- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Waitresses hustled back and forth at the Bob Evans in Leesburg, Va. Country music plucked overhead, a light rain fell outside and folks lingered over their coffee. The biscuits and gravy were on the way, and everything was right in Jon Jansen’s world.

“You’re paying, too, right?” Jansen said with a hearty laugh.

Whatever. The Washington Redskins’ right tackle signed a $25million contract in December. You would think he could spring for lunch. Of course, you also would think he could pick out a fancier restaurant than Bob Evans, take the toll road to Redskin Park and wear a different T-shirt to the complex each day.

But he won’t do any of those things (except pay the check, which he did). In addition to having a clear identity as an NFL player — playing all but one down in four seasons, never missing a practice and whipping New York Giants star Michael Strahan on several occasions — Jansen as a person is painted in definite, broad strokes.

He’s Purcellville, Va. He’s softball on a Michigan summer evening. He’s a Wolverine, through and through. He’s old-school offensive line. And he’s his summer home in northern Michigan — not because it’s so big or so great, but because the only people you’ll see up there are the ones invited and those who hum past in their fishing boats.

It’s a carefully constructed existence, and this fall the 27-year-old hopes to refine the NFL aspects of it as he enters his football prime. He’s going to play better. He’s going to be more visible, even if things don’t go well. And he’s going to be a leader, no matter what Bill Romanowski says (more on that later).

Jansen expects a lot as he opens the second phase of his NFL career. Contract frustrations had him ready to leave Washington last season; instead, he re-signed just days before he would have headed into free agency. Now he is determined to win and, in turn, finally create some continuity in a franchise that has been in turmoil since he arrived.

“Right now winning is my only objective,” Jansen said. “It’s the only thing. My rookie year we went to the playoffs, and I got a taste of that. … And then to be close the next year, and some people might say the next couple years we weren’t close, but if one or two plays in the season go differently … instead of people being cut and fired and brought in, guys get to stick around because you’re winning games.”

Shagging flies

Some parts of the NFL simply aren’t Jansen. Sure, he loves the game, and his 6-foot-6, 305-pound frame begs for a blocking sled. But he has little in common with the growing Showtime aspect of the league. Terrell Owens has a Sharpie in his sock, and Jon Jansen has a bed full of smelly fishing gear in his pickup truck.

“Jon has found things that make him happy, like hunting and fishing,” said Larry Jansen, Jon’s father. “He hasn’t gravitated toward what you might consider a glamour-type life. That’s what reminds me that he’s still Jon.”

If it were up to Jansen, he would re-create the Hogs but not to challenge their legacy. He’s always deferential when discussing the famed Redskins linemen. But he believes he was meant to play in that era — or maybe even an earlier one.

“Not that guys aren’t tough now, but you look back and think, those guys were tough [dudes],” Jansen said. “They played because they loved it. … I would have liked to have experienced that.”

It seems whenever Jansen speaks wistfully it’s always of something simpler. Playing two decades ago before the NFL became a global commodity. Playing college football again for a scholarship not a contract. Or maybe just backpedaling across the outfield to catch a looping fly ball.

Softball, for those who don’t know, is like a religion in Michigan, where Jansen grew up, went to college and left his heart. Leagues dominate summer plans. Jansen played with his dad and older brother until his last year at Michigan. He drove back to the Detroit suburbs for doubleheaders Thursday nights.

“That last year, it was obvious that football was very serious, and Jon said, ‘Dad, when I go to the pros, I’m not going to be able play anymore,’” Larry said. “We talked about what a great experience it was. It was family time. I still play two nights a week with my youngest and oldest sons, but it sure would be nice for all four of us to play together.”

If it were up to Jansen, that wish would come true.

“There is nothing like catching a fly ball,” he said in that wistful tone.

Larry and Ellen, a middle-school band teacher and third-grade teacher, recently moved to Oxford, Mich., where their youngest son, David, is just five minutes away. Matt, the oldest, is within a half-hour, too. And all of them are near Clausen, the Detroit suburb where Jon grew up. Jansen believes much of who he is comes from his parents’ guidance and the small-town nature of Clausen.

“A small town, squeezed in between a bunch of big ones,” he said.

Not that he would ever go back. Childhood trips to his grandfather’s farm in southern Indiana created a lifelong love of open spaces. That’s why he lives out in Purcellville, about 10 miles beyond Leesburg. All he can stand is a day in Ann Arbor to watch a Wolverines game before continuing northward to “the moon,” as he and his wife, Martha, call their vacation home.

You won’t find the real Jon Jansen on “SportsCenter.” He’s out in Purcellville — or on the moon.

“When you hit the dirt road, you’re hitting our house,” Jansen said of the drive to northern Michigan, a journey affectionately called “going to the moon.”

‘Am I a Redskin?’

The moon’s landscape has been expanded, as you might expect, since December’s big contract. Capitalizing on being young, dependable and talented in the NFL makes for more than a few amenities in life.

But the deal’s reported value doesn’t reflect its cost to Jansen. Last season was difficult and uncertain, and right up until the final negotiations he believed he was headed elsewhere. He gave quarterback Patrick Ramsey all his phone numbers for hunting and fishing locally, and he and Martha were ready to put the house on the market.

“That was the toughest year I’ve had mentally,” Jansen said. “Just trying to prepare mentally every week to play the best I possibly could, to prove that they should spend the money on me. And if they didn’t, to prove that somebody else should.”

Ramsey, who as a rookie became fast friends with Jansen, could see the frustration. He called it “a struggle of interest.” Ramsey then struck upon the aspect of Jansen’s personality that made contract talks so tough: “He deals with things as they come along,” Ramsey said, “and he deals with them, and then they’re over with.”

