's bed, then they decided to have the machines turned off. Within an hour Jeff was dead. "It was a hard, hard decision, to have all that on your shoulders when you're only 26..."
Her voice trails off.
Jenny returned home to a military funeral, a broken heart and a lonely house. Then a piece of mail arrived. From Jeff. He'd received her letter, pondered her golf question and written back. His message from beyond: Go for it.
Jenny threw herself into the game and three months later, in November, she played in the qualifying tournament for the Futures tour and earned partial status on the LPGA feeder circuit. She had limited success on the course last season (nine starts, no cuts made), but met her main goal: "I just wanted to get through the year," she says. She did more. She started red shirt Fridays, in which she and several other players wear red to support the troops.
Returning to Q school a few weeks ago, Hansen once again secured non-exempt status and looks forward to a second turn on the Futures tour. "I'm improving every day and I feel 100 percent like I'll make it," Hansen says. "The nightmares have gone away and I've started having positive dreams about him again."
Every day Hansen steps onto a driving range shouts into the void: Should I attempt to play professional golf? In reality, she's asking the questions that sports, in their best moments, always ask. Should I endeavor to succeed? Should I persevere? Should I try?
Jenny Hansen should be SI's Sportsman of the Year because no one has answered those questions better than her. Tick, tick, tick.
Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.