Former Vikings tight end Joe Senser working way back from two ‘devastating’ strokes
EDINA, Minn. -- Joe Senser hasn’t caught a pass in 35 years, but Vikings fans still remember him fondly. At his home in Edina is a basket filled with more than 50 letters from people around the country who have sent old trading cards and photos hoping they’ll be returned with an autograph.
Senser used to regularly sign and send back such items but hasn’t been able recently; he has suffered two strokes since 2016 and no longer can write with his right hand.
So, letters from autograph seekers continue to pile up as his wife, Amy, waits until the former Pro Bowl tight end can write well enough with his left hand to produce a number of satisfactory signatures.
“They are his fans, and we want to get their cards back to them,” Amy Senser said on a recent afternoon in the family’s living room. “We’ve got to find a way to do it.”
Sitting next to his wife, Senser nodded and said, “Yeah, yeah.” There is not a lot more he is able to say.
Forty years ago, Senser was selected by the Vikings in the sixth round of the 1979 NFL draft but had a once-promising career end in 1984 because of knee issues. He suffered a massive stroke on July 3, 2016, at his home. He survived despite what Amy Senser said was a less than 50 percent chance, but lost feeling in the entire right side of his body that hasn’t come back.
He also lost much of his ability to speak. After two years of speech therapy, Amy Senser said her husband could string together sentences of up to five words. But on Nov. 7, 2018, he suffered another stroke and much of that progress was lost.
“Slow,” is how Senser describes his speech now.
Senser’s mind is still working well, and he walks with the use of a cane. His wife said he knows what he wants to say but just can’t get the words out. Senser can provide short answers to questions, otherwise nods yes or shakes no. He sometimes can use his left hand to provide a satisfactory written response.
After his first stroke, Senser, 62, spent five months in the hospital before returning home but was able to leave for physical therapy. Since his second stroke, it has been more difficult to get out, so the plan now is for physical therapists to come to the home.
When asked how he is feeling, Senser made gestures with his hand indicating he has his ups and downs.
“We’re just grateful that he’s up and alive,” Amy Senser said. “It’s been pretty devastating and it’s been emotional, and just getting up each day over these last number of years is a lot. He’s got good days and not-so-good days.”
It has been difficult decade for the Senser family. Amy was convicted in 2012 of criminal vehicular homicide in the 2011 death of 38-year-old Anousone Phanthavong, struck in a hit-and-run incident while refilling his gas tank on a Minneapolis exit ramp. She served a 2 1/2-year sentence at the Shakopee Correctional Facility and then completed a six-month work release stint.
Last February, the Sensers’ only granddaughter died by suicide at age 13.
“He and Amy are just such special people,” said Vikings radio sideline reporter Greg Coleman, a former teammate who has kept in touch with the family. “In spite of what’s happening, they’re still putting their best foot forward. That family has been through a hell of a lot over the last several years. … They continue to lean on their faith and are surrounded by some good friends who have been supportive since this whole ordeal began.”
Coleman admires how Senser has handled his heath situation.
“His spirits are great,” Coleman said. “When I think of Joe Senser, I think of courage. I don’t need too many words from him when I see that big infectious smile of his.”
A rare talent
Coleman, a Vikings punter from 1978-87, got to know Senser well after he arrived in Minnesota in 1979 and was moved to tight end playing wide receiver at Division II West Chester State (Pa.) University.
“He was curly haired, 6-foot-5, a good-looking guy coming in, chiseled face,” Coleman said.
After spending his rookie season on injured reserve with a back injury, Senser caught 42 passes for 447 yards in 1980. He made the Pro Bowl in 1981 by snaring 79 passes for 1,004 yards. Senser had three 100-yard receiving games that year, and remains the only tight end in Vikings history to have a 1,000-yard season.
“He was a great athlete,” said Bud Grant, Minnesota’s head coach from 1967-83 and in 1985. “He had exceptional hands. Not just good hands, exceptional hands. And he could run well.”
But late in the 1981 season, Senser suffered a serious right knee injury that derailed his career. Senser remembers without hesitation it happened in the “13th game” against Green Bay and he felt “pain.”
“It was at midfield, and he was coming from left to right on a crossing route and caught a the ball and got hit by a safety right down by his legs and that damaged his knee and pretty much ruined his career,” said Les Steckel, then the Vikings wide receiver and tight ends coach.
Shot up with cortisone, Senser limped through the final three games. He had surgery after the season, and missed the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Senser played in all nine games but caught a modest 29 passes for 261 yards. He hurt his knee again, and was on injured reserve in 1983. In Senser’s final season of 1984, he caught just 15 passes for 110 yards while playing in just eight games.
“It was bone on bone then,” said Steckel, Minnesota’s head coach in 1984. “He could barely play, but he was such a popular player and a good one for the team and everything, so I kept him around one more year. … He was the most enjoyable player I ever coached. He always had a smile on his face, he always was laughing. He loved life.”
Senser finished with modest NFL statistics of 165 receptions for 1,822 yards but many wonder how good he might have been had he not gotten hurt.
“He would have been All-Pro every year,” said former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer.
