Jim Kleinsasser: Big as the prairie

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2011 - 10:21 AM

Jim Kleinsasser's body always stood out. His legend, here and back home in North Dakota, is even larger.

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CARRINGTON, N.D. — They've tilled fields all their adult lives, Carter atop his Wil-Rich Field Cultivator, Jimmy wearing size 17 Nike Superbad cleats.

Carter planted sunflowers, soybeans and wheat. Jimmy grew the most underappreciated career in Minnesota sports.

Carter, the Kleinsasser patriarch, has just retired from running the family farm outside Carrington, N.D. Jimmy, his son, plans to retire from the NFL after two more games, having broken the team record for most games played by a Vikings tight end, lasting much longer than his parents expected and five years longer than even he had hoped.

The past 13 years, Carter and Kathe Kleinsasser have made the six-hour drive to the Metrodome for Vikings games that didn't coincide with blizzards or harvests. They'll make one more.

"It's going to be quite an offseason," Carter said. "No farming, and no football."

Next Sunday, Jimmy Kleinsasser will line up against the Bears and throw a few more blocks before ending a career that has unfolded like every little league parent's daydream. Drafted by the only NFL team within a 10-hour drive of his home, he became the longest-tenured professional athlete in the Twin Cities despite choosing a sport defined by short careers and catastrophic injuries.

Kleinsasser has played for four head coaches. He blocked for former Eagles quarterbacks of different generations, Randall Cunningham and Donovan McNabb. He outlasted the likes of Torii Hunter, Kevin Garnett and Matt Birk, three celebrated local athletes whose substantial contracts prompted their departures. He lasted 13 seasons, almost 10 years longer than the span of the average NFL career.

Kleinsasser's staying power is the result of rare circumstances. He's proved tough enough to last, versatile enough to adapt, talented enough to engender loyalty, affordable enough to fit into every budget, and diligent and likeable enough to endear himself to a disparate mix of bosses.

"I've been so lucky," Kleinsasser said, as he ate cheese cubes at his wife's recent event in support of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "If I had gone anywhere else, how many years would I have lasted? My family comes to all the home games. I've got college friends who are here, who provided an instant support system. And it takes some luck just to stick around in this league.

"My attitude has always been, 'Whatever they ask you to do, do it.' I just take pride in the fact that I work hard, and I figure that if you're willing to do anything, there's value in that. I think a lot of guys get caught up in themselves and don't really realize it. I try to adapt to whatever it takes to get the job done, or as good as I can get it done."

Life on the farm

Before he became an iron man, Kleinsasser was a farm boy. He's a product of nature and nurture, combining genetics that created 6-3, 275-pound man who ran sprints and played basketball in high school and a work ethic inherited from parents who ran a farm without any outside help.

When he was still in diapers, Kleinsasser had trouble breathing, so Carter and Kathe took him to the hospital. "One of the nurses came to us and said she was having trouble getting him to eat his cereal," Carter said. "We said, 'Cereal? He doesn't eat cereal. He's six weeks old.' The nurse looked at us and said, 'We thought he was six months old.'"

Once they took him to the shoe store, and the salesman asked why Jimmy wasn't in school. He was 3.

He would ride in the family trucks when his parents were working, and his mother figured out how to keep him happy. "The secret was, I always made him two lunches," Kathe said. "He'd want one soon as he got into the truck, and then he'd get hungry later. He was always a good eater."

When Jimmy was in middle school, Carter fired up the obsolete machine that produced square bales, just to show the kids how farm work was done before modern machines did the hoisting. After tossing 80-pound bales around all day, Jimmy asked the time. Carter said it was 4:30.

"I gotta get to town," Jimmy said. "I have to lift weights."

In high school, Kleinsasser often had to wear his basketball shoes during track season, and when the Vikings drafted him, they didn't have any cleats large enough for him to wear.

Kleinsasser was as tough on basketball backboards as he was on linebackers. One day Kleinsasser brought home a box holding large shards of plastic, then Carter got a call from the Carrington High principal.

The school gym had six backboards, two of which were not breakaways, one of which Kleinsasser had demolished with a dunk. The principal asked Carter to put a claim in on his homeowners insurance, and the policy paid the school $500.

When Jimmy broke the other non-breakaway backboard, Carter repeated the process, and later received a letter that read something like this:

"Note that Mutual Insurance has paid Carrington High School $1,000 in the last three months for two backboards that your son broke while dunking the basketball. We would advise you to tell your son that if he's going to continue to dunk the basketball, he should do so very carefully."

Tough big sister

Sheri was four years older than Jimmy, who adored her and couldn't stand losing to her. They'd leave their parents' cute, modest home to play one-on-one on the basket near the Quonset hut out back, and return shortly, red-faced.

"I don't think we ever finished a game," Jimmy said. "We'd bounce the ball two or three times, and we'd be in a fight. We stopped playing when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, because it just got too physical. She would turn her back, post me up and hit this sweet little fadeaway baseline jumper, and I'd try to lean on her and fall on my butt."

Jimmy would get angry at his father, too, during games of H-O-R-S-E. "He'd cheat," Carter said. "He couldn't stand to lose."

There weren't many distractions in Carrington, a town of about 2,200. Kleinsasser played sports, went to school, worked on the farm, did a little fishing and otherwise followed Sheri around.

Sheri was his idol. More important, she was his transportation. Weekend nights, teenagers would cruise the main drag. Jimmy wanted to be included.

"He always wanted to play with me and my friends," Sheri said. "Once I had a license, Jimmy would want to come with us. I let him, as long as he would lay down in the backseat. He was fine with that. I guess that was his early lesson in humility."

