Few footballs slipped through the hands of Jake Geary during his football career at Grayslake North. But when the tenacious defensive back handed in his No. 11 jersey for the final time following last season, he left empty-handed.
Every Knight senior did.
The Knights had let playoff berths escape their grasp in 2010 and again in 2011. In Geary's junior year, Grayslake North went 5-4 but didn't have enough playoff points to earn an at-large postseason berth. Last season, the Knights raced to a 4-2 start but lost their last three games to finish a disappointing 4-5.
"We thought we should have had it junior year," Geary said. "Then last year there was a lot of talk by people saying that this was supposed to be our year. So that was really frustrating not being able to achieve (a playoff berth) and, actually, taking a step back."
This season, the Knights have taken a King Kong step forward. Grayslake North's 32-20 win at Crystal Lake Central last Friday night clinched the first playoff berth in the program's seven-year history, extended the Knights' school-record winning streak to six games and put them in sole possession of first place in the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division.
"I'm happy for them," Geary said. "But at the same time I wish I was actually a part of it, part of the winning."
He is, actually.
Geary has been serving as a defensive backs coach, assisting fellow assistant Brian Hamlett, after a playing career that saw him graduate as Grayslake North's career leader in interceptions with eight. His 5 picks as a senior established a single-season school record. If Hamlett is working with the safeties, Geary is coaching the cornerbacks, allowing more reps for each defensive back.
"Jake has allowed for us to split the kids up and work a variety of different techniques that we otherwise could not have done," Knights head coach Steve Wood said. "His experience in the system has also been a real benefit."
When Geary graduated, he had no idea that he would be back on sidelines for the Knights so quickly. But his dad, Jim, talked with Wood at Grayslake North's golf outing this past summer. After learning Jake would be attending the College of Lake County this fall, both Wood and Hamlett recommended that Jake fill out his ASEP certification.
"I hemmed and hawed about it and said I really don't want to do that," Geary said. "As soon as summer camp started, I was like, 'I need some football.' I went to a couple of practices at the end of summer camp and I was like, 'All right, now I got to help.' So I asked (Wood and Hamlett) if they were serious about the offer, just making sure they weren't trying to just be nice. They both said, 'Yes, you can come out.' "
Geary completed his ASEP certification and became an assistant, coaching many players who were his teammates just a few months earlier.
"It's good and bad at the same time," Geary said. "It's nice because I know the kids and like working with them, and I'm still around football. I guess I wasn't ready to give it up. I feel like I would have liked to have played (in college), but we just never really found the right school for me."
He's still looking. This high school season -- and his alma mater's success -- has helped pique his interest in playing football again.
He's weighing his options. A talk with his dad has given him perspective.
"He sat me down the other day and said, 'If you are really serious (about playing college football), you got to be lifting weights,' " Geary said. "So I'm starting that up and working out at CLC's gym. I think I'll wind up looking at a couple of schools maybe. ... If the right opportunity came, I'd definitely play."
In the meantime, he's taking four classes at CLC and will take another four next semester.
He's also enjoying his new view from the sideline, without a helmet and pads on his 5-foot-9, 150-pound body.
And he's enjoying the product. The Knights host 2-5 Grayslake Central on Friday, before visiting 5-2 Woodstock North in their regular-season finale.
"I think everybody from North knew that (the team) was talented, but I don't think everybody was quite ready for the explosion," Geary said. "Obviously (quarterback) A.J. (Fish) is a great athlete and (defensive back/wide receiver) Vince (Smith) coming over (from Grayslake Central) has helped, but I don't think anybody really realized what the full potential for the team could be. Kids are starting to realize it. The coaches realized it before them."
Count Jake Geary among the latter. He saw it coming.
His anticipation skills haven't left him.