Willowbrook's Jessen just keeps working

Updated 11/30/2017 2:21 PM
  • Willowbrook's Jack Jessen, left, led his team to the Class 6A quarterfinals playing both running back and linebacker.

      Willowbrook's Jack Jessen, left, led his team to the Class 6A quarterfinals playing both running back and linebacker. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

The text beamed into Nick Hildreth's cell phone sometime after midnight.

Mere hours after Willowbrook's football team claimed another Friday night victory, the Warriors' coach had forgotten to send the latest game film to his players to study.

Hildreth immediately knew the texter. It had to be Jack Jessen.

"Yeah, I knew it was him wanting to look at the film," Hildreth said with a laugh. "He played a whole game, probably sat in an ice bath afterward. And he still wanted to look at film that night. He never stops."

Jessen never stops.

Never stops running through level after level of defenders. Never stops leveling opposing runners while playing defense.

Never stops working. Never stops winning.

Jessen knows no other way.

"I've been like that ever since I was a little kid," he said. "Never able to sit down, always restless, always needing to do something. My parents told me when I was a baby I always had to be playing with a ball."

And he won't stop now.

With so much still to do, Jessen is the 2017 Daily Herald DuPage County Red Grange Football Captain.

"He was by far the best running back we faced, but we also always accounted for No. 24 on defense," said Downers Grove South coach Mark Molinari. "You just don't see kids like that who are that good on both sides of the ball. You see two-way players, but not that good on both sides."


All you need to know about Jessen's football motor is that he's a wrestler. There's no doubt the combination of the two sports helped him become one of the state's elite players the last three seasons.

"I instantly fell in love with both sports," said Jessen, who began competing in both when he was about 5 years old. "It took a lot of extra time and practice to get me where I am today, but putting in the extra work paid off.

"I definitely think wrestling helps out with football," he said. "I've been on big stages in wrestling and that's helped out with the bigger football games I've been in."

You also see the clear physical correlation. His explosion is similar in both sports, and it allowed him to shine on both sides of the ball.

This season Jessen rushed for 2,050 yards and 24 touchdowns -- both program records -- while leading the Warriors with 90 tackles at linebacker. The 5-foot-11 senior set four other program records, including most starts, and is the only Willowbrook football player to be a team captain for three years.

The Warriors made back-to-back quarterfinal appearances with Jessen leading the way, and this season they won the West Suburban Gold title for the first time. Credit that never-stop attitude.

"What he's able to do is pretty special," said Willowbrook senior Tyler Guerrero, a football player and wrestler who's known Jessen since they were in kindergarten. "I truly believe it's the wrestling mentality. We're taught to score from any position on offense or defense, and I think that carries over to football.

"It's his mental toughness and conditioning," he said. "He's just a great athlete."


Jessen's assault on the season began last summer when he actually missed part of football camp. But it was for a good cause.

Jessen, who will wrestle at Northwestern University next year, was in North Dakota winning a Junior Greco-Roman national championship. He finished second in freestyle.

After placing second twice and third once in the IHSA state tournament, Jessen has his full focus on winning a state title at 182 pounds. According to Warriors wrestling coach Brandon Murphy, a long wrestling season would give Jessen a shot at the state record for all-time victories.

"Willowbrook's always had some great multisport athletes," Murphy said. "There's a grit and a toughness you have to have to make it through both seasons. When it comes to that third and fourth quarter and other players start to fade, he's not nearly as tired, and that's when he really starts to perform."

It often took three or four defenders to bring down Jessen. That's because of the immense training he has defending his legs on the mat. He's a good tackler because of his takedown prowess -- nearly 1,000 in his first three wrestling seasons with the Warriors.

"He's in wrestling shape during football season," Murphy said. "In terms of football, he's done all he can do. Now he'll try to reach the top of his sport in wrestling."


Jessen didn't want to miss any football time last summer, but Hildreth helped his star player recognize the priority of the situation.

"The only days he's missing, he's actually working harder with the best wrestlers in the country," Hildreth said. "So we'll gladly take that."

They'll also take Jessen's expertise at time management and strong family influence from his parents, Dennis and Blanca, and younger sister Emma. While excelling at everything he does in sports, Jessen also manages a 4.1 grade-point average on a 4-point scale.

"I just make time for everything, even if it means I'm not going out and doing stuff," Jessen said. "I might have missed out on some fun, but it's been worth it."

Being absent from anything is a rarity for Jessen, who said he hasn't missed a practice or a game since he had his tonsils taken out at about the time he started competing in football and wrestling.

This season Jessen averaged 24 carries and 7.5 tackles a game, including 48 carries in a second-round playoff win over DeKalb and 10 tackles in the season-ending loss to eventual Class 6A champion Prairie Ridge.

"I love the game of football and I love being out there as much as possible," he said. "I'm never really 100 percent, but I'm never hurt enough to miss a game. Being off the field just doesn't feel right."

Jessen's 33rd and final start didn't go as planned in a 42-7 loss to Prairie Ridge. His ankle was rolled up on and he wound up on the sideline, restless and practically begging to go back in the game.

With the game out of reach and time winding down, Hildreth let Jessen return to action.

"It looked bad," Hildreth said. "But he did not like the way he was going out. He wanted to end it on his terms."

Jessen limped back into the game. He got his last carry on the last play of Willowbrook's season.

Ten days later he returned to the wrestling mat to compete in the Warriors' first meet.

Once again, Jessen never stopped.

"I don't want to miss any of it," he said.

Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_schmit

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