LeadU presents Mike’s Football Story


My Football Story

Mike R. Jay

It was a cold December day in 1969, in Torrington, WY. The football field was frosted over and the bleachers, covered in snow. I rubbed my hands together as I made the trek from the high school parking lot to the coach’s office. There sat Coach Johnson, who today is one of the premiere coaches in high school football with more than 330 wins in a 40 year career as a high school football coach.

“Great news,” he said as I plopped down in the seat opposite his. “You’ve been named Honorable Mention on the All-America High School Football Team.” I lit up, a huge smile stretching across my face. I had already been named all-conference and all-state and now, this — the perfect ending to an undefeated 9-0 season.

Mike R. Jay

Sure, I ran track and played baseball too, but my heart was with football. In fact, I loved football so much that I broke my cast off during half-time at a game earlier that season, hoping Coach Johnson would put me in to rescue the team from what seemed then to be a certain loss. That was the type of athlete I was: I wanted to play and I wanted to win.

I had long set my sights on a college football scholarship and the Honorable Mention distinction would only help my chances. I thanked Coach Johnson for sharing the good news and rounded the corner to Jim Wiseman’s office. As Torrington’s athletic director, he had helped student-athletes through the recruiting process before. “Congratulations,” he said in a scratchy voice, strained from a career spent cheering on the sidelines.

“Thanks,” I said. Then Jim looked up at me as if he knew what I was thinking.

“What are my chances?” I asked with a grin.

Jim chuckled as he shook his head from side to side. “You know, playing at the college level is a long shot for anyone.”

“I know, I know,” I offered impatiently. “But it’s my dream,” I said. “I’d do anything to play college football.”

“Well, you’ve clearly got the talent — and the passion too,” he responded. Let me send your videotape to Darrell Royal at the University of Texas and see what he says. Elated, I jumped from my seat and headed to class.

As the weeks passed, I became more and more anxious. Would they want me? If so, how much would the scholarship be? Could I visit campus? What position would I play? It was early January when Mr. Wiseman finally called me into his office. “Tough luck, young man” he said. “The verdict is in and the Texas coaching staff says you’re too short and too slow.”

“Wow,” I said in disbelief. I had worked so hard to get to that moment and this was not the response I expected. I glanced first at Mr. Wiseman and then down at the floor. I was one of the best high school quarterbacks in the nation. “How could they not want me?” I wondered.

I allowed myself a few days to grieve and then I pulled myself together. I knew I had what it took — my stats on the field proved it. I loved the game and one rejection wasn’t enough to make me quit.

Re-energized, I wrote letter after letter to college coaches across the country. I circulated my highlight tapes far and wide. Mentally, I prepared myself to accept offers from a broad range of schools — not just the ones I had always hoped to attend.

By the end of my senior year, my options were clear: go to the University of Wyoming where I had been told I could walk on to the team or accept a full-ride scholarship to a liberal arts school in Scottsbluff, Nebraska — Hiram Scott College.

Neither choice was ideal. At Wyoming my playing time would be limited and I wouldn’t receive any financial assistance. Plus, I’d heard walk-ons, no matter the school, were treated like second-class citizens.

Did I really want that? At Hiram Scott, things would be better but I’d been recruited to play defensive back and I wanted to play quarterback.

Choosing what seemed to be the better of the two options, I packed my bags for Scottsbluff, hoping for the best.

It started out well. In the first few weeks of practice, I took Hiram Scott by storm, beating out the current quarterback and taking his starting spot.

During my freshman season, I led the team to a 6-2-1 record and threw a 92-yard touchdown pass to the tight end that year, the longest ever in that stadium.

Hiram Scott’s football coach, Dick Beechner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Beechner, quickly identified me as one of the best players ever to play for the school. I had every reason to look forward to a promising football career there.

It wasn’t long, however, before word reached me that this season would be the team’s last. Strapped for cash and unable to keep enrollment at capacity, the Board of Trustees had decided to shut the school down.

When I heard the news, I sat silent. Once again, I had been detoured. Would I be able to take what seemed like a roadblock and turn it into an opportunity?

With proven abilities as a college football quarterback and decent freshman grades, I made a second attempt to get recruited.

This time, three scholarships came back my way: one to play for the University of Wyoming (the school that had offered me a walk-on position the year before), one to play for the University of Northern Colorado, and one from Weber State University in Ogden, UT.

Without doing the research I should have, I agreed to play for Wyoming — after all, they had promised me I could play quarterback and that was where I wanted to be.

I think every high school athlete dreams of playing for their state school!

Excited to finally join the Wyoming Cowboys, I packed my bags once again — this time for Laramie.

I settled into my dorm room and strolled around campus, eventually finding my way to the field house for my first day of practice.

The coach called for me to take a few snaps as quarterback and decided almost instantly to switch me to defense — with no explanation.

I was angry. I hated defense. I begrudgingly played free safety during spring training. At 5’10” and 150 pounds, all the beating, thumping, and hitting took its toll, leaving me with a jammed neck, chronic headaches, and several trips in and out of consciousness.

Before the spring semester was even over, it was clear that my football career at Wyoming was never going to be what I had imagined.

Even though, they had a great coach, Fritz Shurmur, who later coached the Green Bay Packers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Shurmur I had a decision to make.

I headed to the mountains north of Laramie to forget about my football career.

Thinking I would never play football again, I retreated to the mountains and got a job cutting wood. Football was what I did and I’d never stopped to think beyond it.

