At 6-feet-2, 250 pounds, former KU defensive lineman and part-time fullback TJ Semke knew he was just about the perfect size and body type to play fullback in the NFL. He also knew that NFL offenses no longer feature fullbacks, so career prospects were slim at best.
“That dream kind of died out,” Semke, d’16, says from the North Carolina headquarters of Hendrick Motorsports. “But I still wanted to do something that would keep me competitive and have that locker room feel, be around the guys, and NASCAR ended up being a good fit for that.”
Thrill of victory
Now in his second season with Hendrick Motorsports and his first on the pit crew team for Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet, Semke on Aug. 5 got to experience the thrill of victory when Elliott held off the determined Martin Truex Jr. on the Watkins Glen International road course.
It was win No. 1 for Elliott, a third-year driver and son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, and the 250th in the illustrious racing history of Hendrick Motorsports, and nobody celebrated more enthusiastically in victory lane than a jackman from Kansas City who just a few years earlier knew next to nothing about auto racing.
“It was pretty special for Chase to get his first win, and it was the 250th for the company, which is a big deal,” Semke says. “All the pieces fell together and it ended up being a big deal. It was definitely good vibes coming back to work on Monday.”
An unusual path
Even before he became a professional athlete in NASCAR, Semke’s route through athletics was unusual and his story unique.
Semke fractured a vertebra during his junior season at Lee’s Summit North High School; he made it through his senior season while constantly fighting through “a lot of issues with my discs.” When his doctors finally told him to stop playing football, Semke complied and turned down offers to play at Division II colleges.
He grew up a “big MU guy,” and shocked his family when he came to Lawrence and enrolled at KU as a full-time student.
“Something drew me there,” Semke says. “I liked the school when I went on a visit, so I just went there.”
Ripe for recruitment
An energetic and successful student in high school, Semke likewise threw himself into his studies on the Hill, and even worked part-time for his mother’s boyfriend’s bail bond business, tracking down absconders who skipped court dates.
Although work as a bounty hunter provided the occasional adrenaline rush he still craved, it wasn’t the same as football. After two years away from the sport, Semke was ripe for recruitment when he noticed a University Daily Kansan advertisement announcing open tryouts for football walk-ons.
He tried out during the spring of his sophomore year, made the team, and entered his junior year with sophomore standing in football. A natural fullback in a pro-style offense with little need for fullbacks, Semke fashioned himself a high-energy playmaker on special teams; during practice, though, he moved to the scout team’s defensive line.
Putting in the work
“I was a little bit undersized for that,” he says, “but I was just out there every day, working hard, making plays, and I kind of got noticed. So they thought, why don’t we give this a shot? That whole next spring, my redshirt junior year, they put in a lot of time with me, getting me ready to play, and I ended up starting the first six games of my junior year on the defensive line.”
After being featured in Sports Illustrated thanks to his bounty-hunter background, Semke played defensive end as a senior, along with fullback when necessary—like Turner Gill before him, coach Charlie Weis rarely featured fullbacks—and when his KU playing days were done Semke began focusing on the NFL. He performed well at his Pro Day workouts, earning a workout with the Kansas City Chiefs and a minicamp invitation from the New Orleans Saints.
Leaving football behind
Realistic about his chances, Semke left football behind for good when he was invited to join more than 100 other candidates for pit-crew tryouts at Hendrick headquarters.
Hendrick, it turns out, sends a pit-crew coach out on the road with its race teams, and he spends race weeks visiting collegiate football program near every track, searching for potential recruits. At Kansas Speedway, KU coaches put in a good word for Semke, touting his speed, strength, attitude and energy.
Semke lived up the billing he received from his former football coaches, and in spring 2016 he was introduced as one of five new pit crew recruits at Hendrick’s second Signing Day event.
He spent his first full season learning the jackman’s job on a variety of teams and racing series, and this year was named a full-time member on Elliott’s No. 9 Camaro.
Steep learning curve
“TJ is a pretty special guy,” says veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson. “He’s physically gifted, to say the least, to be that big and that fast and strong. He’s a really competitive guy and a fun guy to have on our team. We’ve been really impressed with him and his ability with relatively no experience pitting the car. His learning curve has been amazing. We expect really big things from him in the future.”
