Stepping Back to Move Forward

Coach Bill Self filled with pride as KU dominated Missouri.

Twenty-five years ago this month, I photographed my last KU men’s basketball game for the Topeka Capital-Journal inside Allen Fieldhouse. I photographed more KU games throughout the country in my years at the paper than I can remember. One of those games was the 1988 National Championship game, co-photographed with friend Earl Richardson.

I began my long run with Ted Owens as head coach, followed by Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self, who coached the 2008 National Champions, which Laura and I were blessed to photograph. My 23-year KU career photographing men’s basketball was capped on March 4, 2020, during KU’s final home game of the season. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown sports and our world. I still believe that season would have ended with the Jayhawks cutting down the Championship nets. I had photographed what I felt would be my last KU basketball game.

Even before the pandemic, I knew the 2019-20 season would be my last at Kansas Athletics. I informed management in September that the school year would be my last. On June 30, I officially retired from the athletic department. That evening, I photographed my first event for the long-planned The Heart & Soul of Kansas Sports project, which now consumes my work efforts.

My current project took an intense amount of work to develop long before I ever took the first photograph. Laura and I spent hours discussing every detail. Prayers were unceasing and remain that way. Laura’s words to me, “God has written this on your heart,” said then and as needed since always reminds me that my decision was indeed the right one. Thanks to a God-given work ethic, I gave my everything to KU that granted me the hard-earned respect of coaches and student-athletes that carried me through all the good and some bad times. However, during my final two years there, I realized that I truly desired a new challenge. So, while Laura’s early words became inscribed on my heart, other words were written on my mind when I first heard them.

“Jeff, you don’t understand that quality doesn’t mean anything anymore. It is all about speed, quantity and hits.” Four different administrators told me that during my final two years at KU. Social media and those “hits” should never control our lives. Those words are the antithesis of my beliefs. Quality still matters. 

Fortunately, God was there to guide me. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “… the peace of the God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

When a door in life is shutting, it is hard. There is no immediate comfort unless one remembers Jeremiah 29:11, where the Lord boldly reminds us, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

As the KU door closed, I found another door opening throughout Kansas. The beauty of our great state blessed me with its awe-inspiring events, its kind and gracious people, as well as many new friends. In time I was granted “the peace of God.” My family, friends, and always observant wife, found me filled with the joy of photographing the people and events that get to the state’s authentic foundation, the overwhelming love of sports and the genuine thanks for taking the time to cover them.

Yet, there are always tests of faith. The winds of life blow doors open every so often. Last Thursday, I became perplexed while cycling northwest of Topeka. A text message popped up on my bike’s Garmin device. The question made me pull over to make sure I was reading Evert Nelson’s request correctly. Nelson, the current TC-J photographer, would be tied up on Saturday with the array of ceremonies honoring the late Kansas Senator Bob Dole. He inquired whether I would consider photographing the KU game for the paper?

It took me the rest of the ride, a conversation with Laura and long prayers before accepting the assignment. That might surprise many. People ask me how I ever could have left KU. To return was not as easy as they might think. This school year, I have only begun to visit many people inside the athletic community that I will always cherish. There are still more I intend to visit soon.

A recent visit to the athletic department led to over 30 minutes with basketball coach Bill Self and volleyball coach Ray Bechard filled with laughter and insights into their lives in the new world of college athletics and my decision to leave KU to take on new challenges. Their personal insights made it easier for me to accept the offer to photograph the KU game. My goodness, it was against always despised Missouri. How could I not accept?

Nevertheless, I was very nervous and tightly wound before and during the game. It was great seeing so many of my favorites from my time at KU and accept their love and respect. They reminded me that my efforts at KU did have meaning, but that left my emotions racing all over the place. So much changed photographically after my departure. Some hurt raced back in the Devil’s attempt to pull me from my faith.

Fortunately, I enjoyed seeing the packed Fieldhouse and the early ear-piercing noise that led me in 1997 to use earplugs to preserve my hearing. Now old enough to understand, my grandsons appreciated seeing me on TV seated along the baseline. It was great to see Bill again on the court and remember all the history we shared together. Missouri certainly was not up to the standards of the past rivalry or the intensity of KU’s efforts. The game became a snoozer very quickly.

I remain disappointed in my photographic efforts and feeling out of place but pleased with the real-life confirmation that KU is no longer my world. Fortunately, Laura was there to edit, but more importantly, she supported me through the struggle.

Lest you think I am turning my back on KU, I can assure you that will never happen. There are still too many good friends and cherished memories, but nothing I pray will take me away from my new working life that I happily share with Laura.

That complete and total realization helped make the final twist in this story easy to accept. That last KU game in 2020 was against TCU. How fascinating then that a day after this weekend’s game, longtime friend Steven Schoon, TCU’s Director of Athletics Communications for men’s basketball and men’s golf, contacted Laura about the possibility of the Jacobsen’s teaming up for the Horned Frogs’ game in Lawrence on January 1. Over the year’s Laura worked for Steven at those games. We accepted though we doubt there is room for both Laura and me to photograph the game together, and we are short of basketball camera gear. One of us will do the editing, and we will be happy to work with such a good man.  

I realize I had to photograph the game last Saturday to complete the long process of making peace with the past. With God’s plans to “give me hope and a future” inscribed on my heart, I erase the other words from my mind with peace.

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Jeff Jacobsen has photographed practically every big event the sports world has to offer during a professional career that spans over 52 years. Jacobsen has seen things up close that only a diehard sports fan could in their dreams. His work for the Topeka Capital-Journal, Arizona Republic, Kansas Athletics, Inc., many national publications and now Action Images Photography, Inc., cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s finest sports photographers.

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