Once a fan, always a fan

by Aaron Kirscht

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Its maroon-and-gold hues have faded a bit and the band around the neck is tattered, but Wallace “Wally” Kenssey, after all these years, still wears his Minnesota sweatshirt with pride.
Kenssey bought the sweatshirt in the ’70s, back when his interest in Gophers basketball was rejuvenated by a team that won its first Big Ten title in 34 seasons. But Kenssey, 67, has been a Gophers sports fan — off and on, he admits — for as long as he can remember. And having his favorite team here, in Kansas City, has him feeling “like a hundred bucks.”
“Isn’t this super?” Kenssey asked, knowing the answer to his own question. “I’ve had to survive on box scores and ESPN for so many years. Thank goodness for ESPN.”
Kenssey’s connection to Minnesota athletics, however, goes back much further than the omnipresent cable sports network. He remembers following the football team as a kid in the ’30s and ’40s, when games were played in Memorial Stadium (since demolished and replaced by the University Aquatics Center). The Gophers basketball team played across the street in Williams Arena, but he never paid much attention to them until he was in college at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn.
“I was dating my wife,” Kenssey said. Betsy Kenssey was a student at the University in the late ’40s. Wally would come home to Minneapolis every chance he got, and when he was in town, he usually found himself spending time on campus. “I just started to follow them. It all happened by accident, I guess.”
Kenssey hasn’t always been the Gophers fan he is now. After Betsy and he graduated from their respective schools in 1951, they married and headed for Kansas City, where Wally had found a job at a bank. With a new wife and career, Kenssey had little time to be a sports fan, especially a fan of a team that played nearly 500 miles away.
“Just too busy,” he said. “Too-oo busy.”
Kenssey followed the team sparingly over the next couple of decades, mostly when a newspaper headline with a familiar name caught his eye. But in 1972, then-coach Bill Musselman turned Minnesota into Big Ten champions. The Gophers were back, and so was Kenssey.
When the University came up with Clem Haskins, then an assistant under current Purdue coach Gene Keady at Western Kentucky, Kenssey wasn’t alone in thinking it was a bad move.
“I figured he’d be around for a few years or so,” he said. “I never knew it’d be like this.”
This, of course, refers to the Big Ten champion Gophers, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever. And with the team playing in his backyard Kerssey gets to live every minute of it. “I’ve wanted to see them play all season,” Kenssey said, with a hint of a frown showing through for the first time. “I thought about making the drive to Iowa (to see the Gophers play the Hawkeyes), but I never made it.”
No problem. Destiny brought the Gophers to him. Kenssey had heard the rumors that the Gophers could end up here, and the hearsay was verified on Selection Sunday, Mar. 9. As soon as Minnesota appeared on the bracket, Kenssey was on the phone, scrambling for tickets to the opening rounds of the Midwest Region in Kemper Arena. He never got through.
“I didn’t sleep very well (that night),” Kenssey said. “I thought I wouldn’t get in.”
Early the next morning, he secured a “decent” pair of lower level tickets. The extra seat would be occupied by Jack Waldorf, Kenssey’s golfing buddy and forcibly converted Gophers fan. Wally’s wife, Betsy, died two years ago.
“She probably wouldn’t want to go anyway,” Kenssey said. “She never understood why I liked them so much. But heck, I don’t really know myself.”
With a pair of wins in Kansas City, the Gophers are off to San Antonio, Tex. Wally, however, said he wouldn’t make the trip.
“I’m getting too old to be a roadie,” he said.
But after he predicted that Minnesota would make it all the way to the Final Four “for sure,” Kenssey had a change of heart.
“If they go there,” he said, “I might have to break down and buy a damn ticket.”
Kenssey then turned to Waldorf, who was washing down a hamburger with a Heineken.
“Whaddya say, Jack?” he said, tugging at his sweatshirt, “I could get me a new one of these.”
Wally leaned back, surveyed the hotel lobby, now full of maroon and gold, and smiled. Jack nodded and rolled his eyes.
“I’ve been trying to get him to burn that thing for years,” he said.