Semke’s learning curve got steeper this season when NASCAR announced new pit-lane regulations that allowed for only five crew members over the wall during races, rather than the previous limit of six. That meant double-duty for someone on each crew, and Hendrick’s solution was to make the jackman also responsible for putting on tires, all within the 13-second timeframe of a high-pressure pit stop.
“You have double the work and you’re still trying to be fast,” Semke says. “It presented a lot of challenges, but that’s kind of what’s fun about it. We have a bunch of athletic guys who know how to adapt and change, so it worked out in our favor.”
Brains and brawn
As expected, Semke relishes the vigorous physical environment at Hendrick, where pit crews lift weights under the supervision of a team of trainers, go through full-speed pit training and even spend Mondays doing yoga to improve flexibility.
Perhaps not as expected, though, is the intelligence Semke brings to the team, which pays off in the team’s constant film study. He was named Academic All-Big 12 and graduated with at 3.1 GPA.
“A lot of people might look at me—the tattoos, and I’m a big, strong guy—and they might think, ‘Oh, this guy’s just a meathead, a cave-man type of guy, eats a bunch of meat.’ At a glance you might just think that’s what I am.
“But anything I do I want to be really good at it. I can hit the books and I can hit the weights, both. It definitely feels good to have a degree from the University of Kansas, that’s for sure.”
TJ Semke, No. 9 team jackman, gives fans a closer look inside the Hendrick Motorsports heat training program.
The inaugural KU Kickoff event in downtown Topeka took place Aug. 9 outside the Celtic Fox at 8th Street and Kansas Avenue. The celebration featured food, music, promotional items and the opportunity to win tickets and more.
Brian Hanni, the Voice of the Jayhawks, hosted the event. Featured speakers included Chancellor Doug Girod, football head coach David Beaty and women’s soccer head coach Mark Francis.
Check out some of the event’s highlights below in our compilation of social media posts! Future events will be held in Wichita, Prairie Village and Lawrence.
As the Kansas football team works through fall camp, Kansas Athletics and the KU Alumni Association have announced four dates providing fans opportunities to meet and greet the Jayhawks before the season begins.
With outings scheduled for Topeka, Wichita, Kansas City and Lawrence, the celebrations will feature food, music, promotional items and the opportunity to win tickets and more. The KU band and spirit squads will be in attendance at the various locations.
KU Kickoff at Topeka
Scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 9 at 6 p.m., outside the Celtic Fox at 8th Street and Kansas Avenue, the KU Kickoff at Topeka will be hosted by the Voice of the Jayhawks, Brian Hanni. Featured speakers will be Chancellor Doug Girod, football head coach David Beaty and women’s soccer head coach Mark Francis. Facebook event
KU Kickoff at Wichita
Slated for Wednesday, Aug. 15 at 6 p.m., at Beech Lake off of 13th Street and Webb, the KU Kickoff at Wichita will again be hosted by Hanni and will feature Girod, Beaty and Director of Athletics Jeff Long. Facebook event
KU Kickoff at Corinth Square (Kansas City)
The 13th annual KU Kickoff at Corinth Square will be held on Friday, Aug. 17 and will get started at 6 p.m., at the parking lot at the Corinth Square Shopping Centre in Prairie Village. Jayhawk radio network football color analyst David Lawrence will host the KU Kickoff at Corinth Square with Girod, Beaty and Long scheduled to attend, along with KU Alumni Association’s Heath Peterson. Facebook event
KU Kickoff at Lawrence
The quartet of celebrations will conclude at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium as the KU Kickoff at Lawrence will take place on Saturday, Aug. 25 from 2-4 p.m. The Fun Zone will be set up right on Kivisto Field and gates will open at 2 p.m. Food trucks will be set up around the stadium and the Jayhawk players will sign autographs starting at 3 p.m. Parking for the KU Kickoff at Lawrence and is free and open. Fans attending the event are encouraged to park on the east side of DBK Memorial Stadium in Lots 91 and 94.
When the Charlotte Hornets announced a meet-and-greet for their newly drafted player Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Jayhawks were there to welcome him to their city.
“I’m a native Charlottean and was six when the Hornets started. I’ve been waiting a long time for my hometown team to pick one of our guys,” said Rebecca Ferry, d’05. Ferry leads the local alumni network.
