He broke his back in high school, became a Division I athlete after seeing an ad in the newspaper, and later earned a football scholarship at a Big 12 school.
But, you know, these are not the most amazing facts about T.J. Semke, a junior defensive lineman at Kansas. No, the craziest thing would be this: Semke is also a part-time bounty hunter.
Yes, a real-life bounty hunter. He’s sprinted through people’s homes. He’s corralled a bounty target in an attic. And he’s helped apprehend one man who had been awake for nearly two weeks straight.
“Huge adrenaline rush,” Semke says, a cropped Mohawk lining the middle of his shaved head. “That’s something that I really like.”
Semke is 6 feet 2, and he weighs 265 pounds, and his favorite past-time is anything that would make normal people feel terrified. So naturally, you would expect him to be here, strapping on a pair of shoulder pads in the minutes before another KU football practice. But if you listen to the story — the bounty hunting, a fractured vertebra, the days as a lowly walk-on — you probably wouldn’t believe it. Well, Semke probably wouldn’t, at least.
“I guess it was a good thing I was reading the paper that day,” says Semke, a graduate of Lee’s Summit North (Mo.). “I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Before he became a college football player, T.J. Semke was what you would consider a regular college student. He lived in Oliver Hall, an on-campus dorm usually reserved for freshman. He spent hours at the recreation center, lifting weights and passing the time as he pursued a degree in education. He also maintained a part-time job: In the summers, Semke helped his mother’s boyfriend, Mike Ippolito, with his career as a bail bondsman in Kansas City.
“If he needs a little extra muscle … he’ll give me a call,” Semke says. “We’ll go out, see what we can do.”
Semke had grown up watching “Dog the Bounty Hunter”, a reality show about a bail bondsman who must locate people who break their bond agreements. He was mesmerized by the excitement, the mystery, the thrill of the hunt.
“He’s a tough sucker,” says Ty Kohl, who coached Semke at Lee’s Summit North.
On his first day of bounty hunting, Semke arrived at an early 1900s house in Kansas City with a group of more than eight people. It was a simple job, really. A man had failed to show for a court date, and Semke’s crew was there to haul him in.
“Super nervous,” Semke says. “A lot of emotions.”
More often than not, Semke says, the missed court date is a mix-up and the job ends peacefully. But in the minutes after the bond-agency squad arrived at the home, the man bolted up a flight of stairs, looking to escape out an attic window. The group followed in pursuit, and Semke was the first one behind him, subduing him before he could step out onto the roof.
“That was a crazy time,” Semke says, rather nonchalantly. “A great moment.”
There have been other bounty jobs since, moments that can feel dangerous, or just a little surreal. The life of a bail bondsman is not for the workaday corporate crowd, and sometimes you see things that stay with you, like a strung-out man who hadn’t slept in close to two weeks.
“He was bouncing off walls, a little out of it,” Semke says. “But we got the job done, got home safe.”
There is an element of courage involved in the job, of course, and a blue-collar work ethic. You show up, you do the job, you go home. Semke says he’d like to be a coach someday, maybe a job in sports. But you get the feeling he would be pretty solid at most endeavors.
“It’s hit and miss,” Semke says. “You go to a house, and it’s an old address — no one’s there. People have never heard of the people you’re looking for.
“But as far as someone being at the house, I’m 100 percent right now. I haven’t let anyone get away so far.”
The newspaper ad was barely noticeable, maybe 3 inches wide in the University Daily Kansan, the KU student newspaper. Kansas coach Charlie Weis was looking for walk-ons, the ad said, and tryouts would be in a matter of days.
On that day last year, Semke just happened to be skimming the newspaper before a class. He had grown up playing football, and he starred at linebacker and receiver at Lee’s Summit North. He had even dreamed of walking on at a big university, but his body had not cooperated.
During his junior season at Lee’s Summit North, Semke fractured a vertebra in his back. For the next season, he was able to manage the pain. But when he left Lee’s Summit North, it looked as if his football days were finished.
“Our trainers looked at him,” said Kohl, the Lee’s Summit North coach, “and they said: ‘He might not play football again.’”
By the end of his freshman year, Semke was ready to test his back again. So he jotted down the information in the ad, and set up his place in the tryout. Semke impressed Kansas’ coaching staff with his blend of size and speed, and a few days after the tryout, he received a voicemail from KU assistant Scott Vestal.
Give me a call back. I’ve got good news.
Semke had earned a spot in the program, and for the 2013 season, he lived the life of a walk-on. He spent time on the defensive line. He spent time at tight end. He spent time at fullback. His value was rooted in his ability to be flexible, to listen, to do what the coaches asked. His goal was to get noticed, Semke says, but he mostly did it by staying quiet.
“If I were going into a fight somewhere,” Weis says, “if I were taking five players from this team to go with me, he’d be in that five for sure. All he’s done is worked so hard that he’s made everyone else better.”
If this were the end of the story, Semke would still think the whole thing was pretty crazy. But the thing is, it doesn’t end there. On a Thursday afternoon in August, on the first day of fall camp, Weis gathered the team for a meeting. He began by talking about the other defensive linemen on the team, the ones that Semke had pushed and prodded during summer workouts.
Then he stopped, and he invited Semke up to the front of the room. It was time, Weis would say, for Semke to claim his scholarship.
“It was the best feeling I’ve ever had in the longest time,” Semke says. “Great moment.”