Commentary

Wrestler fights back from drug addicition to inspire team

Updated: February 20, 2008, 1:17 PM ET
By Andy Hamilton | Special to ESPN.com

Richard Jensen spent 17 years wrestling with an opponent he seemingly couldn't beat -- until he scored the biggest escape of his life.

[+] EnlargeRichard Jensen
Tracy SwisherFor Richard Jensen, even the toughest wrestling matches don't compare to the battles he's faced.

Those were his toughest battles. Those were his darkest days.

Tangling with the top junior college wrestlers in the country? Spending hours each day priming his body to compete for seven minutes with athletes half his age?

That is the easy part for the 37-year-old sophomore at Clackamas Community College. It is nothing compared to what he's been through.

Jensen, a former methamphetamine addict and ex-convict whose recovery reconnected him to a sport that gave his life stability, takes a 15-13 record in the 184-pound weight class into Friday's opening round of the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament in Rochester, Minn.

"I fought a battle for 17 years and I fought my way out of it and that's what I look at," he said. "It doesn't matter what the guy is ranked. It doesn't matter how intimidating he is. It doesn't matter that he's beat the crap out of me before. For seven minutes, I get to wrestle this guy and it's not that big of a battle; it's really not."

At least not compared to what he went through to get to this point.

Jensen grew up near Portland, Ore. As a wrestler at Tigard High School, he made up for what he lacked in natural talent with heart and hustle. He compiled a 17-2 record his senior year at Tigard, qualifying for the state's high school tournament.

Jensen said wrestling kept him out of trouble and brought balance to his life. However, after high school, he traveled down a treacherous path. He served nearly six years of prison sentences for repeated drug-related offenses.

"Toward the end, the time in jail got longer, the sentences got longer and heavier and the addiction got harder and I just wanted out, I really wanted out," Jensen said. "I was sentenced to jail for a year, I got out for six months and did everything I could to stay clean and it wasn't enough. I didn't know how. I wanted to [stay sober] so bad and I still got busted, I still got in trouble and I still used and they sent me to the Oregon state penitentiary."

Jensen was arrested on Oct. 10, 2003, for manufacturing methamphetamine. Shortly after he began serving a 13-month prison sentence, he learned his mother was dying of cancer.

"I was so unavailable that I didn't know she was sick and I didn't know she wasn't doing well," Jensen said.

Jensen called his mother every night from prison. He promised he would change his life; he would become a better man; he would break the grip that drugs held on him.

Everything I've done, every step of the way has been a blessing in my life and here it is -- I qualified for the national tournament. It just amazes me. It makes all the work so worth it.

--Richard Jensen

Marie Elizabeth Hurley died a month after her son was sent to prison.

"I told myself I was going to honor my mother from here on out," Jensen said. "The only thing she really wanted from me was for me to be clean. That was something I had a really hard time giving to her."

The day after Thanksgiving in 2004, Jensen was released from prison and paroled to the Salvation Army in Portland.

"I had the clothes on my back and I was scared to death, I was scared of what was ahead of me, but I knew I didn't want to use drugs and alcohol anymore," he said. "Everybody in that homeless shelter used drugs and alcohol, and I told myself I wasn't going to do it no matter what."

He spent a month in the homeless shelter before meeting a recovering addict named David Fitzgerald, a mentor for the Central City Concern recovery program in Portland. Fitzgerald put Jensen through a series of tests to gauge his intent for staying clean before accepting him into the program.

"He didn't need a lot of help," Fitzgerald said. "He didn't need a lot of prompting. He was easy to work with, he just needed some direction and to be challenged every now and then. He was done using, he was done going to prison, and he had some things he wanted to do."

During all those days in prison, Jensen envisioned what he would do with his life when he was free again. He wanted to go to college. He had been sober for more than two years when he enrolled at Portland Community College.

He wanted to find out whether he could handle school again. He got good grades at Portland and enrolled at Clackamas Community College in the summer of 2006, intent on earning a certified technician degree from the school's automotive program.

Jensen approached Clackamas athletic director Jim Jackson to find out whether someone his age could join the wrestling team.

[+] EnlargeRichard Jensen
Tracy SwisherRichard Jensen's approach to wrestling has inspired his teammates.

"He was real honest with me," Jensen said. "He said the odds were pretty slim that I would make it. He said the odds were against me. But when he said that, I realized there was a chance. It gave me hope because the battle I've fought to get out of the drug addiction, the odds were even worse and I was beating those odds. When he said that, I figured I was going to be part of the team and I was going to make the team."

Jensen showed up for the first day of workouts last fall, unsure what was ahead of him. His new teammates asked if Jensen was a new assistant coach. Once they learned he was there to compete, they started placing wagers on how long he would last.

Clackamas coach Josh Rhoden remembers that day well. Then a first-year coach with the Cougars, Rhoden put his team through a three-mile run on the school's outdoor track. Jensen showed up for the workout without running shoes and Rhoden offered him the opportunity to wait until the following day to make the run. The 36-year-old freshman ran in bare feet.

"He didn't want the guys to think he wasn't there to work out," Rhoden said. "That was pretty phenomenal. You kind of thought, 'This guy is pretty serious about what he's trying to do.' It was pretty awesome when he did that."

Jensen won two matches during his first season at Clackamas.

"The ones he did win were with all heart and guts and a lot of pain, I'm sure," Rhoden said.

The Cougars gave Jensen the award for the team's most inspirational wrestler at the end of the season. In fact, they renamed the honor after him.

"I never really needed to win a match to get what I came here for," said Jensen, who plans to open an independent auto repair shop after this season. "I got the bonus plan."

Jensen dropped a weight class this season -- he cut down to 184 pounds, at which he is ranked 11th in the country. Some improved technical skills have added to his victory count and to his inspiring story.

"To be truthful, he's come a lot farther than I thought was possible," Rhoden said.

Jensen's greatest moment on the mat came earlier in February when he qualified for the NJCAA meet.

"It was one of the highlights of my life," he said. "It just made everything I've been trying to do over the last four years, it made it all come to light, like every little piece of it was worth it. Everything I've done, every step of the way has been a blessing in my life and here it is -- I qualified for the national tournament. It just amazes me. It makes all the work so worth it. It makes me want to put my life in another gear and it makes anything possible. It doesn't have to stop there."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.