I spent Saturday afternoon with my phone turned off, tuned into … an NFL pre-season game featuring the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Rams?
I’m not that much of a football geek, though it’s close.
But this was a first for me. On the field for the Packers was a wide receiver, a seventh round draft choice, who happened to be my son A.J.’s kindergarten classmate, Little League teammate, and a three-sport athlete that I covered through his high school career at Tawas Area High School in Michigan.
Much like North Central Washington has with Chelan’s Joe Harris, childhood friends, teammates, opponents, and most everyone with a sporting interest in that rural part of northern Michigan has been enraptured with Jeff Janis’ rise into the NFL. He’s gone from small town high school star to small college All-American at Saginaw Valley State (a Division II school, like Central Washington University), to one of the final picks in this year’s NFL draft.
Tawas and Chelan have a lot in common – resort-centric beach communities with high school graduating classes in the 125-student range. Harris, drafted by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers (and a teammate of LeBron James for as long as he remains there) was Washington’s basketball player of the year as a senior, and ended up at Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference, adjusting to the highest level of collegiate competition there.
Janis wasn’t nearly so decorated in high school.
It’s debatable whether he was even the best player on his high school team until he was a senior. He was an excellent receiver, he had good speed, by all accounts was coachable as well as tough (he switched from receiver to running back for his final high school games because of a broken finger that meant he could no longer catch a pass).
That Tawas team needed to win its final two games to qualify for the state playoffs. With the team’s starting quarterback out for the season with his own injuries, Janis ran for touchdowns of 66 and 45 yards to lead his team to a 20-18 win in the first game. In the final must-win game, he was sick but came through with a 238-yard performance on 15 carries to key a 50-28 win over a bitter rival that was another playoff-bound team.
Still, this was like playing in the Caribou Trail League. There were plenty of large school players from other parts of the state snapping up the scholarships to places like Michigan and Michigan State.
So, as many of that area’s best college-level athletes do, he ended up at a smaller school and didn’t really start drawing the attention of NFL scouts until he led the nation (Division II) in receiving yards as a junior and followed that up with an 83-catch, 1,572-yard season as a senior. That earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he showed he could play with other NFL prospects. And an invitation to the NFL Combine, a “meat market” of sorts where athletes show off their physical skills.
While considered a raw talent who hadn’t faced much of the type of talent found in the NFL, his Combine time of 4.42 in the 40-yard dash raised plenty of eyebrows (including mine – he was fast in high school and was an accomplished sprinter, but that?). That, folks, is speedier than the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman (4.54).
So, Saturday, on the fourth anniversary of the day that he lost his dad to cancer, Janis took the field for an NFL team for the first time, after missing the first week of training camp with shingles.
I knew that, in the middle of Detroit Lions country, a growing legion of Green Bay Packer fans were glued to the TV, just as I was.
I held my breath as the Packers sent Janis back to field punts – which he did flawlessly on all three that he touched, including two fair catches and a nine-yard return.
And then, out of nowhere in the third quarter, Janis caught a little slant over the middle from backup quarterback Scott Tolzien. Outran six defenders to the end zone for a 34-yard touchdown. (Link to the video here)
I don’t often get that teared up over football games, but this time I did. For every small town kid that dreams of making it to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, or the National Basketball Association, here was one – THE one, in my couple of decades of covering high school sports – that is on the verge of achieving that dream.
(We moved to this area about two weeks after Harris graduated, so I didn’t see his high school career).
I tried to figure out how many kids have populated the rosters of all the teams I’ve covered – state championship teams, winless teams, mediocre teams, teams with multiple Division I players, teams with no college-level talent whatsoever. It’s got to be more than 10,000 kids in football alone.
So in all that time, Jeff Janis is the first that I saw as a high school player to play (even in the pre-season) a game for a major professional team.
It’s that rare. It’s that special.
Janis appears to have the inside track as the Packers’ fifth receiver. So if he sticks on the roster and by some miracle he takes a slant and beats Sherman to the corner of the end zone when the Seahawks host the Packers on NFL Opening Night, you’ll have to forgive me if I cheer.
For Jeff Janis, for Joe Harris, and for every small town kid with big dreams.