Wildcat at Heart

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I wanted to be the next Tim Couch.

As a kid playing quarterback for my middle school team, that was the dream. At that time, it was the late ’90s, and Tim Couch was the local boy — born right outside of Lexington, just like me — who had become one of the greatest Kentucky Wildcats ever. Danville, Ky., where I’m from and where I still live, isn’t a place that churns out NFL players. So as a kid, my goal was never to play in the NFL. That was considered kind of a pipe dream.

Around these parts, there’s nothing bigger than University of Kentucky athletics. So at 13 years old, I was slinging the ball all over the place, dreaming of being the next great Wildcats quarterback.

Of being the next Tim Couch.

But a lot’s happened since middle school. Heck, I went from dreaming of throwing passes at Kentucky to catching passes from Peyton Manning, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time, and now Matt Ryan, one of the best in the game today.

It’s a transition that started when I got to high school.

I entered Boyle County High as a quarterback. The next Tim Couch — I was determined. My freshman year, we went undefeated. 15–0. Ran the table, all the way to the first state title in school history. Led, of course, by our fearless leader and quarterback …

Jeff Duggins.

I was his backup.

Jeff turned out to be the best quarterback in school history. He would go on to win three straight state championships and was named Mr. Football in the state of Kentucky as a senior. So going into my sophomore year, I had to decide between trying to take the quarterback job from a guy who might have really been the next Tim Couch, or changing positions.

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So my coaches wanted me to try wide receiver. I might not get the chance to be the next Tim Couch, but my dream of playing at UK was still alive. I just had to learn a new position.

But learning a new position wasn’t even close to being the toughest challenge I would face as a sophomore.

***

There was a police officer behind us with his lights flashing. But my dad ignored him. He was driving our family minivan with the emergency flashers on, running every red light.

I was in the back, writhing in pain.

My post-quarterback life had gotten off to a good start. In the first few weeks of my sophomore season, I had scored touchdowns on offense as a wide receiver and made interceptions on defense playing cornerback. In the fourth game of the season, we were playing an away game at Harrodsburg, a town about 15 minutes from Danville.

It was a drag route. I came off the line, made my cut, ran across the middle of the field and turned back just as Jeff Duggins let go of the ball. I reached up for it, snatched it out of the air, and as soon as I came down, that’s when I got hit — a low hit, helmet to the right leg, just above my right knee.

Your femur is the long leg bone that extends from your hip down to your knee. It’s your thighbone. At the bottom of the femur, right at the kneecap, there’s a big knot of bone, like a fist. It’s the part that’s connected to the tibia in the lower part of your leg.

That’s the part of the femur I fractured — the knot at the bottom, right at the kneecap.

My dad didn’t want me to go to the hospital in Harrodsburg. He wanted to go to the hospital at home in Danville. So instead of putting me in the back of the ambulance that was on standby at the game, the trainers loaded me into the back of my parents’ minivan. 

The policeman behind us was trying to pull us over for what felt like 10 minutes, but my dad didn’t stop. He just kept driving to the hospital, like he was carrying a pregnant woman who was going into labor.

When we got to the hospital, the policeman wasn’t happy. But when he saw me, he realized what was going on.

The doctors put three metal pins in my leg right above my knee. I couldn’t walk. I had a cast from my toes to the top of my hip for several weeks. I was bedridden, homeschooled until the cast came off. Then I was put in a wheelchair, and that’s when the rehab started and I was able to go back to school. But football seemed a long way away.

My rehab facility was right across the street from my high school. So I’d be sitting there, rehabbing, staring out the window toward the school, thinking about my teammates out there trying to win another championship. I was determined to get back and be a part of it.

Even though I had technically been a part of two perfect 15–0 state championship teams, I felt like I hadn’t really won anything.

Jacob Tamme

While I rehabbed across the street, my teammates went undefeated and won a second straight state title.

It was a lot of work — probably the toughest thing I’ve had to overcome in my athletic life. It was painful just getting my leg and my knee to move again. I had to retrain my nerves, ligaments and muscles to do the things they did before I took that hit. But after months of tedious rehab and slow progress, I made it back for the start of my junior season.

Even though I had technically been a part of two perfect 15–0 state championship teams, I felt like I hadn’t really won anything. I wanted to be a part of the winning. I wanted to contribute.

And finally, as a junior, I did. I established myself as a go-to wide receiver. Our Boyle County team went 15–0 for the third straight year and took home another state title.

I was finally a part of the winning.

I started getting letters from colleges, too. By the time I started my senior season, I had three offers: one from West Virginia, another from Northwestern and a third from the only school that really mattered.

Kentucky.

***

My fellow seniors and I were riding a 47-game winning streak that started in the first game of our freshman year. We didn’t know what it was like to experience a loss as high school football players. We went 15–0 for three years, and we had a chance to break the state-record winning streak of 50 games. We won our first two games of the season, and then we played our arch rival, Danville.

I had other big plans for that weekend, too. Kentucky was playing UTEP in Lexington, and I was making my official visit. I had already told my family and some close friends that I was going to commit.

