Jake Schum had braced for the question the way most athletes do when the end seems near. He prepared his answer on his way back from Cleveland after being cut by the Browns. He had his shot at the NFL, an accomplishment remarkable in itself considering his college career began at Buffalo State.
“OK,” his father said after Schum returned, “so what’s Plan B?”
There will always be delusional sports parents, but most are realistic when it comes to their children’s aspirations. They remind their kids to make sure they have a backup plan in life because Plan A – professional athlete, actor, lead singer for the Rolling Stones – doesn’t work out 99 times out of 100.
Schum was a 24-year-old punter who had been given a rare opportunity in 2013. He gave it a whirl. He signed with the Browns, participated in minicamp and lasted seven weeks. He had earned a scholarship to the University at Buffalo after making the team as a walk-on receiver. He earned his degree. By any definition, he had a good run.
So, son, what’s Plan B? You know, the real world?
Well, umm, Plan B was Plan A.
Schum was determined to play in the NFL one way or another since he was a little boy growing up in Hamburg. He had told his parents repeatedly about his objective. Did they forget? Did they not believe him? His dream wasn’t over. He was just getting started. You see, getting cut was only a small setback in a longer process.
Plan B? There never was a Plan B.
If anything, during the 2½-hour drive from Cleveland, he became more committed to his goal. He sat down with his parents. He mapped out his master plan – his only plan – and resumed its execution. Rather than extinguish his burning desire to reach the NFL, his parents poured gasoline atop the inferno within.
“My wife and I said as long as we saw the fire and passion there, we would support him in any way that we need to,” Alan Schum, a retired Town of Hamburg police officer, said Thursday. “We would make sure he reached that dream. He stayed at it. It didn’t matter what the weather was. He would practice at whatever field was available.”
His parents’ support was just as well. They couldn’t stop him. Nobody could and nothing did for as long as anyone could remember. He had more doors slammed in his face than a Jehovah’s Witness, but he kept knocking. And now he’s a 26-year-old rookie punter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Schum played his first NFL game last week for the Bucs, who over the past two years took turns with the Jets telling him that he wasn’t good enough. Both teams cut him twice. One stint with the Bucs lasted four days. Four weeks ago, the Jets waived him for the second time, the fifth time overall in his career.
This isn’t a strange but true football story but a tale about perseverance. It’s about doing everything in your power – everything – to turn fantasy into reality. It’s about keeping the faith and exhausting all possibilities so there are no regrets down the road. Forget about football. His was a lesson about life. You can’t help but admire the guy.
“I could never convince myself to walk away,” Schum said earlier this week by telephone. “I was keeping my life on hold for a big ‘maybe.’ My parents, my whole family, they deserve a gold medal for dealing with me. They’ve been with me every step of the way. They believed in me.”
It’s easy to look back now, but the real crime would have been crushing his dream with a dose of reality. His mother, Charlene, was a stay-at-home mother who put her bachelor’s degree in health and wellness to good use. She instilled good eating habits, maintaining a positive outlook and mental toughness in her kids.
In other words, she built this relentless monster with the competitive spirit.
“It depends on the person. It depends on the kid,” his mother said. “If he’s showing such determination, such perseverance, you see him out there day after day, every day and every night doing something toward his goal, how can you say to them, ‘Maybe you should give it up’? You don’t know what doors are going to open.
“If you see them working hard enough for something, and that’s what’s on their mind 99 percent of the time, then guess what? It’s going to happen. You just don’t know how it’s going to happen.”
Every time a door closed, he found another to barge through. Eventually, he learned how to knock them down.
This was the same kid who played for Buffalo State after failing to attract a Division I school. He was a wide receiver at Frontier High who happened to be their best punter. He attended Buffalo State for two years but played only one to preserve his eligibility on the far-fetched possibility a D-I school would find him.
He spent the year off practicing on his own, strengthening his leg and working on his technique. UB already had its punter in 2009, so he walked on as a receiver and worked on the scout team under former coach Turner Gill. His nickname was “Wes Welker” because he caught everything, everything but the eye of the coaching staff for his punting ability.
Schum’s solution was showing up early for practice and staying late to work on his craft. His rationale was simple. He would develop and maybe, just maybe, the coaches would ignore his hands and notice his leg. He put himself in position for the next step. He inched toward his goal.
Jeff Quinn, after he was hired in 2010, told his players that they could try out for whatever position they wanted. Schum figured it would be better for him to kick than to receive. He earned a scholarship and left with a 38.7 average, not bad in the Mid-American Conference but miles away from the National Football League.
What to do? Keep working.
Schum took a job with the Buffalo Athletic Club in Orchard Park, where he sold memberships and handled the front desk. In between shifts, he worked out and improved his strength. He hired punting coach Sam Watts and spent countless hours doing mundane exercises, such as dropping the ball on his foot.
He trained with his best friend since third grade, Rob Golabek, a four-time All-American in the shot put at UB who competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Schum didn’t have an indoor facility where he could punt during the winter, so he shoveled snow off the artificial surface at Hamburg High and kicked there.
Nobody really noticed because nobody really knew him. He lived mostly in obscurity for three years. Most people walking through the doors at the BAC were unaware of what he was trying to accomplish. Others driving past him at Hamburg High must have figured he was a 20-something slacker.
“I had to take what I was given,” Schum said. “I was given a shovel and a football.”
And a dream.
Last month, less than a week after the Jets waived him for a second time, the Bucs signed him for a third. Mike Koenen, a former Division II standout and 10-year veteran making $3.25 million, had a mediocre camp after his average slipped last season. Karl Schmitz was clinging to his last shot at age 28.
In his first preseason game, Schum averaged 45 yards on four punts against Cleveland, the first team that cut him. In his second preseason game, he dropped three of seven punts inside the 10-yard line while averaging 41.9 yards against Miami. A few days later, he looked around and realized he was the only punter in the locker room.
Schum had thought hundreds of times over the years about how he would react when, not if, he made an NFL roster. He imagined performing backflips or crying or jumping for joy. Instead, he did what came natural. He prepared himself to play in the NFL while taking nothing for granted, including his $435,000 salary.
His parents and sister, Rachael, were in Tampa along with Golabek and Watts to see him make his debut. They were the people who most understood his mission. He thought wearing No. 5 was appropriate considering that’s how many times he was waived. He averaged 43.5 yards on four punts against Tennessee.
Jake Schum played in the NFL.
That was the plan all along.
“I did it,” he said. “I reached the 53-,” man roster. “Knowing I was the main guy and officially on the team gives you that feeling of pride and accomplishment. Every game is like a workout or tryout, but I really enjoyed it. Being out there with my family, my coach, my best friend up there watching me, in a true NFL game, I couldn’t help but smile.”