“He would have rewrote every record book for tight ends,” Coleman said. “People could have very easily been talking about, ‘Man, I remember Kellen Winslow, I remember Joe Senser, I remember (Rob) Gronkowski.’ He could have been mentioned in those names had he stayed healthy.”
Senser was replaced as the starting tight end by Steve Jordan, who played for Minnesota from 1982-94 and made six Pro Bowls.
“Had he not been injured and gone on to a more extended career, frankly, it might have been to my demise,” Jordan said. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten the starting opportunity that early in my career.”
Jordan admired how Senser provided advice when he arrived as a Vikings rookie but noted how Senser and tight end Bob Bruer sometimes pulled pranks by getting him to run incorrect routes. Told of what Jordan said, Senser let out a big laugh.
Despite his short career, Senser had become so popular in the Twin Cities that when an investor in the late 1980s was looking to start a chain of sports-themed restaurants, he sought Senser’s help. The first to bear his name was Joe Senser’s Sports Grille and Bar in Roseville in 1998.
The chain soon expanded to locations in Bloomington, Eagan and Plymouth. Only the Roseville and Bloomington locations remain, and the restaurants are now known as Senser’s Kitchen and Bar.
After his retirement, Senser plunged himself into the restaurants and charity work. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he worked stints as a Vikings radio analyst.
A difficult decade
Pain, though, remained an everyday part of his life. Senser has had eight surgeries on his right knee and four on his left. He’s had two vertebrae fused and two vertebrae spacers inserted.
“Before the strokes, (doctors) said he had like an 80-year-old body when he was 50,” said Amy Senser.
Amy Senser met her future husband in 1989 while working as a bartender at Senser’s restaurant in Roseville, and they were married in 1990. The couple has four daughters: Brittani 35; Ashley, 33; Molly, 22: and Hannah, 21. The two oldest are from Senser’s previous marriage.
Amy Senser’s legal issues affected the family early in the decade. Then came her husband’s strokes and the death in February of Aria Joy Senser, the daughter of Brittani Senser.
“It’s been a pretty heavy number of years, but God is good,” Amy said. “Just a tragic accident. And our family is closer than ever. I know the family of the man who passed away, and that’s a blessing. I see them every month. They’re an amazing family.
“We’ve got a beautiful family. Unfortunately, we’ve had another tragedy with losing our granddaughter, but we’re really solid.”
Amy Senser, 52, has developed a relationship with the family of Phanthavong, which she said has forgiven her for the incident. She works part time as an outreach coordinator at the Salvation Army, a job she got on work release, but spends most of her time taking care of her husband.
Senser’s first stroke came when he and his wife were preparing to take a bicycle ride during Fourth of July weekend.
“Joe went to the bathroom,” said Amy Senser. “Then I heard this ‘bam’ and I just knew that was not something good. I ran to the bathroom and he was kind of half in and half out, and was just seizing at that time.”
She called 911 and Senser was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. Senser said he remembers falling in the bathroom, but not much after that.
“He had a massive stroke, which he wasn’t really supposed to survive,” Amy said. “We had to call the whole family in. … We still didn’t know if he was actually going to survive even after a week or two.”
The second stroke came last November after Senser had gone to bed and his wife was in the living room watching television. She heard her husband make a loud noise and she ran to the bedroom, but thought he was just having a nightmare. The next morning, Senser had a hard time getting out of bed, so she called 911 and he was taken to the hospital.
“They did an MRI and CT scan and they first didn’t really see anything. But then they found it in his cerebellum and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s had another stroke,’ ” she said. “But he recovered pretty darn well from that one.”
Senser spent 12 days in the hospital before returning home but his speech was affected, something the Sensers often make light of in their own way.
“The other day he was trying to say ‘cheesy toast’ and he called it ‘Jesus toast,’ ” she said while both laughed.
Throughout his health issues, the Sensers say the Vikings have been invaluable. They point to Coleman, CEO Kevin Warren, radio announcer Paul Allen, vice president of media relations Bob Hagan and equipment assistant Terrell Barnes as some who have provided great support.
Asked for a word he would like to say to his fans, Senser said, “Humble.”
Senser said doctors have told him all the hits he took playing football contributed to his strokes. When asked if he would play football if he had known it would affect his health, Senser said, “No.”
When asked why not, Senser said, “Four daughters.”
Three of Senser’s daughters live in the Twin Cities and stop in regularly; the other lives in California and visits when she can.
Senser’s vision has been affected the strokes, as well, but he does his best to read the Internet on his iPad. He never misses a Vikings game on television. This month, Senser said he got a big thrill watching Tiger Woods win the Masters and he’s a big fan of the Golden State Warriors, and expects them to win a fourth NBA title in five years.
“Curry, Curry,” Senser, who played basketball at West Chester State and follows the sport closely, said in reference to Warriors star guard Stephen Curry.
Amy Senser said her husband has been covered by insurance through the restaurant but that medical bills are beginning to pile up and it’s “tough.” She said future additional help could be available from the NFL but declined to go into detail.
For now, the Sensers are trying to make the best of the situation.
“We’re just grateful he’s up and alive, and we’ve got our family,” Amy Senser said. “We just keep praying. … We laugh a lot. You can choose to laugh or cry. Joe’s got a different life now, and it’s hard. … But he’s a great guy, great spirit, and very humble.”