It was supposed to be one of the best weekends of my life.

But then Danville came into our place and beat us. Handed us our first loss.

We were devastated.

We got beat on Friday night, and I was supposed to make a trip that weekend to go up to Kentucky and commit.

But it didn’t feel right. I knew if I went up there and committed, the story that weekend would be about Jake Tamme committing to Kentucky. And I didn’t feel like it was right for me to make the story about myself that same weekend when my brothers and I had just lost our first game together. It didn’t feel like the right time.

So I didn’t go. I held off.

That following Monday my high school coach Chuck Smith came and got me out of the cafeteria.

“UK just called. They’re pulling your scholarship offer because another wide receiver committed.”

I felt like the world was falling in around me, because my heart was at Kentucky, and I knew I wanted to be there.

I was heartbroken.

At the end of the day I felt like there was nothing I could do about it, so I decided to forget about Kentucky and focus on winning another high school state championship.

I felt like the world was falling in around me, because my heart was at Kentucky, and I knew I wanted to be there.

And we did. We lost one more game, but won the last 10 straight to end the season.

Even though we took home another title, it was a tough stretch for me. Losing that Kentucky scholarship was always in the back of my mind. It had been my childhood dream to play at Kentucky, and I was as close as a short drive up to campus on a Saturday to commit and having that dream come true. But I didn’t go, and another wide receiver beat me to the punch.

Then, a few days after the state championship game, out of nowhere, Kentucky’s head coach, Guy Morriss, accepted the head coaching job at Baylor. The Wildcats were looking for a new coach.

And I saw an opportunity.

I picked up the phone and called Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director.

I didn’t know him. He was the AD and I was just some high school kid. But I called, and I got through, and I told him that whoever he hired, I wanted that coach to know that I wanted to be a Wildcat. That’s all I asked of him — just let the new coach know that if there’s a scholarship offer available, I’m right here.

Kentucky eventually hired Rich Brooks. And one of the first things he did was call coach Smith. Next thing I knew, coach Brooks was in my house in Danville having breakfast with me and my parents.

A couple of days later, coach Smith came to pull me out of class.

“Coach Brooks just called. He offered you a scholarship to play at the University of Kentucky. I went ahead and said yes for you.”

I was floored.

We went to his office, got on the phone with coach Brooks and sure enough, he offered me a scholarship.

This time, I didn’t hesitate.

I was going to be a Wildcat.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 26: Jacob Tamme #18 of the Kentucky Wildcats runs with the ball after a reception while defended by Marvin Mitchell #40 of the Tennessee Volunteers on November 26, 2005 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Kentucky. Tennessee won 27-8. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

***

My family has owned about 260 acres of farmland in Danville since 1910. I didn’t grow up on the farm, but I worked there every summer. I always got the grunt work, too. While my older cousins got to ride on top of the tobacco planter with nice cold drinks and drop tobacco plants into the drill, I had to walk behind it all day in the heat, bending down over and over to fix the ones that hadn’t been planted properly.

I was always back there, longing to earn a seat on the planter.

That taught me at a young age that you have to work your way up. You have to work for everything you get.

I never really thought about playing in the NFL until the end of my junior season at Kentucky, which was my first full season as a tight end. I got an unexpected phone call from our media director.

“Congratulations, Jacob. You just got named first-team All-SEC.”

My first thought was, That’s pretty cool.

My second thought was, Heck, guys who get named first-team All-SEC usually get a chance to play in the NFL….

And after my senior season, I got that chance when I got drafted in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts.

I not only achieved my dream of playing football at UK, I exceeded it.

There’s something rewarding about hard work — about getting your boots muddy.

Hard work pays off.

Working those summers on the farm also taught me that when something goes wrong, you can’t get down about it, because on the farm there’s always more work to do. You can’t get hung up on the small stuff. You learn what it means to push through something.

When UK pulled my scholarship offer, our team still had a state title to go win. So I couldn’t dwell on it. When I fractured my leg, I had the strength at 15 years old to overcome something that was pretty devastating.

If I hadn’t grown up where I grew up — and how I grew up — I don’t know if I would have been prepared to do that.

Sure, I wanted to be the next Tim Couch. A lot of people who grow up on the farm grow up looking to get off the farm, looking for greener pastures, because farm work is hard work. It’s not very glamorous. But I think there’s something very appealing about it. There’s something rewarding about hard work — about getting your boots muddy.

But I also remember thinking as a kid how amazing it would be to continue the tradition of my family and be able to own some of our land in Danville one day.

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Playing in the NFL has opened so many doors and blessed me with so many opportunities. I got to play with Peyton Manning, which was one of the great honors of my professional career. I got to play in two Super Bowls with the Colts and the Broncos. And although we lost both, now I’m in Atlanta working to help get the Falcons to a Super Bowl — and win it.

But maybe the best thing playing in the NFL has allowed my wife Allison and I to do is to come back to Danville and purchase my grandaddy’s old farm, right down the street from his house where I used to play football and baseball on the front lawn every Sunday before church.

Before winning state championships. Before Kentucky. Before the NFL.

Where it all started.

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