SENIOR FEATURE: JESPER HORSTED – CATCHING HISTORY
the following is part of Saturday’s gameday program … you can still get tickets at 609-258-4TIX or by clicking here.
As drives that account for no points go, this one ranked with the biggest in Princeton history. It took place on the very field in front of you two weeks earlier, a 93-yard trek across Powers Field that went from the shadow of one goal line to the shadow of the other.
It was the Ivy League game of the year (decade? 2000s?), a showdown between undefeated Top-20 teams, and it was one that Dartmouth’s overwhelming defense was controlling at the moment. Leading 9-7 and dominating field position, the Big Green had kept Princeton out of sorts until this very moment.
Moments earlier, John Lovett had connected with his favorite target on a critical third down conversion, and now he was looking for him again. It was a shallow crossing route, and the obstacles included one of the nation’s top defensive lines and an official whose head happened to be in the line between Point A and Point B.
The throw was a bit wider than Lovett would have liked, and maybe that would have been trouble for anybody else. But this was his guy, a teammate who will go down among the best receivers in Princeton history. And it was somebody who had trained for this kind of play.
Jesper Horsted reached out with his left hand and made a one-handed grab, just as he had done so many times before — as an All-Ivy outfielder on the Princeton baseball team. At that moment, as it had so many times before, the decision Bob Surace made four years earlier paid off in spades.
Horsted was named the 2015 Minnesota High School Athlete of the Year by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, an award that had previously gone to the likes of Joe Mauer, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, and Tyus Jones. He set a Minnesota state record for single-game receptions (19 for 293 yards) in a state playoff game his junior year, and he was getting his fair share of interest from colleges.
But Horsted was also a standout baseball player, albeit in a state that doesn’t exactly allow for a long spring season. Perhaps it was the concern about his baseball competition in Minnesota that held colleges off, but the Roseville Area High School graduate hoped that he couldn’t continue playing both sports for just a bit longer.
“It was a really cool idea to play two sports, but I didn’t know if it would work out,” he said. “I would have gone with one sport. I based my decision more on academic strength, not athletic strength. I would have rather gone to a place and played one sport and get a great education, rather than compromise just to play two sports.”
As it turns out, the place that was willing to let him play two sports was the top-ranked University in the nation, so compromise wasn’t exactly an issue.
Horsted came in as a highly touted wideout on a football team that wasn’t far removed from a record-setting 2013 championship season. He believed he could make an immediate impact, and maybe even bring Princeton an Ivy title, as a freshman. He was right.
Just not in the sport he expected.
A freak intestinal illness suffered weeks before he reported for his first football camp at Princeton all but ruined his freshman year. Upon reflection, as much as he hated being on the sideline, he thought the time allowed him to study the offense more deeply and have a better grasp of it by the time his sophomore season rolled around.
He was fully healthy for baseball season, outside of the fact that he apparently had forgotten how to play baseball during preseason indoor workouts. His confidence was as low as it gets until just after his birthday, when the team started practicing outdoors, and he started hitting again.
“It was the first time we left the pit, when we were downstairs hitting,” he remembers. “It was the first time I had seen mid-90s pitching, and there’s a bad batter’s eye down there, so I had a hard time. It’s not the same as being outdoors, but I couldn’t put a ball in play, I couldn’t put a bunt down. I looked like the worst baseball player ever. We finally got outside, the day after birthday, and I got up and had a couple hits that day. I thought that maybe I’m not that far behind everybody else.”
Horsted hoped he could help the team as a pinch runner that season, but injuries forced him into the lineup far earlier than he could have imagined. He ultimately made 29 starts that season, hit .326 and scored 21 runs on a team that won a thrilling Ivy League Championship series over Yale and placed in the NCAA regional at UL-Lafayette.
“It was really awesome,” he remembers. “It showed me how much fun this could be at this level. It was a closer team than I ever had in high school, and obviously a higher level of ball, and when those two things come together, there’s a really powerful feeling. That’s why I love to play sports.”
He was ready to feel that again. It wouldn’t take long.
The “Fast and Physical” offensive playbook for Princeton isn’t easy, even for a national semifinalist for the William Campbell Trophy, which honors the top student-athlete in college football. Horsted was too talented to keep on the sideline, but the nuances of the offense were still a challenge during the early part of the 2016 season.
He found his confidence as he went, even if he wasn’t finding the end zone. He would make catch after catch, all finishing inside the 5, and all handing teammate John Lovett another opportunity to find the end zone. Horsted didn’t mind — probably not as much as Keith Elias, whose single-season rushing TD record fell that year — but he admits that his first touchdown in the 2016 championship-clinching win over Dartmouth did feel extra special.
Horsted earned All-Ivy League honorable mention after catching 30 passes for 413 yards that year, and he believed he was on the right trajectory for an even better 2017 season. He wasn’t alone in that belief, either.
“We spent a lot of time together that spring,” Horsted said of his connection with Chad Kanoff ’18. “He would pull me away from baseball. I like to do the tunnel vision thing, but he said that wasn’t going to fly. We found time whenever, and especially during the summer, to get on the same page. We were exactly on the same page.”
