By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
Not only was 2014 when Ryan Jensen played his first game in the NFL, it was also when he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, an aliment which causes stoppages in breathing while sleeping that can result in a loss of oxygen to the brain.
Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 out of Colorado State-Pueblo, the offensive lineman was inactive for all 16 games as a rookie. Jensen’s weight dropped from 315 pounds to 290 the following year. His performance on the field dropped as well, and he was released.
“I got tested (for sleep apnea) late in training camp and I think that was part of the reason why I got cut is my body was falling apart,” Jensen said. “I wasn’t able to maintain my weight and strength because I wasn’t getting any sleep.
“My dad actually has it. My uncle has it. My brother has it. So, I went and got tested. And I actually got tested in college and it came back negative for having sleep apnea. And then I got tested again (in 2014) and it came back with a pretty severe case.”
Jensen, who was signed to Baltimore’s practice squad one day after being waived, began using a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machine to help him control the sleep apnea.
“It’s awkward and it sucks having to wear that mask every night, but it’s definitely worth your health and your mindset and everything like that. Because I know before I got my machine, lack of sleep can do a lot of nasty things to a person,” Jensen said. “A lot of guys I’ve talked to who have been diagnosed with it, they just can’t handle it. They get claustrophobic with that on their face. But I wholeheartedly recommend it if you have it.”
Having regained his weight and strength, Jensen earned a spot on Baltimore’s roster, and played on special teams as well as backing-up at guard and tackle during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. During this year’s training camp, he successfully competed to become the Ravens’ starting center.
“I didn’t want to get defeated my second year when I got cut. But it did,” Jensen said. “It defeated me a little bit and then I just kind of reflected on everything that I’d been through and just kept pushing and working harder and harder every day.
“You get a lot of doubt in your mind when you’re a young player and you get released after your second camp. You’re worried. Where’s my future headed? Am I going to be out of the league? Is this going to be my last year and this and that? I’m proud of myself for not folding and giving up, and just getting a shovel and keep on digging.
“I don’t really know (when I realized I earned the starting job this season) because I just kind of kept grinding and kept going. They never really actually told me that I won the job or anything like that. I was always No. 1 on the depth chart.”
Jensen has made a smooth transition from back-up guard and tackle to first-string center.
“I think the adjustment is easier than what I was doing before because now I can actually focus on one position where in the past, I was trying to have technique for three or four different spots on the line,” Jensen said. “[Making the line calls] was kind of the bigger adjustment coming in with (senior offensive assistant/tight ends coach Greg) Roman and coach Joe D (D’Alessandris), our O-line coach, changing up the calls a little bit from what I was used to from the last four years. That was a different adjustment, but the more you do something like that, the easier it becomes. And now it’s just second nature.”
Jensen, who has played well for the Ravens, hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed. During a game against the Green Bay Packers on November 19, he caught the ire of a few of the more vocal Packer players for his role in Green Bay’s defensive tackle Kenny Clark suffering a high ankle sprain. Ravens coach John Harbaugh defended his center.
“It’s definitely good to know that guys have your back,” says Jensen. “It’s a confirmation that I’m one of his guys and he’s going to go and fight for everybody on this team.
“[What happened on the play was] we were running an inside-zone play and a running back fell onto his ankle. I was driving him and once I felt he was caught in a bad position, I tried to stop, but momentum kept going. I actually tried to hold him up after he got in that compromised position.
“I didn’t know if I should just let him go or hold him up, so I just kind of held him up. I’m just glad he’s not seriously injured. I’m glad it’s just an ankle sprain.”
Jensen would text Clark to explain he wasn’t trying to injure him. “I think I kind of got a reputation of being a quote-unquote dirty player,” he said. “I finish to the whistle and I’m physical and stuff like that. I just don’t want that reputation of I’m out there trying to hurt people because that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m just out there trying to play as physical as possible. And that’s pretty much what I told Kenny. He appreciated me reaching out to him.
“I get a lot of guys who I play against on different D-lines throughout the league and they always say they hate playing against me, they hate the way I play, but they would love to have me on their team. It pisses them off, but they can respect it, which is good.”