The first college football game took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers. This is the story of how it all began, from its humble beginnings to the present day.
TENNESSEE’S JOHNSON CITY — On the East Tennessee State University campus, Jared Folks is easy to identify.
He’s the one with the gallon bottle of water, a thick beard that may have a speck or two of gray (only if you hold the light very close to his face, Folks jokes), and answers to names like “Grandpa,” “Unc,” and even “Bionic Man.”
“I hear it all, but I wouldn’t trade any of it, everything that it took to get here — the good, the bad, the ugly — none of it, because I’ve always wanted to go out on my own terms, and that’s exactly what I’m doing,” the soon-to-be 26-year-old said, his smile as wide as his college football career.
The versatile linebacker would be an outlier on any school.
When he initially began playing college football at Temple in 2014, some of his youngest teammates at ETSU were in fifth grade. He’s had more surgeries than he wants to remember, has two degrees and is nearing a third (his MBA), and was a full-fledged member of the workforce as a credit union’s marketing coordinator as recently as the spring of 2020.
Still, here he is, playing college football and enjoying the time of his life with an ETSU team that is 6-0 and off to its best start since 1969.
“Look what I would have missed,” said Folks, who leads the Bucs with 9.5 tackles per game. “I adore football and couldn’t bear the thought of giving it up. I wasn’t done even when I believed I was. The desire to return to the field and play never faded.”
Folks is not just the first football player, but also the first collegiate athlete in any sport to have an eighth year of eligibility, according to the NCAA. That’s right: eight, as in two presidential terms and just short of a decade.
“When I tell my coworkers about Jared, they ask whether he’s still in school playing football?” Jonathan, Folks’ father, said. “When I tell them he’s in his ninth year, people say, ‘Wow, he’s college football’s Tom Brady.’”
So, yeah, it has been a long time. How long do you think it will take?
When Folks started college, Brady had just three of his seven Super Bowl rings. Lane Kiffin was a first-year assistant coach at Alabama. East Tennessee State wasn’t even playing football at the time, and TikTok hadn’t even been invented. After closing the program in 2003 due to budgetary constraints, the institution reopened it in 2015.
“We’ll be sitting around and chatting, and Jarod would tell us tales about Saquon Barkley and how hitting his legs was like hitting a tree trunk when he was at Penn State,” said ETSU redshirt senior defensive lineman Olajuwon Pinkelton, one of Folks’ closest teammates.
“Some of the players look at you and say, ‘You played against Saquon Barkley?’”
That’s the same Saquon Barkley who is currently in his fourth NFL season.
“To go through what Jared has gone through, physically and mentally, shows you how much he loves football,” said ETSU coach Randy Sanders. “He loves football, enjoys playing it, enjoys being a part of the team, and appreciates the importance of having teammates and being a teammate, as well as the camaraderie that comes with it.”
“To play college football for that long, I’m jealous of him in a lot of ways, because once it’s done, it’s over.”
The story of how Folks came to be here reads like a Hollywood screenplay.
His adventure began in 2014, when he signed scholarship papers with Temple University at Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Folks redshirted his first season with the Owls, despite weighing just around 195 pounds at the time.
He tore his right labrum in preseason 2015, approximately two weeks before the first game, and missed the whole season.
“I didn’t play a single game for two years, just practice and mat exercises,” Folks said.
Folks claimed that his scholarship was taken away in 2016 by then-Temple coach Matt Rhule because he was struggling in the classroom and not taking care of his duties on and off the field.
Folks said that “before that preseason camp, he informed me that if I didn’t get my GPA up and make the two-deep, I was going home.”
Folks responded in 2016 by starting six games at middle linebacker for the Owls and collecting 32 tackles. Later in the season, he tore his left labrum and underwent surgery in the summer. To make things worse, Rhule departed for Baylor and was replaced by Geoff Collins, which meant Folks had to start from over with a new coaching staff and a set of sore shoulders.
Folks was unable to participate in spring practice before to the 2017 season, and he only appeared in one game that year, Week 4 versus South Florida.
