Fifty years ago they were playing Yale football, and 50 years later they’re still making contributions on the field.
On Saturday, two groups of brothers, the Jensens and the Kenneys, will celebrate the dedication of two new additions to the Yale Bowl, Jensen Plaza and the Kenney Center, which will signal the end of a four-year, $30 million effort to renovate the home of Eli football that refurbished the stadium’s seating, walls, draining and utilities, among other improvements.
Jensen Plaza features granite stones in the ground listing the names of every football player who has ever played at Yale. With names ranging from Clarence Deming 1872 to last year’s football captain Bobby Abare ’09, fans and current players will be able to see just how long that history is and understand today’s tradition in a larger context.
Former Eli player Erik Jensen ’63, one of four brothers who donated toward the project, said the site has attracted a great deal of interest from both fans and players. And the team’s current players have found walking through the plaza a special experience.
Historic memorabilia — including photographs of past Bulldog Ivy League championship teams, Eli football players who were selected as Rhodes Scholars and Heisman trophy and other award winners — will grace the walls of the new multi-purpose Kenney Center. The new structure, which serves as the centerpiece to the over 70,000-seat Yale Bowl, will also be the future home to alumni reunions and other special events, according to Director of Athletics Tom Beckett.
“It captures the history of Yale football,” Beckett said of the Kenney Center. “I think it is a very important aspect of what the athletic departments should be doing, which is to know your history and to have it at the ready so that people can value it and appreciate it and learn more about it.”
Additionally, the Bulldogs have used the facility as their new home for pre-game, half-time and post-game meetings this season, according to former Yale football player Jerome Kenney ’63, one of the four brothers who funded the creation of the center. Before the construction of the Kenney Center, the Elis were forced to hold these meetings in what was supposed to be a media room. In past years, the room was small enough that only the core players were able to fit into these meetings while others waited in a corridor outside the room. With the completion of the building, the Elis no longer face this problem.
“It was terrible,” Kenney said of the makeshift half-time room. “They went for 100 years without ever fixing it.”
He added that an athletic facility similar to the Kenney Center was in the original plans of the Yale Bowl back in 1914 but was never completed because of limited funding.
“Now that you have a heated facility with bathrooms, catering for food service and rooms for medical treatment hopefully it’s going to be used for all sports and all alumni sports,” he continued. “Our alumni group is very excited to come back. We’re very excited about it.”
For Erik Jensen ’63, giving this gift to the University was a way to give back to an institution that had given him rich memories and unforgettable experiences. He recalled a time when as a nine-year-old, his older brother, Irving Jensen ’54, handed him a book, “The Yale Football Story,” after coming home for Christmas vacation.
“I decided then and there that I would go to Yale because that’s where I wanted to play football because of the history and tradition of the sport at Yale and the fact that [football] was really formed at Yale,” he said.
And Erik Jensen did not regret his decision. After an undefeated season on the freshman team and being able to compete on an undefeated varsity Yale team in 1960, he said there was nothing better. And it was those great memories and past relationships that made it easy for Jensen and his brothers to decide to give back to Eli football.
“It was just a wonderful opportunity to do something not for us, but for all the guys who have ever played there,” he said. “And hopefully it’s an example for other teams both male and female at Yale to do similar things in their venues to honor the history and tradition of their sport.”
Beyond the functionality of the Kenney Center and the aesthetics of Jensen Plaza, the Kenneys and Jensens see a higher purpose in the improvements they have contributed to the Yale Bowl. They agreed that with better facilities come better recruiting, more opportunities to attract the best coaches and therefore a better athletics environment at the school.
“We’re going to be able to hold recruiting dinners and functions there, and we’ll be able to talk to our recruits about having their names at Jensen Plaza,” head football coach Tom Williams said. “I think our players are still getting an understanding of their place in history. For them to know that their names will be there, will be a very powerful experience.”
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