Growing up in Zeeland, Mich., Jay Riemersma dreamed of being a professional sports star.
In the NBA.
Don't laugh. Many coaches have often said some of the best tight ends are shooting hoops instead of catching passes.
"Oh gosh, yeah," Riemersma said about his hoop dreams. "I always thought if I had a couple of extra inches, maybe I'd be a forward in the NBA. But my life went in another direction."
The Buffalo Bills couldn't be happier.
After catching 25 passes and tying the team record for touchdowns by a tight end (6) last year, Riemersma has been anointed as the new starter.
The Bills expect he will be an improvement over his predecessor, Lonnie Johnson, who was long on potential but woefully short on production.
"I'm just really excited," said Riemersma (pronounced Ree-mers-ma). "I think I've worked pretty hard to get the opportunity to be the starter. I don't think my preparation will be any different, but I think there's a little higher expectations on me now as a starter."
The Bills haven't had anything resembling a big-time tight end since Pete Metzelaars' 10-year run ended in 1994. In the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Riemersma, the Bills see a guy who can fill that void.
"I think Jay has a ton of ability," Bills tight ends coach Max Bowman said. "He has great hands, he runs good (pass) routes, he's improving steadily as a blocker. And no one gets off the ball quicker than he does. He's also very smart . . . reading defenses.
"There's always more he can learn, but once he puts it all together, there's no telling how far he can go. And he's come a long way already."
Unlike the prototypes like Ben Coates and Shannon Sharpe, Riemersma wasn't born to play tight end. He sort of grew into it.
Riemersma, 26, was a 6-5, 195-pound quarterback at Zeeland High School, where he earned all-state and all-Midwest honors in 1989 and 1990. He also was a star forward on the basketball team, averaging more than 30 points per game his last two years and was named Mr. Basketball in Michigan as a senior.
"Jay was always a great athlete," Zeeland football coach Stan Jesky said. "There wasn't a whole lot he couldn't do."
Except chose which sport he wanted to play in college.
Riemersma had interest from Division I programs in football and basketball, but a conversation with Jesky put him on the right path.
"Jay was thinking pretty strongly about pursuing basketball," Jesky said. "I just told him, 'In basketball, 6-5 guys are all over the place. But 6-5 guys with a great throwing arm in football are rare.' "
After redshirting his first year at Michigan, he was relegated to third string QB behind Elvis Grbac and former Bill Todd Collins.
Since his chances to play were limited, Riemersma decided it was better to receive passes than throw them.
He went through rigorous training to bulk up to 240 pounds. The hard work paid off as he won the tight end job as a junior.
In his senior season, Riemersma caught 41 passes for 370 yards and was named second-team All-Big Ten.
Drafted in the seventh round by the Bills in 1996, Riemersma soon realized that playing tight end in the NFL was more difficult than in college.
"I came into the NFL with only two years under my belt at tight end," he said. "I started those two years, but I was like a sophomore jumping right into the NFL."
His inexperience showed in a number of ways. The position is demanding because you have to be a wide receiver or an offensive lineman, depending on the play.
While showing good receiving skills, Riemersma found his blocking was a shortcoming.
"I thought I was a pretty strong guy in college, but it was an entirely different story at this level," said Riemersma, who spent the first six games of his rookie year on the developmental squad and the last 10 on the inactive roster.
"I knew I had to get bigger and stronger if I was going to have any chance of playing in this league."
Riemersma threw himself into a training regimen set up by Bills strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones. The result was a guy who could hold his own against defensive ends and linebackers with more consistency.
He began to blossom in 1997, starting eight games and catching 26 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He had one of that year's highlights by catching the winning TD pass against the New York Jets while tiptoeing the sidelines in the end zone before falling out of bounds.
Riemersma started only four of 16 games last season, but his impact was even greater.
"Tight ends are made now, and Jay's certainly made himself into a good one with hard work," Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "He's made himself into the blocker we need, and he's certainly athletic enough to catch the ball. I think he's going to have a great year for us."
Last season gave Riemersma a huge shot of confidence, but don't expect him to rest on his accomplishments. Especially with talented rookies Bobby Collins and Sheldon Jackson eagerly awaiting their chance to take the starting job away.
"I've steadily improved, but there's more work to be done," he said. "I'm trying to be the complete guy, not just a pass-catching tight end, but a good blocker as well. That one of my biggest goals. With me being a new starter, my goals and expectations have to be higher because achieving them is going to help our team win."