Somewhere high above the Atlantic Ocean, Jess Schuknecht played out the scene in his head for the umpteenth time: He’d arrive at London’s Heathrow airport early Sunday morning. Traverse the English countryside up to Coventry by bus. Then, show up — unannounced and in a foreign land — at Sarah Schwartz’s 21st birthday party. It was a romantic gesture so grand, so completely insane, it would surely sweep her off her feet.
Jess spent the rest of the flight putting together a scrapbook professing his love. It contained ticket stubs, pictures and other mementos from the magical summer he and Sarah had just spent together.
“I don’t know what sparked the idea. But I remember thinking, this is going to be awesome,” says Schuknecht, recalling the daring scheme.
The year was 2002. Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” was blowing up the summer pop charts. Jess, 25 at the time, was a hotshot at Comedysportz Madison. Sarah was a house manager at the improv comedy club. It wasn’t long before they were hanging out nearly every day.
“We had a really good friendship and were pretty much inseparable. We liked the same stuff. We just had a great time together,” says Schuknecht. “At some point, it seemed like it was becoming something more.”
Jess and Sarah saw movies together. Shared countless meals. Went to Chicago to see concerts. They even traveled to Spring Green to see Shakespeare. As mild June days slid into hot August nights, Jess’ affection for Sarah grew.,
“People definitely thought we were dating,” says Schuknecht. “We were spending so much time together, it was like we were a couple. There just wasn’t any physical component to the relationship.”
When fall arrived, Sarah left to study abroad for a semester at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. But Jess wasn’t about to let a few thousand miles stand in his way. Barely a month after Sarah’s departure, he used a credit card to buy a $600 plane ticket for a 60-hour trip he’d never forget.
“All I had was a backpack, a change of clothes and a few gifts,” says Schuknecht.
The plan seemed kismet. On Sarah’s birthday, her beloved Washington Redskins were playing the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field — just 45 minutes away from Jess’ hometown of Chilton. He knew through email exchanges that Sarah would be celebrating at Varsity, the only pub in town airing the American football match.
“Before I left, I had a Redskins jersey with her last name and the number 21 made up,” says Schuknecht. “Kind of perfect, right?”
He arrived in Coventry exhausted but with enough time to recover with a quick nap. The sun was setting over the West Midlands when he awoke. He changed into his other pair of clothes. The hour was upon him.
After slipping in undetected, Jess waited in a booth while a waitress delivered the Redskins jersey to Sarah. Attached was a card saying another surprise awaited her in the back of the bar. From the other side of the pub, Jess saw a look of disbelief come across Sarah’s face as she read the note.
“She started walking around, not knowing what she’s even looking for. And it takes her a minute before she notices me,” says Schuknecht. “She stops. Sees me and it was like her brain couldn’t process it right away. Like, there’s no way I could possibly be in this bar, halfway across the world, where I shouldn’t be.”
The shock took a minute to wear off but soon Sarah was introducing Jess to all her new friends. They, too, were astonished that Jess traveled 4,000 miles simply to wish a friend a happy birthday in the flesh. The Brits raised their pints to Jess with toasts of “Righto” and “Kudos my good man.”
All of Sarah’s chums seemed delighted by Jess’ unexpected visit except for Dudley Tredger, who just so happened to be a world-class fencer. Dudley was slated to represent her Majesty at the Commonwealth Fencing Championship the following month in Australia.
“When we shook hands, we kind of eyed each other up. It was like we were both saying, ‘I know what’s going on here. You aren’t fooling me,’” says Schuknecht.
As Packers running back Ahman Green sprinted up the middle for a 24-yard touchdown, Jess caught Dudley plant a “definitely not just friends” kiss on Sarah. She responded in kind.
“He was a pretty boy. And by that, I mean he was prettier than me,” says Schuknecht.
After socializing for a few hours, Sarah told Jess she had to head home. She was tired from having watched Dudley dominate the competition in a fencing tournament earlier in the day.
It started to rain when Sarah gave Jess a hug goodbye. During the embrace, Sarah discovered the scrapbook Jess had made during the eight hour flight from Chicago to London. It was concealed in the back of his waistband. He had mentally rehearsed presenting the handmade declaration of his love at just the right moment. It was destined to be the final domino that would tip this close friendship into true romance.
But after witnessing her necking with a champion fencer, he knew the gift — if not the entire trip — wasn’t such an awesome idea after all.
Caught, Jess reluctantly handed her the scrapbook. He then told Sarah, “Maybe hold off reading this until I’ve left the country.”