By Joseph Santoliquito
Medford, NJ(CBS) — The dream was always Oregon.
Jake Pisarcik liked the way the Ducks played. He liked their winning tradition. He envisioned himself playing there ever since seeing their warp-speed offense zoom up and down the field on TV.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman from Shawnee (Medford, N.J.) always aspired to play major college football. There was just one gaping problem before Oregon called: No one else had called.
Pisarcik, the youngest son of former NFL quarterback Joe Pisarcik, was staring at an uncertain future this time last year. Tapes were sent out — few replied. Calls were made, few returned.
He got one offer. One.
So when Jake signs his letter of intent on Wednesday to attend Oregon on a full scholarship, at Shawnee before the TV klieg lights, he’ll be beaming a megawatt smile that may be seen all the way to the West Coast. Underneath, what won’t be so transparent is the arduous, patient and somewhat frustrating journey Jake had to endure from obscurity to Oregon.
Jake Pisarcik wasn’t a “labeled kid” at Shawnee. Sure, he made the rounds to local college camps, but a “labeled kid” comes with a tag. He’s deemed special at an early age and his progression throughout high school is meticulously followed. Jake wasn’t a “five-star” kid. He wasn’t even a “four-star” kid.
He was a 6-foot-1, 235-pound tight end entering his junior year. He had great feet, a super work ethic and even for a brief moment dabbled with playing quarterback, the position his father played in the NFL for eight years with the Giants and Eagles.
That stopped fast — at the insistence of his dad.
“Jake came to our football camp between his eighth grade and freshman years and we break up into positions, so Jake goes with the quarterbacks, and you figure, that’s natural, his last name is Pisarcik,” Shawnee coach Tim Gushue recalled with a laugh. “We knew Jake played other positions, but in camp, especially with ninth graders, we let the kids go where they want to go. From there, we’ll direct a kid to where we think they should go. It’s like dream week for two days, then reality sets in.
“The funny thing is, that night, I get a call from Joe, Jake’s dad, and he told me to put Jake’s hand on the ground. Joe’s own prediction was Jake would be a tight end or an O-lineman.”
Jake was back with the big guys the next day. But the fleeting thought did cross his mind.
“I was an offensive guard and defensive tackle in eighth grade, I had a chance to touch the ball, so why not try it,” Jake said, laughing. “I tried it out a little because of my father, I guess. It was a given I would be putting my hand down and playing tight end; I accepted reality early.”
By his junior year, Jake was starting for the Renegades at defensive end and tight end. He moved well for someone that large.
Then something happened: He got larger.
The tapes his father and Gushue sent out were of Jake playing tight end and defensive end. What major recruiters didn’t see — possibly what no one foresaw — was Jake growing 3 inches, gaining 50 pounds and seeing his bench press bolt from 285 pounds to 400.
Gushue saw something, too. After each season, he has an exit meeting with his returning players about what they need to work on during the offseason and where they may go, if a position change is needed. He’s one of the deans of high school coaching in South Jersey with impeccable prescience. He had graduated a very good offensive line Jake’s junior year.
“We looked at who was playing up front; we sat Jake down and told him this is what we saw as a coaching staff,” Gushue said. “I’ve been here 36 years and we’re always looking out for our players’ best interest, and what we think is best for the team. Jake knew, if he was going to play in college, it would be as an offensive lineman.”
The summer between the junior and senior years is a very important time for a high school football player. They attend college camps and are seen up close by recruiters. Jake went close to home, to Temple’s summer camp. No one pulled him aside. The coaches there barely spoke to him. Tape was sent to both Temple and nearby Villanova. Still nothing.
“There was a little frustration; I didn’t understand why things went the way they did and you see different players here and there, going different places, and wonder why a couple of schools weren’t offering,” Joe said. “Jake had worked so hard to improve. He did everything right. You play the game on your feet and he improved his range and quickness, his core strength. Jake was growing, too, and that helped. But no one was calling. During Thanksgiving, we sent out tape. I wanted to give another blast out to teams when the season ended. My thing is you can’t worry about things in life you can’t control. I told Jake he’d have five offers. Actions speak louder than words, and someone failed to notice him or even give him a look. That was the most frustrating part.”