Carter remembers another. When it was time to take a sheep to the fair, he yanked the back seat out of a '66 Chevy and made Jimmy ride with the sheep in back, the sheep bleating the whole way. "I drove down the main street just to embarrass him," Carter said. Once again, Jimmy dived for cover.

"Carrington has to be one of the greatest places you could grow up," Kleinsasser said. "You've got the farms and the bars and the churches and the characters. There is nothing, outside of your own misdeeds, you have to worry about."

Rough and tough

Kleinsasser's first love was basketball, but football came naturally because he liked hitting people. Or pets.

When he was little, he'd run into the yard and lay a hit on the family dog that would get him fined by the NFL today. "That poor animal," Kathe said.

In third grade, on career day, Kleinsasser wore his Joe Theismann Redskins jersey to class. "The other teachers were telling Jimmy's teacher that playing football wasn't a job, that he needed to correct Jimmy," Sheri said. "Jimmy's teacher said, 'Why would I do that?'"

Years later, Jimmy ran into Theismann at a golf tournament and told him he cried the day Theismann's leg was broken in one of the more grotesque moments in NFL history. "Kid," Theismann told him, "I cried, too."

When Sheri got her license, she'd drive into Carrington daily to shoot hoops or lift weights. "Jimmy always tagged along," Sheri said. "He has been lifting weights as long as I can remember."

The result was a massive, fast, skilled athlete. He won the state shot put title as a junior and senior. He was a two-time Gatorade Circle of Champions North Dakota player of the year in football. As a senior, he was the MVP of the state basketball tournament when Carrington won the state title.

He signed with North Dakota, and his parents suggest that he did so because his sister, Sheri, was a basketball star there. "I was always 'Sheri's little brother' in Carrington," Kleinsasser said.

In football, he played all over the field in high school and excelled as a tight end in college, leading to a pro career in which he has played fullback, tight end and H-back, proving remarkably adept at drive-blocking on running plays and protecting on pass plays.

"You see that long run by Adrian Peterson last week?" asked Marty Hochhalter, Kleinsasser's high school coach. "It was Jimmy's block that sealed the hole. You watch Vikings games, and you can see the effect he has on so many plays. I know, because I'm watching him."

Hochhalter and Kleinsasser have become close friends, and Kleinsasser returns to Carrington in the summer to help with Hochhalter's football camps.

"First game of the year, his senior season, we're playing one of the toughest teams in our state, and we send Jimmy down the seam," Hochhalter said. "I thought for sure the ball was overthrown. He just kicked into another gear and put up that big hand and made one heck of a catch, scored, and we won 6-0. Of course, even as a freshman, we'd put in special plays for him. We knew how good he was."

Coffee club

The Kleinsassers expected Jimmy to be drafted in the second or third round by the New York Giants. Then Vikings coach Denny Green traded three draft choices to the Steelers for the chance to take Jimmy with the 44th pick.

He played in his first NFL game, and started his second. Of the players who were on the Vikings roster for that game, only he and Birk, his friend who left the Vikings to sign with the Baltimore Ravens, are still in the NFL.

"The Vikings are smart enough to realize that a guy that like, who is so dependable and is still a dominating blocker on the outside, is someone you've got to hold on to," Birk said. "But I would guess he's still available in most fantasy leagues. His position is almost as unsexy as offensive lineman, but he's such a key to not only your running game but your whole offense. He's a truly great player.

"What I personally remember about Jimmy, and miss, is that we were always two of the earlier guys to show up in the locker room. We'd sit there and drink a cup of coffee and talk about football, ice fishing, our kids, whatever."

The Vikings signed star guard Steve Hutchinson before the 2006 season, and he joined the clique. "We'd hang out by our lockers in the morning and in the equipment room during lunch, the non-nonsense, no-glamour guys," Birk said. "There aren't enough guys like that in the NFL these days."

Even among NFL players, Kleinsasser's toughness astounds.

"We joke that he's the 'Missing Link,' because he'll get hurt and a couple of days later he's 100 percent again," Hutchinson said. "For him, Advil is a cure-all.

"He's one of the last of a dying breed. Even having not made any Pro Bowls or All-Pro teams, he should be in the Ring of Honor. It would be downright wrong, in my opinion, if he didn't make it and make it someday soon.

"You see big, strong, tough guys who can't make it more than a couple of years in this league. For him to make it 13 years, damn near 180 games, and still be standing at the end of it, that's something special. He defines what a Viking is supposed to be."

Retirement ahead

Long snapper Cullen Loeffler has played for the Vikings since 2004.

"It's going to be sad to see Jim go, but I know that it's the right thing for him, and I'm happy for him," he said. "He's one of the special few who has the genetic makeup to endure the brutality of this game and come back, week after week, and play through injuries, and at a high level. He's an anomaly among anomalies."

Carter and Kathe are sitting at their kitchen table. A Vikings team picture stands on an easel near the front door, and the walls are filled with likenesses of roosters.

The house is small, warm and modest. The Kleinsassers moved here in 1974, to acquire more farmland, and planted a long row of evergreens for beauty and protection from the high winds, and a couple of ash trees for shade. On a December morning, their homestead is an oasis of heat and color on a desolate and windblown landscape.

"The best thing about Jim is that he hasn't changed,'' Kathe said. "He's still very considerate, still very much himself. We are very proud of him."

Kathe is about to be bracketed by retired workaholics, men who spent a lifetime of autumns reaping what they sowed.

Carter folded his thick arms, leaned back and stared across the endless prairie. "I may not know what to do with myself," he said. "Jimmy probably feels the same way."

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