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Article updated: 5/11/2012 1:53 PM
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Zeal for competing leads Wauconda senior to BYU
 

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Zeal for competing leads Wauconda senior to BYU
  • Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on.

    Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on. Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@dailyherald

  •  Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on.

    Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on. Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@dailyherald

  •  Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on.

    Wauconda's Jake Ziolkowski has excelled in both football and baseball. This fall he will be playing football at Brigham Young University as a preferred walk-on. Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@dailyherald

 

Public speaking makes many people feel uneasy.

To make matters worse for Wauconda senior Jake Ziolkowski, he was faced with a very intimidating crowd for a recent speech.

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As part of his selection for a special college scholarship from the National Football Foundation, he was asked to speak about his football career to an audience that included professional and college football players.

"I was thinking, 'What am I going to tell guys like that about football?' " Ziolkowski said with a laugh.

So Ziolkowski, who will be joining the ranks of college football players himself next season as a preferred walk-on at Brigham Young, didn't talk too much about football. Instead, he highlighted some of the selfless activities he's managed to sandwich around his football obligations.

Part of the reason Ziolkowski was one of just three high school players from the state of Illinois to win $8,000 in scholarship money from the National Football Foundation was because he put together a stellar four-year varsity career at wide receiver that resulted in him setting school records at Wauconda for receptions (86), receiving yards (1,806) and receiving touchdowns (18).

His speed and sure hands put him in an elite class.

But another part of the criteria for the scholarship award was public service, and Ziolkowski could inspire anyone from pro and college football players to his classmates and neighbors with the details of his story in that area.

From shoveling the snow of elderly residents during every winter of his high school career, to working at local food pantries and animal shelters, to tutoring classmates, writing free on-line books for disabled children and organizing fundraisers for a girl in the community who is suffering from cancer, Ziolkowski keeps a busy schedule outside of school and sports, which includes not only football but baseball as well.

Ziolkowski, who has fully recovered from the season-ending broken left wrist that he suffered during a Week 5 loss to Antioch last fall, is in the midst of his third season of starting in the outfield for the Bulldogs, who are closing in on their 20th win of the season. He bats third in the lineup and is carrying a .450 batting average.

"I don't rest much. I'm always doing something, either with sports or in the community," Ziolkowski said. "But I embrace that. I love playing sports and I am proud to be a part of a lot of community service projects.

"I feel the community has given me the opportunity to succeed, and that a lot of people have helped me, like all the coaches I have had, people like that. I really appreciate all the things people have done for me and I feel it is my obligation to give back. More than that. I like to help out and know that I am positively affecting other people's lives."

Ziolkowski should fit right in at BYU, a school that puts a heavy emphasis on community service and missions. In fact, BYU students are encouraged to take a two-year hiatus in order to serve in one of the many Mormon missionaries around the world.

"I feel like I belong at BYU, for sure," Ziolkowski said. "I try to live my life every day the way that BYU students are expected to live. I was also really impressed by the academics there, which are up there with Stanford. And the football is great. The history there is unmatchable."

Ziolkowski has some first-hand knowledge of BYU's rich football history. Former Wauconda coach Glen Kozlowski, who coached Ziolkowski as a freshman, and current Wauconda coach Dave Mills both played football at BYU.

"They both played a big part in introducing me to BYU," Ziolkowski said of Kozlowski and Mills. "From what I heard from them, I really liked the school. Then, about two months ago, I went out to BYU for a visit, and I loved it."

Mills says that BYU's coaches are going to love Ziolkowski, who is hoping to make an immediate strong impression. He wants to be not only a scholarship athlete but a starter by his sophomore year.

Work ethic might get Ziolkowski there.

He says that he catches thousands of balls per week and works relentlessly on his route-running while also meticulously studying defensive coverages in his spare time.

"Jake is the one player I have coached in 25 years who has played varsity sports as a freshman and gotten better every year. And the only two players I have coached who have worked as hard as Jake, both played in the NFL -- Bryan Kehl (BYU/NYGiants/St.Louis Rams/Washington Redskins) and Kirk Chambers (Stanford/Cleveland Browns/Buffalo Bills/Atlanta Falcons)," Mills said. "What sets these three athletes apart is they have great skill and great work ethic.

"I remember Jake spending hours after practice catching footballs from a machine. After baseball games or practice, I will see Jake at Converse Park running the hill. He will never be out-worked. Jake will flourish at BYU."

He wouldn't be the first Ziolkowski to do well at the college level.

Ziolkowski's dad Steve was an outside linebacker on a full scholarship at Northern Illinois. He helped the Huskies get to a bowl game in 1985.

"It's funny, my dad played, but he kept me out of football until I was in seventh or eighth grade because he was worried about head injuries and things like that," Ziolkowski said. "I would always bug him to let me play but he held firm. Looking back, I think it was a great decision because a lot of my friends who played when they were really little got burned out.

"I feel like I'm just getting started and that I have so much energy and so many things I want to do in football. I had always thought that baseball was going to be my main sport, but once I started playing football and when I made the varsity as a freshman and had some success, I knew I wanted to keep playing football for as long as I could."

Ziolkowski had plenty of opportunities to get financial assistance for playing football at the Division III level. But he fell in love with BYU, and with the idea of playing on the country's biggest stage: major Division I football.

"I think I can do it," Ziolkowski said. "I think I can prove to myself and everyone that I can play at the highest level of college football, and I think I would have regretted it every day if I didn't at least try to do that.

"There is always room for improvement in anyone's game, but overall, I feel like my game is pretty polished and that I'm a really clutch receiver. I don't drop balls. I want to be that clutch kid at BYU like I was at Wauconda."

The clutch kid will be the cherry on top of the sundae. BYU will be lucky to simply get the kid that Ziolkowski was at Wauconda.

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

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