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Gopher Sports: Remembering Noel Jenke

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The Gopher great dies last week at the age of 73

Noel Jenke Photo by John Croft/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers family lost an athletic legend this past week as three sport star Noel Jenke passes away at the age of 73. An Owatonna native Jenke was the first Big Ten athlete drafted in three professional sports: by baseball’s Boston Red Sox, football’s Minnesota Vikings and hockey’s Minnesota Fighting Saints in the WHA—four years before Dave Winfield would be the more famous member to join that club.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune Jenke had been in poor health and never really recovered from a recent surgery. His recovery may have been hampered by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis as well, though that appears to be inconclusive.

Jenke lettered seven times during his college career with the Gophers, three times in football and hockey and one time in baseball. The most impressive part about this is Jenke never actually played any high school hockey but was good enough to join the Glen Sonmor coached teams of the late 1960s.

Jenke was a beast on the football field as a hard hitting linebacker. He would be named a First Team All-Big Ten linebacker and team captain in 1968. Jenke may have even been a better baseball player. Jenke wanted to play baseball all four seasons with Minnesota but Gopher football coach Murray Warmath made him play spring football his first three years instead. He played in the summer league that was organized by U all three summers and when he finally got a chance to step in on the varsity his senior year he made the most of it earning First Team All-American honors as an outfielder.

Jenke was first drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the Spring of 1969 in the 12th round of the NFL Draft. Later that summer after his one year of baseball glory he would be selected #13 overall in the first round by the Boston Red Sox. Baseball would be his first career choice and he joined the Rex Sox minor league organization in the summer of 1969. He would play 38 games in the Florida Instructional League hitting .281 before being promoted to the Red Sox’s AAA team in Louisville. He finished out his first year as a pro with 38 games in Louisville hitting .263. He split time his second year in 1970 playing 17 games for Louisville and 13 games form the Red Sox Single A team in Winston-Salem, North Carolina hitting just a combined .214. His final year in baseball was spent with the Rex Sox AA team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island where he hit .238. After his third year in baseball, he decided that he was not going to make the major leagues and so he decided to give football a try.

Jenke signed with the Vikings in the fall of 1971 and played in all 14 regular season games and their playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Vikings waved him in the preseason in 1972 and he signed with the Atlanta Falcons spending most of the season on their practice squad and playing in one game. In the 1973 preseason he was released by Atlanta and signed by the Green Bay Packers to their practice squad, but saw game action in two games later in the year. He would play in eight games for the Packers in 1974, and then was releases in the fall of 1975 and would retire from the NFL.

And hockey...oh yeah hockey. Jenke was a good journeyman type player for the Gophers, but unlike football and baseball was probably not up to the quality of the NHL. While many people mistakenly think Jenke was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL—that’s actually incorrect. Jenke would be drafted by the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey League in 1972, a year AFTER he played in the NFL for the Vikings? Why? Well it was the first year of the WHL and they used the draft for as much publicity as they could. Several current NHL players were drafted, and the Fighting Saints would find a way to get Minnesotans to interested in the team. How did they do that? Fighting Saints coach and GM Glen Sonmor—yes the same one who coached Jenke with the Gophers played the “one of us” card by drafting famous former Minnesotan hockey players who were now doing other things. Jenke was joined by other famous Minnesotans who hadn’t played hockey for some time such as former Gopher football star and Green Bay Packer Jim Carter and a former Gopher Hockey star from twenty years prior named Wendell Anderson. Anderson was a bit busy with a different job at the time he was drafted—-Governor of Minnesota.

For more on Jenke’s life you can see this TBT post from 2016 that Hipster Gopher wrote here: https://www.thedailygopher.com/2016/4/28/11518480/minnesota-gophers-1st-gopher-drafted-in-3-sports-tbt

RIP to a Gopher legend.