By Billy Watkins
This story is a chance for college football fans — including me — to pause briefly and take a nice, soothing breath of fresh air.
No talk of NIL, transfer portals or having to recruit your own players to keep them.
It’s a story about a guy who knew for a while where he wanted to attend college because of its academics. He also hoped to play football there.
Meet Jake Norris, a freshman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. And, yes, he is one of about 170 on Navy’s football roster.
His class load includes cyber coding, Naval history, chemistry, calculus, seamanship and English. It’s often said that at a military academy, football practice is the easiest part of a player’s day.
But Norris seems to relish challenges.
As a junior, he helped lead Madison Central to the 2021 6A state championship, its first since 1999.
And how he did it reveals so much about him.
Norris’ main position was (and is) tight end, but he also served as the Jaguars’ backup quarterback.
“Jake had gotten banged up one week and was sick the next so he hadn’t gotten any reps at quarterback in at least two weeks,” Madison Central coach Toby Collums says.
In the second round of the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs against two-time defending state champion Oxford, starter Vic Sutton suffered a leg injury late in the first quarter.
Norris took over and threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Blake Gunter in the second quarter to take a 7-6 lead. With 1:10 left in the game and the Jags nursing a 24-21 lead, Norris ran 17 yards for a touchdown to clinch the victory.
In the state championship win over Brandon, Norris threw for 124 yards, including a 79-yard TD pass to Isaiah Spencer to give MC a 17-10 lead with 6:14 left in the game. After Brandon pulled even, Norris ran for a touchdown with 3:41 left to put the Jags ahead for good, 24-17. He was named the game’s most valuable player.
“That’s Jake,” Collums says. “Our kids voted him a team captain, and it was based on his body of work. When it was 100 degrees and the guys were running gassers, it was Jake who was building his teammates up, holding people accountable.
“He had every right to act like the ‘big man on campus’ but he didn’t just hang around with the football players. He was everybody’s friend.”
Norris had decided to pursue engineering as a major. He and his parents visited several schools but through his eyes none of them measured up to the Naval Academy. He told his parents that’s where he wanted to go.
One day, Norris got word that a Navy assistant football coach was on the Madison Central campus.
“He was hoping the coach was there for him,” says his mom, Ashley.
Collums made sure the coach knew about Norris. He showed him game film. Not long after that, Norris received his dream offer to play football at Navy.
“He’s pretty mild mannered but put him on a football field and he’s a physical young man,” Collums says. “I don’t think I ever heard him complain about anything. He’s just a great young man.”
Norris was listed at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds out of high school. He’s gained an inch and 10 pounds since arriving at the Academy.
“It’s hard to say why he wasn’t highly recruited,” Collums says. “Maybe he was an inch shorter than they like tight ends to be. Maybe his top end speed wasn’t what they were looking for.
“I’m biased, of course, and I don’t pretend to know more than college football coaches. But I think he could have helped a lot of schools. You can’t measure effort, attitude, leadership … everything he brings to the table.”
Norris reported the last week of June for Plebe Summer, which lasted about seven weeks. They underwent physical and mental challenges and were taught, among other things, “to understand basic military skills and the meaning behind them,” according to the Academy’s website.
“It was one of the hardest and proudest moments we’ve ever had as a family when we took him there,” Ashley says. “We hugged tighter than we’ve ever hugged before.
“He had a 7:45 a.m. check in time. They all got their heads shaved. Got their uniforms. And they started getting yelled at right after that. At the end of the day, we had 30 minutes with him to say goodbye.
“Then when they marched into their dorm rooms and those brass doors slammed shut, it took my breath away. It hits you that they’re training future leaders of the free world..”
Freshmen have two years “to feel things out,” Ashley explains. Those who stay sign a contract to serve at least five years active duty after graduating.
“I want him to absolutely love it and come out of there with every opportunity in the world,” Ashley says. “And he’ll have that.”
Norris is playing on the Navy JV squad, which is the norm for most freshmen. They play a four-game schedule.
Ashley shares a story of when her son first talked with an assistant coach face to face. The coach asked if he had any questions.
He did, but it had nothing to do with how much money he was going to be paid or how much playing time he would get, which is the case at most schools.
No, Norris asked this: “Will you tell me about the Navy brotherhood that I’ve read so much about?”