What would I do next? This time, my mind was made up for me. After a forest fire on Bull Mountain in the fall of 1971 burnt away my job, I returned home to a month or two of dereliction and found that I was not cut out for being a college dropout.

Vietnam was raging and after a fight with my dad, I was off to join the Marine Corps. Undertaking my third adventure since graduating high school, I packed my bags yet again and moved south to Camp Pendleton after matriculating from Marine Corps Boot Camp at MCRD, winning Series Honorman and a meritorious promotion in the process.

My early success in the military was a welcome change from the disappointment of the previous two years. I was quickly named a top military recruit, received two meritorious promotions and was given my choice of duty.

Before long, I was surprised to learn that the Marine Corps was starting a football program designed to attract recruits to the military.

Over the next few days, I began reliving my days at Hiram Scott while sitting around the table with fellow Marines. Skeptical of my story, they razzed me. “If that’s true, Mike,” they said, “we dare you to try out for the team.”

“You’re on,” I replied.

Within a matter of days, I had collected my bets and was on my way to Quantico, VA, where there would be one more round of try-outs that “hundreds” of marines would attend hoping to be named to the team and avoid being shipped to Vietnam in the summer of 1972.

An all-Marine team would be formed with the survivors of those three-a-day practices in muggy Virginia.

The “Titans” had finished their first season in Alexandria, the year before and integration was beginning to come into full swing everywhere, as people were awakening to the constitutional ideal that “all men are created equal.”

Being back on the football field enlivened me. I performed well and was chosen as starting quarterback.

The Marine Corps flew us all over the country that season; we usually touched down in dress blues and were welcomed by a host of news cameras and reporters, all spreading the Marine Corps message.

I spent the season having the time of my life, ordering around senior-ranking officials on the field and performing at my personal best.

In the last game against Xavier, I ran 70 yards for a touchdown, a grand finale to an impressive season, for a quarterback who was too small and too slow, I was feeling bigger than all of that for sure.

It was then that the tables turned. I was no longer pounding down coaches’ doors; they were pounding down mine.

In the weeks that followed, I received over 50 letters in the mail, all from first-rate teams offering to roll out the red carpet for me — Florida, Illinois, Texas A&M, and the list went on.

This was exactly what I had hoped for my senior year of high school. It was just a little late in coming.

The best part? Because I had been on active duty for 18 months, the NCAA wouldn’t penalize me for transferring schools — I would be allowed three years of eligibility.

With a big decision before me, I stopped to think about life beyond football for the first time. I weighed not only the football programs at each school but also the academic programs.

What did I ultimately want to do and who could help me get there? Did the schools offer the right classes?

Did they have the academic support I would need? What long-term opportunities would the school help create for me?

Convinced I would eventually be a veterinarian, Texas A&M was an easy choice and there was ONE particular advantage I had in the back of my mind.

You see, the “Fightin’ Texas Aggies” played a little ole team called Texas every year on Thanksgiving — you remember, the same team, with the SAME coach who had rejected me as being too slow and too small to play major college football.

I made visits to College Station. They were everything I wanted in a school, big, tough, great tradition, great coaches, and great spirit. What more could a marine want, and a deal was struck.

In just two short years, I had lost my dream and reclaimed it. And, as if that weren’t enough, I would have the chance to play the University of Texas, the very school that had said I couldn’t play at that level, on Thanksgiving Day.

I packed my bags a fourth and final time and headed to Texas.

It wasn’t easy at Texas A&M.  Although I was voted Captain my first year, injuries took their toll and I sat out part of the season, even after leading the conference in total offense through my first six games, and being voted by Texas Football Magazine as “Newcomer of the Year in 1973.

Working my way back into the starting role in 1975 as a Senior, I finally found myself on the field against the coach who said I didn’t deserve to be there.

I can’t tell you how gratifying over the years it was to be a part of the team who on national TV in 1975 defeated our arch rivals 20-10.

While they knocked me out with a back injury right before the half, I managed a touchdown pass before half-time and I proved that I could indeed play major college football.

While the record books won’t have my name plastered all over the place, as there were certainly people who played quarterback at Texas A&M MUCH better than I did; for the time I did play, I managed over 10 yards every time I touched the ball that first year, and enjoyed the best collegiate football had to offer during my career with A&M.

We were Southwest Conference Tri-Champions and made a Liberty Bowl appearance against USC to boot.

The only thing that I think had kept us from winning the National Championship in 1975 was an injury I sustained in the Texas game on National Television.

When the season ended, I was voted by my teammates as the recipient of the Aggie Heart Award, an honor given to a senior athlete who had displayed effort, desire, determination, competitiveness, leadership, and courage over the course of his athletic career.

Mike Jay hurt against Texas in 1975
Mike Jay hurt against Texas in 1975
As a high school senior at Torrington High, I never could have predicted where I would end up or how I would get there. But as I look back, I’m thankful I never gave up.

My message to you — the student-athlete who is reading this book — is to believe in your story and to keep moving forward until that story emerges.

In this book, I share the lessons I learned the hard way in the hope that they will aid you on your journey.

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    Mike R. Jay is a developmentalist utilizing consulting, coaching, mentoring and advising as methods to offer developmental scaffolding for aspiring leaders who are interested in being, doing, having, becoming, and contributing… to helping people have lives.

    Mike R. Jay
    Leadership University

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