NOTE: We first told you about Dan’s long journey back to health and into the Cincinnati Reds farm system last winter when Dan visited CBC during the off season to donate with member of the Sinclair Community College baseball team. His former coach Steve Dintaman felt confident we would see Dan pitching for the Dragons soon – and he was right! Dan has joined the Dragons and will be the first graduate of a Montgomery Co. school (Centerville HS) to play for the hometown team!
When the Cincinnati Reds called to tell Dan Jensen they were drafting him to play professional baseball he called it “a dream come true.” That’s not a phrase he uses lightly. After all, he grew up in Centerville and the Reds were his dream team. But Dan also remembers waking from his dreams to a living nightmare, unable to speak, choking on his own blood, and trying to call for help.
The journey from that night to a promising career as a pro athlete is so improbable Dan honors it as a special gift. You can see his mission in the Youtube video he made, imploring his former teammates at Sinclair Community College to donate blood, the gift that saved his life. It was again his mission on a recent visit home when he took time out to accompany the Sinclair baseball team to the downtown Dayton Community Blood Center (CBC) to give a pep talk, and to donate.
Coming out of Centerville High School in 2007 Dan had only one strong offer to play college baseball, and that was from first-year Sinclair Coach Steve Dintaman. That was the beginning of a friendship that has grown beyond baseball.
Right after graduation Dan went into the hospital for a routine tonsillectomy. He was 17, older than the average age for the procedure but not unusual. The surgery was not routine. His carotid artery was nicked during the procedure. It seemed to be healing, but days later when the scabs fell off and the artery expanded it began to bleed.
That led to Dan’s first emergency surgery, a procedure to block the damage artery on his left side. Dan was told that he lost 65 percent of his blood volume during the ordeal. He finally returned home, grateful to have survived a major threat to his life. It worked for only four days. The block became dislodged and he started bleeding again.
“I thought, wow, after that first time, I was pretty lucky,” recalled Dan. “Then it happened again. I was sleeping downstairs when it happened. I couldn’t yell – blood was filling up my mouth. All I could think of to do was hit my phone – send – send – send – to my dad.”
His parents were asleep upstairs in their bedroom. Dan says it was between 3 and 4 a.m. His life depended on his dad hearing that cell phone ring.
“My dad had the phone next to him,” says Dan. “He owns a car wash, things happen and he gets calls at night, so he’s used to it. The call woke him up and he got me to the hospital. If he hadn’t woken up I would have died.”
This time the surgery – and the loss of blood – was more extreme. Dan says the hospital replaced 75 percent of his blood volume. He learned later than the surgeons had used a silk ribbon to permanently tie-off his left carotid artery. He was told his body would adapt to having only one functioning artery, with his right carotid growing larger to handle the blood flow of two.
When he speaks of that night the only visual reminder is the long, eight-inch scar etched down the left side of his neck. He has come a long way from that weakened 17 year old boy in intensive care who twice stood on death’s doorstep. But if Dan had learned anything from baseball it was this: it takes three strikes to get a batter out, and his best pitch was yet to come.
“I went from 225 pounds down to 165 after I got out of ICU,” Dan remembers. “I needed a stool to take a shower. I couldn’t stand for that long.”
But his coach Steve Dintaman wasn’t giving up on him. He was inspired to help Dan and to help others in need of blood donations.
“When it happened it was my first year as head coach,” says Steve. “When I first saw him in the hospital, he had lost four pints of blood, then four more the next time. I realized if people hadn’t given blood, he wouldn’t be here.”
The first goal was for Dan to regain enough strength to attend classes at Sinclair. His parents helped him with that, often going to Dan’s classes when he was too tired, taking notes and carrying his books across campus in a backpack like the other college students. Gradually, Dan went back to baseball.
“It was a lot of work that winter,” he says. “I had lost everything and had to get it all back. But I was ready to go when the season started.”
As if the journey back wasn’t steep enough, Dan wanted to play the position that had earned him his scholarship. He was a starting pitcher, one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs in sports. He wanted the ball, the chance to again carry his team on his shoulders. Steve made sure Dan’s comeback was careful. “In the fall for sure,” he says. “He lost a lot of weight. Even in the spring, it took awhile to get it back. We took it slow.”
But not that slow. “He got his strength back and kept getting better and better,” says Steve. By the time the season was in full swing Dan had worked his way back on the mound, pitching well enough to catch the attention of the baseball coach at the University of Cincinnati, who offered him a scholarship.
He spent the next three seasons pitching for the Bearcats. As a senior he led the team with a 3.11 earned run average and 87 strikeouts, including Big East Pitcher of the Week honors for striking out 11 batters in a win over Georgetown.
Next came the call from the Reds in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He started last summer with the Reds’ rookie team in Billings, MO. By the end of the year he moved up to the “High A” club in Bakersville, CA, managed by Reds legend Ken Griffey, Sr.
He came back from an injury to pitch in the bullpen, then work his way back to the starting rotation, where he thinks he belongs. He’ll report to spring training in Arizona in February, and Steve Dintaman says he has a chance to be playing with the Dayton Dragons in front of a hometown crowd next year at Fifth Third Field.
Dan’s comeback hasn’t been just about baseball. He not only wanted to encourage others to donate blood, he wanted to donate himself. “It was a little iffy at first,” he admits. “I didn’t know if I was confident enough, I had gone through a lot of tests and had seen a lot of needles.”
Dan was right alongside the younger Sinclair players, donating blood at this last visit to the Dayton CBC. Steve Dintaman’s goal when his team tours the CBC is to come with at least half of the team committed to donating. He knows from experience that “after the tour, and hearing Dan’s story,” he says, “the rest of the guys usually follow suit.”
Sophomore shortstop Joe Ford did exactly that, making his first blood donation during the CBC visit. He recalled that he did not donate as a freshman on the team, but this year decided, “I’m ready.”
“I got a little dizzy, a little hot, but I’m fine” said Joe. He credits the inspiration of Dan Jensen. “That inspires you to give blood, to hear a story like that.”