What are they going to do for entertainment at West Chester State College when Joe Senser isn't around to catch the football anymore? A lot of students are already unhappy about the scarcity of jobs in the Philadelphia area for the hundreds of phys-ed teachers that West Chester churns out every year. And you can't have more than a couple of beers down at the Rathskeller without someone making a crack about the school library ("It's a nice place to visit, as long as you don't want something to read"). So what will people use for a tonic when big No. 81, the curly-haired, square-jawed receiver with the gorgeous girl friend jumping up and down in the stands, isn't around to lift everyone's spirits on Saturday afternoons in the fall?
In years gone by, the emotional well-being of this middle-sized Division II school (enrollment: 8,000) located in the farm country west of Philadelphia didn't hinge on the impending graduation of one football player, no matter how many passes he snagged off his shoetops. From the end of World War II until 1974, the year Senser was finishing high school in Hershey, Pa., the Golden Rams were the scourge of the small-college ranks. Over those 30 years West Chester had four perfect seasons, lost one game in each of 10 other seasons, and won such classics as the Pretzel Bowl and the Cement Bowl. Football was a big deal on campus. Since 1975, however, the Golden Rams have been just another small-college team, winning about as often as they have lost but, thanks to Senser, keeping Farrell Stadium nearly filled.
A giant of a wide receiver at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Senser broke into the starting lineup as a freshman by catching a 37-yard pass on the very first play of a game against Hillsdale. To prove it was no fluke, on the next play he hauled in another for a touchdown. Deceptively fast with long, loping strides, Senser caught 108 passes the past three years, roaming through secondaries and grabbing anything he could get his hands on. His 54 receptions in 1977 make him the leading returning receiver in Division II. But even Senser can't do it all by himself. Last season the Rams were 5-5 and this season they are 0-2, having lost to Lehigh and Delaware.
West Chester called Senser's number on six of its first nine plays in the opener against Lehigh, the 1977 Division II champion, which is now in Division I-AA. Senser had eight catches plus a two-point conversion reception. If Senser goes on to catch, say, 60 passes this season, won't West Chester fans miss him all the more when he's through playing football?
Maybe not. For one thing, they can spend winter nights watching Senser play basketball. It's only his second sport, you understand. He was cut from his high school basketball team as a senior, and he still doesn't feel comfortable shooting from outside 10 feet, as attested by his career free-throw percentage of .531. Be that as it may, Senser has set a record or two and got himself into some pretty select company. As a sophomore, for example, he sank enough layups, tip-ins and offensive rebounds (130 baskets in 186 shots) to break Lew Alcindor's NCAA single-season field-goal-percentage record (.699 to .667).
"Sounds impressive, doesn't it?" says Senser. "The real drama was whether I could score enough to average five baskets per game, which is the minimum you need to qualify for the record. People say I'm an 'All-American boy' but I've got news for you, I couldn't tie Alcindor's shoelaces. And I couldn't make it in the NBA if I were five inches taller."
West Chester plays a tough Division I basketball schedule, and as the Golden Rams' starting center, Senser has performed well against players who were five inches taller than he is. He made 14 of 17 shots against Wilmington last season to match the 14-for-17 night he had against Glassboro State as a freshman, and if he shoots around .625 this year, he will break Bill Walton's NCAA career record of .651.
"It's kind of sickening, isn't it?" says Senser's girl friend, Michele Montgomery, with a sarcastic smile. "I mean Joe seems to do just about everything well—not like the rest of us. I asked him to go ice-skating with me a couple of years ago. He said, 'Aw, I don't know, I'm not very good.' So we get out on the ice, and naturally he starts skating backward, doing figure eights and all. I get so upset watching him play football that I accidentally broke my friend's finger when she was sitting next to me at a game last year. But Joe? He's so cool about everything, I assume it carries over into the way he approaches athletics."
"Senser is a complete athlete," says Alex Bell, an NFL scout who represents BLESTO, a firm that scouts for nine NFL teams. "He has the unique ability to catch nearly every ball in front of him with his hands, as opposed to a lot of young receivers who try to cheat and use a shoulder pad to soften the impact. As a result, they drop a lot of balls. Senser doesn't. He also has great jumping ability. It's certainly a plus when a man who is already 6'5" can go up over a crowd of defenders and come away with the football. The only question about Senser is whether he's tough enough to move inside to tight end and learn to block."
If Senser is a little too good to be true, perhaps it is because he had a chance to turn out all wrong. His father died when Joe was 12 and left the family of five practically destitute. Senser was taken in by the Milton Hershey School, Pennsylvania's equivalent of Boys Town, and the six years he spent there not only molded his character but also taught him everything from masonry to how to milk a cow. That he grew up to be handsome with piercing blue eyes, has been in the Rathskeller exactly once in three years and wants to be a Secret Service agent tend to confirm that he is, indeed, an Ail-American boy. He is also Philadelphia's No. 1 sports fan. His hero is Bobby Clarke, but he gets to the ball park, too. Two years ago he saw 80 Phillie home games, all free because he was dating a Phillie ball girl.
But what will the good folks at West Chester State do for fun after Senser has broken Walton's record and been drafted by the NFL? Well, they could stroll on down to a baseball game. Senser plans to try out for the Golden Rams' squad next spring. Mind you, he wouldn't have considered it before last summer, when he played in an organized league that included several ex-minor leaguers. In 30 games Senser batted .353 and-hit seven home runs.
"And those seven homers weren't just out," says Michele. "They were way, way out."
Against Senser, opponents are often dwarfed.
Senser's best catch: Michele Montgomery.