The meet-and-greet was extra special for Kelly Hunter and her son Luke. When the Hornets heard Luke was celebrating his 11th birthday, they pulled a few strings and sold him the store’s first Devonte’ Graham jersey.
The story gets even better: This wasn’t the first time Luke had met Devonte’. Luke and his mother ran into Graham two years ago while they were on campus.
On Luke’s 9th birthday.
“Devonte’ said he remembered meeting him,” said Kelly. “Luke thinks the Hornets drafting Devonte’ is the best birthday present ever.”
Read more about the 2018 NBA Draft, which saw former KU basketball players Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk drafted in the second round.
After a season filled with ups and downs, a 14th straight conference championship and a trip to the Final Four, the Jayhawks fell to the Villanova Wildcats Saturday night in the national semifinal.
KU fans gathered in San Antonio, Allen Fieldhouse, and at watch parties from coast to coast to watch the Jayhawks in the Final Four.
At the Final Four
More than 5,000 Jayhawks started their game day right outside the Alamodome for the pregame party hosted by the KU Alumni Association and Kansas Athletics. The KU band, Spirit Squad and mascots held a pep rally, with food trucks and cash bars nearby.
Back home in Lawrence
Dozens of Lawrence-area bars and restaurants hosted watch parties, but the most popular site for a big KU game remained the same. Thousands of fans flocked to Allen Fieldhouse to watch the game on the video board. Students filled the student section, and threw shredded Kansans into the air for pregame introductions.
Wherever Jayhawks may be
Alumni networks hosted more than 75 watch parties around the country. Many network leaders claimed it was their biggest turnout in years. The Denver Network alone hosted 1,000 Jayhawks at Stoney’s Bar and Grill.
Although we hate to see the season end, the Alumni Association is proud of this team, and we are always proud to be a Jayhawk.
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KU alumni Curtis Marsh, j’92, and Creighton Coover, b’98, g’01, sat down to talk KU hoops and recall their all-time favorite Jayhawk players and memorable moments on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of basketball at the University of Kansas.
Listen to their take on KU’s top teams, most memorable moments and all-time starting lineups, and let us know what you think. Have a favorite KU hoops memory you’d like to share? Drop us a line and let us hear about it!
Look who’s talking
Curtis Marsh is director of KU Info and the DeBruce Center, home of Naismith’s original rules of basketball, at the University of Kansas. An avid KU basketball fan and historian of all things KU, Marsh was an undergraduate in the late 80s and early 90s, when camping for games often involved sleeping outside in a tent. He is one of the famous Allen Fieldhouse whistlers, as covered on this blog, and helped launch (literally) the legend of Captain Jayhawk and the Superfans.
Creighton Coover is a senior account manager with iModules Software, where he spends his days helping alumni associations across the country manage their data (disclaimer: the KU Alumni Association is an iModules client). In his spare time, Creighton continues to pore over data, tracking historically significant stats of his beloved Jayhawks on Twitter. He was a repeat guest on Brian Hanni’s Rock Chalk Sports Talk show for a segment titled Beyond the Box Score.
“When you put a W and a V together, you had mountains. They may call it the Flying WV but to me, it depicts mountains,” Boyd said.
The total cost for the new logo? $200.
The Mountaineers introduced Martin’s logo on Sept. 6, 1980.
The day marked a number of firsts. It was the season opener against the Cincinnati Bearcats. It was Don Nehlen’s first game as head coach. And, it was the first game at the new 50,000 seat Mountaineer Field.
Today, the WVU logo is widely recognized, and Martin frequently encounters fans wearing the logo outside of West Virginia.
“I’m quite honored by it all,” Martin said. “It’s an awesome feeling knowing you were able to make that kind of contribution to an institution of that magnitude. Every time I watch a WVU game, I reflect back on something very special.”
Watch Martin describe his inspiration for the West Virginia University logo:
Thanks to a tip from one of our Facebook followers, Jeff Suggs, for some additional Kansas-West Virginia connections: Gene Budig, who was KU’s chancellor from 1980-1994, was president of West Virginia University from 1977-1980. Also, WVU’s head basketball coach at the time, Gale Catlett, was an assistant under Ted Owens at Kansas from 1967-1971. Catlett left Kansas for an assistant coach position under Adolph Rupp (another KU connection!) at Kentucky for one year. He took over as WVU’s head coach in 1978.
