Land of 10,000 Stories: Softball coach deals with hard knocks

11:27 AM, Jul 29, 2013   |    comments
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EAGAN, Minn. - If you like your stories all sunsets, tied up neatly and free of contradictions, this one might not be for you.

Starting with the fact the longest tenured member of one of Eagan's oldest women's softball teams isn't a woman.

Mike Janssen is coach and manager for team Fitz's Bar & Grill.

"He's the glue," says Lisa Blake, one of players on the team.

For 35 years, Janssen has been filling in the lineups and barking out softball pointers to the women who, at one point, actually adopted the name "Mike's Angels" for their team.

Through roster changes, pregnancies, marriages and divorces, Janssen has held the team together -- even as his own life came apart.

Janssen suffered a serious spinal cord injury in 1984 when he crashed headfirst into the ground while parasailing behind a vehicle.

"Laying in the emergency room that first day, I said, 'Well, I guess I'm not playing softball anymore,'" Janssen recently recalled. "Honest to God, that's what I said."

Jannsen had been playing softball, as well as coaching, several years before the injury.

Lori Mestenhauser was one his original players. She points to a photograph of the team from 1980.

"Mike's standing up in the yellow shirt that says super coach," she says.

A super coach deserved super players and the accident brought out their best. The team didn't wait for Janssen's release from the hospital.

"We just set up hot dogs and stuff on the back of a pickup truck," says Janssen's wife and player, Matty, as she shows photos of a tailgate party in the Ramsey Hospital parking lot.

Her husband was wearing a halo device and smiling, surrounded by the members of his team.

"Tailgate, heck they filled up my room," laughs Janssen.

Near the end of his hospital stay, Janssen was even sneaking away for a few hours to coach the team, while earning the wrath of his caregivers after returning to the hospital with beer on his breath.

"The nurses weren't too happy with me," he says. But how could he stay away?

"I mean, where else could you get the adoration of all these beautiful women," Jannsen said with a wink, as his players laughed and groaned.

And so it's been for the 29 years since, through tournaments, trophies and Gatorade showers. Night after night, there is Janssen in his wheelchair near the dugout, tending to the scorebook and his players.

"He needed to have softball in his life," says Mestenhauser. "He wasn't able to play anymore so we were playing for him."

It's a warm and romantic notion: the paralyzed athlete able to stay involved in the game he loves while motivating those around him.

But once again, Janssen surprised us with a contradiction.

"I don't want you to do a story about me as the happy, heroic, cripple, because that's not who I am," he said out of the blue during an interview.

It's not something reporters often hear from disabled subjects of their stories. But then Janssen is not just a women's softball coach.

For more than a decade, Janssen has served as the head of the Twin Cities chapter of the Spinal Cord Society, a Fergus Falls based organization supporting research to cure spinal cord injuries.

Janssen wanted no part of a story that made him seem resigned to his situation. He spoke up to remind the interviewer that even though he's found happiness coaching softball, his days in a wheelchair are still "no way to live."

"I didn't ask to get this," he continued, "but now that I've got it, my legacy is going to be a cure for spinal cord injuries."

Maybe not such a contradiction -- for a man is certainly entitled to enjoy the moment while still craving more from life.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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