Gushue was admittedly frustrated. To an extent, so was Jake. Your mind begins to race, seeing and hearing about commitments in the area and throughout the country and you’re still on the board. You begin to feel the hard work and commitment was underappreciated. That you’re ignored.
“It was a little frustrating; it’s not my decision if schools weren’t looking,” Jake said. “I was just trying to get my name out there as much as possible even after my junior year. Going into my senior year, schools would come in and talk to me but no one offered. I understand it’s a big process, and I was switching from tight end to offensive tackle. There wasn’t a lot of tape on me at tackle. Everything was happening so fast and you’re thinking it’s getting closer to Feb. 6 and I still didn’t know. My father and I made a highlight tape that we sent out to 50 schools just trying to get a look and an answer. We got some answers – and some didn’t answer.”
It was Jake who sent game tape to Oregon. It was his playoff game tape against Timber Creek’s highly touted defensive tackle Dyaire Hicks in which Jake was exceptional.
A Ducks graduate assistant happened to be breaking down incoming film and came across an overpowering kid with great size and great feet from South Jersey, a kid previously off their radar: Jake Pisarcik.
Then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his staff swooped in quickly.
Within four days, Oregon’s Jerry Azzinaro was standing in Shawnee’s hallways waiting for Jake. He had to see Jake in person. He had to see whether he was actually as big as his profile said. Azzinaro gave Jake an approving nod, after the perfunctory head-to-toe look. He told Jake not to get any bigger — they run a 100 plays a game at Oregon. Azzinaro, then the Ducks’ defensive line coach before joining new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s staff across the Delaware River in Philadelphia, leaned to Gushue and said, “I guarantee some guys are going to get ripped by their head coaches why they weren’t on this kid.”
Within a week, Oregon offered Jake. On Dec. 18, Jake accepted. That opened the floodgates. Penn State was in. Rutgers began inquiring about Jake. Other schools, schools that showed no prior interest or returned calls, began attempting to knock down Jake’s door.
Penn State assistant Ron Vanderlinden, who misses nothing, called Gushue, asking, “How did I miss this kid?”
“We try to manage the recruiting process the best we can. I knew what may happen, as soon as Oregon offered, other schools would offer,” Gushue said. “Linemen don’t all just jump out at you. Sometimes as a high school coach, you get frustrated. You wonder why one kid is going there, and your kid, who you know is better, isn’t. But I’ve been doing this long enough. Oregon liked him, Chip Kelly liked him. Jake was exactly what they were looking for. We run the same offense as Oregon. I thought it was going to happen — eventually.
“I couldn’t be happier. We’re very excited for Jake. We have a pretty good crew of seniors going to some good schools, a great group of kids. Jake landed in a good spot. What an opportunity. It’s proof that if you do good things, sometimes you have to be patient. Recruiting high school players is not an exact science.”
As for Joe, he’s been hit with a wave of relief.
“It’s probably one of the greatest moments of my life. Not only is Jake getting a Division I scholarship, but to go to the No. 1 school he wanted to play for. It was his doing,” Joe said. “Jake sent tape to Oregon on his own. There was no fear Jake would be playing college football for someone. In a lot of situations, sometimes you have to keep at it. Jake is getting to live his dream.”
Even when Kelly decided to take the Eagles up on their offer on Jan. 16, Jake never budged. Oregon stayed in contact with Jake and all of its recruits. Less than a week later, Oregon promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich to head coach.
“I was surprised like everyone else when coach Kelly opted to move to the Eagles, but Oregon told me they’re basically going to keep going forward,” said Jake, who’s projected to play either guard or center at Oregon. “I know I have a big responsibility now. I have to keep my grades up and get ready to play with the big boys. It was always my dream to play for Oregon. I love how they play, and I love playing football. How many high school kids get to live their dreams?”
Especially when none were in sight.
Jake laughed at the thought, considering the proximity to Philadelphia and a sports movie icon whose statute stands with his arms raised … “Yea, maybe I am the high school football Rocky,” he said. “All I wanted was a chance and I’m getting it. I know the rest is up to me to prove it.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.