Fans braved the cold weather Thursday morning in Kansas City as the KU men’s basketball team prepared to take on Oklahoma State in their first game of the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship.
The Alumni Association, Kansas Athletics, and the Williams Education Fund hosted a pregame party at No Other Pub. The festivities included giveaways, KU merchandise, and a pep rally featuring the Marching Jayhawks and the Spirit Squad.
Brian Hanni, the Voice of the Jayhawks, hosted a pep rally on the main stage of the KC Live! block. A video celebrating 14 straight Big 12 Conference titles played on the big screen, and Sheahon Zenger, director of athletics, and Chancellor Doug Girod also gave remarks before handing the spotlight back to Hanni.
The Jayhawks knocked off Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals—a victory that was especially sweet after losing to the Cowboys twice during the regular season.
The team takes on the Kansas State Wildcats at 6 p.m. Friday, Mach 9, in a third reprisal of the Sunflower Showdown. The Alumni Association will again co-host a pregame party at No Other Pub starting at 3 p.m.
After Saturday’s 74-72 win over Texas Tech, the 2017-18 Kansas men’s basketball team clinched a 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.
The streak, which began with the 2004-05 team, is now the longest in NCAA history, passing UCLA’s 13 consecutive Pac-10 titles from 1967-79. The conference title is KU’s 61st, extending its own NCAA record.
Kansas Athletics commemorated the accomplishment with a video featuring the people that made KU’s legendary run possible:
The University of Kansas celebrated Langston Hughes’ birthday with its fourth annual “The Power of Sport: A Conversation on Business, Race and Sports” symposium on Feb. 1. The event featured panelists Lafayette Norwood, a former KU basketball assistant coach, and Darnell Valentine, a KU All-American and former player for the Portland Trail Blazers. Claire Smith, a sports writer and news editor for ESPN, was the keynote speaker.
Life in Wichita in the 1980s
Dr. Shawn Leigh Alexander, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the Department of African and African-American Studies, led the evening and interviewed both Norwood and Valentine to dig deeper into what life was like in Wichita during the 1980s. Valentine explained that growing up, his entire world existed within a three-block radius, but basketball allowed him to broaden his perspective. He was the star of his team at Wichita Heights High School under Coach Norwood; when Norwood became an assistant at KU, it was a no-brainer for Valentine to follow.
Aside from being an successful athlete, Valentine was also an academic All-American. When faced with any issue, whether it involved school, relationships, or athletics, Coach Norwood asked Valentine, “what is the worst case scenario?” With this as his motivation, Valentine says having a college degree and being prepared to do something other than basketball was always in his mind.
Smith delivers keynote
Later in the evening, Smith gave her keynote address and recalled how she fell in love with sports. Her parents loved a nation that did not always love them back, but they showed an admiration for sports that was contagious. They had the ability to make Smith feel as though the star athletes were part of the family. One day Smith watched The Jackie Robinson Story at school and from then on was hooked. “Jackie mixed grit and grace and a grim determination to sacrifice for the greater good. He hasn’t played in over half a century and yet he still inspires; he still inspires me,” Smith said.
The “lost generation”
Smith laments the era of Michael Jordan as the “lost generation.” Sports were no longer arenas for social and political discussion, and black athletes appeared content simply making money instead of using the voice their notoriety gave them. “People so easily disappeared beyond their gated communities, sold products, and forgot that many of the kids pining to wear their shoes were even hungrier for role models,” Smith said. With the return of politics in sports, Smith notes that there will always be consequences for standing up—or even sitting down—and the media will always ask “why?,” but we should never expect to hear regrets.
All three guest speakers addressed the need for black athletes to represent, and more specifically, to represent the voices other people do not have. Using one’s name and notoriety is a powerful tool, because the world is always watching.
Editor’s note: Brianna Mears is a digital media intern for the KU Alumni Association. She is a fourth-generation Jayhawk and a sophomore in the University Honors Program majoring in strategic communications with a minor in business and African & African-American studies. She is also a member of the Journalism Student Leadership Board, a J-School Ambassador and a member of the Student Alumni Leadership Board.