LAWRENCE — For Jeff Jacobsen, the sobering reality set in on the flight home.
Like dozens of student athletes at Kansas, several of whom were on the same trip back, a jarring finality had been delivered to Jacobsen, a longtime photographer in the university’s athletic department.
“Boy, I know I’m retiring at the end of June, but suddenly, boom, it’s just over,” said Jacobsen, a 68-year-old Topekan. “I sat on the airplane just coming home (Friday) night on my calendar just wiping out event after event after event after event after event.”
Now in his 23rd academic year behind the lens at Jayhawk athletic events, Jacobsen is one of countless individuals affected by the coronavirus’ shutdown of collegiate sports, though his situation is uniquely difficult to process — the Lincoln, Neb., native and former photographer for the Kansas City Royals and Topeka Capital-Journal will retire in three months, ending a decorated 51-year professional career.
Jacobsen had planned to go part-time after shooting the top-ranked Jayhawk men’s basketball team’s run in the NCAA Tournament. With March Madness and all other spring athletic events now canceled, Jacobsen is left with a blank itinerary and uncertainty as to whether he’s photographed his last competitive event for KU.
“It cuts me to the core right now, but I’ve got to suck it up and move on,” said Jacobsen, who recently released a book, “Tribute to Crimson & the Blue,” that contains 250 of his best KU sports photos. “Hey listen: I don’t think any retirement is ever really that pretty, you know? There’s always something that makes anybody’s retirement not exactly the way it was (planned), and it’s certainly not the way I expected my career at KU to end. But again, there’s bigger things at play than my career, that’s for sure.”
Jacobsen picked up that perspective during what may have been his final road trip with KU.
While men’s basketball was at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament, Jacobsen went south, off to Albuquerque, N.M., for the NCAA indoor track and field championships. From KU’s arrival, though, Jacobsen sensed the escalating uncertainty of the soon-to-be-canceled meet.
A Thursday dinner was particularly emblematic of the dire situation. Seated near track and field head coach Stanley Redwine and various assistant coaches, Jacobsen watched as that group fielded nonstop text messages from anyone even tangentially associated with the program.
“It was just kind of mass confusion in a sense. Just so bizarre,” Jacobsen said. “Just constantly, ‘Well, this has been canceled, this has been canceled, now this, now this, now this.’ You could tell that it was wearing (on everyone). When you walk through the lobby of the hotel, there were other student athletes and coaches and stuff, and especially the coaches, they’re just sitting there in bewilderment, like, ‘What in the world are we going to do?’ ”
Jacobsen noted that the Jayhawk athletes did a surprisingly good job of going with the flow of the situation, though their disappointment was obvious. Jacobsen’s own thoughts went to standouts Gleb Dudarev, a senior thrower, and Zach Bradford, a sophomore pole vaulter, whose national championship aspirations evaporated with the delivery of a single text message.
“I heard (from athletes), ‘Well, if I can come back I’ll be back.’ Other people in the lobby, ‘No, I don’t think I’ll be back,’ ” said Jacobsen, referring to the NCAA’s decision Friday to grant an extra year of eligibility to spring sport competitors whose seasons were wiped out. “So it was just kind of a mishmash. I really feel sorry for all the kids that they don’t get to end their careers on a high note.”
The NCAA has yet to rule on the future of athletes in winter sports programs, but at the very least, Jayhawk men’s basketball senior standout Udoka Azubuike and sophomore point guard Devon Dotson have in all likelihood played their final collegiate contests. Upon his return from Albuquerque, Jacobsen was set to join what almost certainly would’ve been a top-seeded KU squad that sought to cap its special season with the program’s sixth national championship.
Instead, it’s an underwhelming finish to what was a fascinating campaign — and for Jacobsen, the end of a career shooting one of the nation’s highest-profile teams in any sport.
Jacobsen said the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament “really struck (him) hard.”
“They were the prohibitive favorites. In a season where it’s hard to decide who was the best team in the country, KU clearly stood out,” Jacobsen said. “… Even if you’re not a KU fan you can’t help but feel sorry for them and all the other teams that had a chance to do something special. I mean, they call it March Madness because of basketball, but this month, this truly is madness, because it’s March Madness for the world.”
The “harsh reality” of his own situation “came and smacked” Jacobsen in the face Friday afternoon when the Big 12 canceled the remainder of its spring sports seasons, dashing the last bit of hope that something from this semester could be salvaged. Jacobsen and the KU track and field team learned that news while waiting at the airport in Albuquerque ahead of what became a surreal flight.
At the forefront of Jacobsen’s mind was his wife, Laura, an associate director of academic career counseling for the Jayhawk swimming and diving and rowing programs. Also a photographer, she had been at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., to shoot the women’s basketball team at a Big 12 Tournament that never tipped off.
“I know one thing: She wanted me to get home, and I wanted to get home,” Jeff Jacobsen said. “It was strange to sit on an airplane where everybody is wiping everything down and you’re having flight attendants come down the aisles for you to drop your wipes into a bag. There’s people with masks and all the different things going on. My daughters are sending me pictures of just empty shelves in grocery stores. ...
“It felt like you were in some kind of movie where in 72 hours you come back home and the world has completely changed. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in anything like this — 9/11 was such a monstrous, ghastly, immediate shock. This has been a much more slower, in a sense more painful way to end things because I don’t think people really fully understand what this virus is. I know I don’t. I don’t think they know what the dangers of what a pandemic are. … We’re so far away from the point where we can start to see the downslope to normality.”
Jacobsen has elected to self-isolate for the next few days, with some exceptions — “I’ll probably ride my bike a lot, do a lot of cycling, even in the rain next week. Then I’ll figure out what I need to do,” he said.
The Topekan’s attention has also turned to fundraising for a project he intended to dive into upon his retirement: a three-year plan to shoot smaller sports across all 105 counties in Kansas. Jacobsen founded a not-for-profit organization to help facilitate the venture and intends to donate an audio-visual show to the state at the end of the project.
“Here I am, I’m almost 69 years old, but my wife thinks I’m going on 16. And it’s because of being around these people. I absolutely adore those people. I’m going to miss that,” Jacobsen said. “... I’m looking forward to this (project) and everything, but just like everybody else that’s going to be leaving KU, I wish I could’ve ended on a little higher note than suddenly a text message saying to me and all these student athletes, ‘Your season and all these NCAA competitions are wiped out.’ That’s tough for them to swallow, and it’s surprisingly tough for me to swallow.”
For now, Jacobsen will simply hope and pray for the future of his city, the country and the world.
“I do know this: Out of the worst things in my life, the Lord has blessed me with the best things,” Jacobsen said. “I hope it’s the same for me and for our country and for our world, that out of this we learn something, we’re able to approach things differently and that life will go on.”
To contact Jacobsen or donate to his not-for-profit project to photograph smaller sports in all 105 counties in Kansas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.