Negotiations weren’t going to be dealt with and then be over. They started late and then stalled. The Redskins weren’t performing well. Jansen was playing below his expectations. And through it all, he considered the talks his one chance to set up his family for life. He didn’t want to botch them.

Seven months later, those close to him expect a better, more focused player.

“No question,” offensive line coach Kim Helton said. “I have no question that Jon Jansen will have a far better year this year than he had last year, and he had a solid year last year.

“You can’t go through that. You can’t go through wondering, ‘Am I a Redskin? Or am I not?’ … You’re out there trying to figure out what’s going on, and you’ve got four or five people involved in a conversation. … By the time it gets back to you as a player, well, you’re not worth crap, and we don’t want you. I’m glad that’s over with.”

A big year could lead to Jansen’s first Pro Bowl invitation. But as any NFL player will tell you, a lot more goes into a Pro Bowl trip than a great year and a first-class airline ticket — popularity and politics and image and perception. In short, they are the kind of things you won’t find among the smelly fishing gear in Jansen’s F-350.

Jansen refuses to make the Pro Bowl a goal. He won’t even say it’s important.

“It is, and it’s not,” he said. “It is important because a lot of people in 20 years will only look at, ‘How many Pro Bowls did this guy go to?’ On the cover, it’s important. But then you open up the book, and you find out this guy played for 10 years, never missed a snap, and you start looking a little bit deeper, and you figure out he was a pretty good player.

“What I hope people in 10 or 20 years look and say is, ‘He loved to play football, he liked to play for the Washington Redskins, and he gave everything he could.’”

In other words, he wants to go to the Pro Bowl. And that’s how he ended up on ESPN with Romanowski.

See you in Houston

In April, Jansen was on his way to a wedding in Georgia when his agent called. ESPN was doing a round-table discussion with NFL players to supplement its draft coverage, and Jansen had been invited. Since he was trying to broaden his exposure, it made a lot of sense to participate. So Martha dropped him off in Charlotte for the flight to New York.

The next morning, coverage of the draft periodically returned to the round-table. At one point the topic was Washington’s chances this season with a second-year quarterback and a cast of new faces on offense. Romanowski wasn’t impressed. He wondered who the leader of the offense would be.

Jansen pointed to himself.

“An offensive tackle is going to lead the team?” Romanowski asked.

Jansen said he would meet Romanowski at midfield for the coin toss at the Super Bowl. When Romanowski asked whether Washington really could reach the Super Bowl, Jansen replied, “No doubt about it.”

Months later, Jansen remained angry.

“That’s something that’s just burned my [butt] since the day it happened,” Jansen said. “I didn’t know that was coming. If I had known, I might have come across the couch, and we would have gone at it at that point.”

The truth is Jansen is a leader of this team. In some ways, it might be by default, but Helton and Ramsey believe Jansen fits their definition of a natural and powerful leader.

“It’s a guy who’s not afraid to outwork people, and it’s a guy who’s not afraid to ask people to work hard,” Helton said. “And he’s not afraid to stand up in front of the group and say, ‘Hey, it’s us not getting it done. It’s me. It starts with me.’ … That’s what he does. I think he has tremendous leadership skills.”

Leadership is a tricky thing. Sometimes players need urging, and other times a voice grows stale. There’s a fine line, but in Ramsey’s opinion Jansen walks it. The quarterback recalled an incident in camp last week.

“You have rookies come in, and guys are going to give them grief,” Ramsey said. “They were all calling for a guy to go in and sing. And Jon just kind of pulled him aside and said, ‘Don’t fight this. Just go do it.’ He went up and sang a song, and somebody had already sung it, and they were like, ‘No, no, he’s got to do another one,’ and Jon said, ‘No, he’s done.’ And everybody was like, cool.

“He let the guy go through the situation, he kind of guided him through it, and when people tried to abuse it, he said, ‘No, he’s done.’ He took care of the guy. He gets it. There’s no question he gets it.”

But there’s another aspect of leadership Jansen must master: Speaking to the media. In recent years, Jansen disappeared as the Redskins sank toward mediocrity. He vows that won’t happen this year.

“It’s something that my wife and I have talked about,” Jansen said. “A lot of times she has to remind me, ‘Would you just be nice once in awhile?’ You know, my nature is to fight. I can be a nice guy off the field. But when I go to [Redskin Park], I have this feeling of tension always inside me. If we would just win some more games, I think that would do more for my personal health down the road.”

‘Picture perfect’

Back at Bob Evans, Jansen talked in that wistful tone again, this time about the moon. He grabbed a pen, flipped over his placemat and began drawing. He sketched the string of lakes, the peninsula and the road and then marked where the pavement ends and the dirt road begins.

“To fly over during summer, you’d think you were in the Caribbean,” he said. “It’s clean, it’s beautiful.”

Asked whether he ever got lonely out there at night, he laughed.

“To be there alone and just to watch the sun go down — it doesn’t get dark there until 10:30 at night,” Jansen explained. “It’s so serene. One night it rained, the other night it was windy, and the last night I was there, it was just picture perfect. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Carefully constructed indeed. From the moon to FedEx Field, off the field and on it, Jansen knows exactly what he wants to be.

“There’s a spot in my life right now where there’s room for both of them,” Jansen said. “I enjoy being in Washington and the thought of being a Washington Redskin. Being a lineman, hopefully we can re-create, not necessarily the Hogs, but the mystique of the offensive line and the history that’s there.”

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