Same page, same paragraph, same sentence. As Kanoff was rewriting the Princeton quarterback records, Horsted was doing the same with the receiving section. He earned unanimous first-team All-Ivy League honors after breaking Princeton single-season records for receptions (92) and touchdown receptions (14), and he led the Ivy League in receptions, receiving yards (1226), and receiving TDs. Horsted finished third on the all-time Ivy League list with 92 catches; only Brown’s Steve Campbell (120, 2000) and Chas Gessner (114, 2002) had more.
Two games stand out from that season. The first was a 52-17 win at Harvard, when he had career highs in catches (13) and yards (246), including a SportsCenter-destined one-handed catch on the sideline (he’s good at them). It was a dominant win, but it was also Princeton’s last of the season, as a rash of defensive injuries doomed the Tigers over the last four games.
That brings us to the second memorable game, a 12-catch, 169-yard, two-touchdown game at Dartmouth, which the Big Green won in the final five seconds. The loss left Princeton at 5-5, and left Horsted unable to truly savor his record-setting season.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “It was really cool to see improvement, and I outperformed my own expectations for myself, but it’s just a mediocre season other than that. I’ll take this  season, with lesser stats, any day of the week.”
There was one more thing about that game, and it lingered in Horsted’s mind far beyond that cold November day. When the Minnesota native took his football jersey off, he wasn’t entirely sure he would ever put it back on.
Every professional sport runs its own collegiate draft a bit differently than the others, and Horsted was well aware that Major League Baseball could select players after their junior seasons. He hit .390 in league play and earned unanimous first-team All-Ivy honors, and his combination of speed and skills caught more than one team’s attention.
He didn’t have the requisite power that teams look for at the top of the draft, but he was still intriguing enough that teams remained interested. Ultimately, it was going to take a massive offer for Horsted to give up his final year of eligibility in football and sign with a baseball franchise, and he set a figure for himself “higher than an Ivy League guy with no home runs probably should set their number.” Basically, if a team was going to take away his final football season, they were going to pay more than they were probably comfortable with. Horsted wasn’t about to compromise on this one. He was ready to put that football jersey back on, and maybe go out with one more of those special seasons.
Even he couldn’t have imagined what was about to happen, though.
He had a sense in the preseason that this particular Princeton team had the chance to be good, but it wasn’t until the 50-7 route of Butler in the season opener — which included a 63-yard touchdown catch by Horsted on Princeton’s second offensive play — that he really believed something special was happening.
Since then, Princeton has put up video game numbers six other times, including a pair of 66-point outbursts and a 59-point day in a title-clinching win over Yale last weekend. Horsted’s personal numbers may not be quite the same as last year (and sitting out a lot of fourth quarters has played a part), but he still enters today’s game as Princeton’s career leader in touchdown catches (25), and only five behind Kevin Guthrie for the program lead in career receptions (193).
However, it was the two other games that show just what Horsted means to this team. He made one highlight catch after another in both the 29-21 win over Harvard and the 14-9 win over Dartmouth. His personal favorite was a 20-yard touchdown against the Crimson that finally opened a two-score lead in the fourth quarter; it was an inside post in good coverage, and a play where he reached up and simply stole the ball from a Harvard crowd.
He could have picked from a handful of catches against Dartmouth, including the afore-mentioned one-handed grab that flipped field position and ultimately set Princeton up for the winning score. Horsted went against elite Ivy defenses, and he made big plays at big times. He has done it more Saturdays than most can remember, and he truly believes he can do it on Sundays too.
Thus, when he takes his football uniform off later today, he doesn’t think it will be the last time for that either.
“I think I’ll go for football and pursue that as best I can,” he said. “In doing that, it means you lose your eligibility. I think I’ve taken my last swings, which is something I’ve grappled with over the last few weeks, but I’m excited about this process now. I feel confident that I will be where I need to be when I need to be there.”
Horsted is breaking multiple records for a program that has been around nearly 150 years, and he has never had a full offseason to train for football.
Scouts have to be wondering what happens then.
Regardless of what happens today — and a lot could, including Princeton’s first perfect season since 1964 and another career record in his pocket — nobody can question the all-around excellence that Horsted has achieved at Princeton.
He has one of the highest GPAs on the team, which allowed him to earn that semifinalist position for the Campbell Trophy. He will leave with two Ivy League titles and an incredible group of friends, including a four-man senior wideout group (Horsted, Stephen Carlson, Jordan Argue, and Alex Parkinson), that former offensive coordinator once termed “The Carlsons” because they all looked alike as freshmen, and none of them seemed to know enough about the offense. And he doesn’t think he gave up a single thing throughout the whole experience.
“I don’t think I sacrificed anything in my time here,” he said. “I think I get more sleep than anybody on the team. I just really manage my time well. There is definitely time for socializing or goofing off, but it’s structured. I don’t let it get out of hand. When I need to get something down, I know I’ll do it, no matter what.”
Like one of his 25 touchdown receptions, it’s never a one-man show. Somebody had to block, somebody had to pass, and somebody had to catch. He knows every piece of the puzzle matters.
“I have gotten so much help here along the way,” he said. “This was never a solo mission. Whether it’s preceptors, professors, friends, parents, coaches … if I tried to do what I’m doing alone, then I would compromise a lot of things. When I work together with other people and get their expertise on the matters, it’s achievable.”
More than achievable. In many ways, what Horsted has done is unprecedented. Enjoy him today.