He stated, “I was on one kickoff return and that was all.”
Jared Folks’ parents have been at his side throughout his life, especially throughout his senior year in high school in 2013. Thanks to the Folks family for allowing us to use their photos.
Folks’ greatest news of 2017 was that he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications, but he claimed it was clear that the new staff didn’t want him back for the 2018 season.
“I was looking for a place to go because I still wanted to play,” said Folks, who planned to move down to the FCS level to play immediately away, as per NCAA transfer regulations at the time.
East Tennessee State University, situated in the Appalachian Mountains’ foothills, was that location. Folks confesses he had never heard of Johnson City until quarterback Logan Marchi, a Temple friend, moved to ETSU. Marcus Satterfield, the assistant coach who recruited Folks to Temple, was the link. Satterfield, a former ETSU player, had a short coaching stint with the Buccaneers before following Rhule to Baylor.
Satterfield only stayed at ETSU for a few months, but it was enough time to bring Folks to Johnson City.
Folks said, “I didn’t speak to the coaches until the second week of school.” “I packed my vehicle and went down here, where I parked in the incorrect spot and later discovered where I was meant to be.”
Folks emerged as an important component of the ETSU defense in 2018, which was his redshirt senior season at the time. He was awarded second-team All-Southern Conference after recording six sacks.
After ETSU filed an appeal on his behalf, the NCAA awarded Folks a rare sixth season of eligibility in 2019. The rationale was that he had missed two seasons at Temple in 2015 and 2017 due to injury.
Folks, however, had a severe groin injury before to the 2019 season, and he didn’t participate until the season’s last few games. That December, he received his master’s degree in marketing, but what Folks believed was a severe groin pull turned into an excruciating core muscle rupture.
Folks said, “I was scared to sneeze since I knew how much it would hurt.”
Pinkelton recalled seeing Folks on the ground late in the season after making a tackle and requiring assistance just to get back up.
Jamie Folks, Folks’ mother, stated, “He was on the pitch due of pure force of will.”
Folks went to visit Dr. Alexander E. Poor, a specialist in Philadelphia who has treated many elite players with hernia, pelvic, and core muscle problems, since the type of his ailment was difficult to identify.
“The way it was described to us was to imagine a baseball with all of the stitching ripped out and the skin of that baseball peeled apart,” Jonathan Folks said. “We couldn’t believe he was still playing,” says one of the players.
According to reports, he had a particularly difficult time throughout the 2019 season. Throughout the experience, his teammates and coaches, particularly defensive coordinator Billy Taylor and retiring defensive line coach Daryl Daye, were there to support him.
“That’s when I realized how valuable I was outside of football,” Folks remarked. “I’m wounded because, like many other players, I believe I was meant to be in the [NFL] at the moment. I learned that nothing is ever as terrible as it seems. I wasn’t playing, but I was earning a second degree, something that many people never get the opportunity to do.”
East Tennessee State’s Jared Folks (No. 31) has developed into a superb linebacker, winning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. ETSU Athletics/Dakota Hamilton
Folks spent New Year’s Eve in 2019 recovering from yet another surgery before returning home to Harrisburg with his parents to rehab and begin a life away from football.
People had already learned the value of hard effort and sacrifice from his parents. His father has 34 years of experience in the building industry. Jonathan and Jamie adopted four younger siblings from Jonathan’s half-sister and Jonathan’s mother homeschools them. Jonathan III, Folks’ elder brother, is also a musician.
Folks got a job with M3T Corp., a security provider in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, with a master’s degree in marketing by February 2020. Because of the COVID-19 limitations, he subsequently went on to New Cumberland Federal Credit Union, where he created online material, created graphics, and organized community days electronically.
Meanwhile, due to the therapy, he was beginning to feel better physically, and his groin was no longer hurting him. Folks was given a seventh season of eligibility by the NCAA after missing the majority of his third season due to injury.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to need it,’” says the author. When ETSU told Folks that his petition for a seventh season had been successful, he was ecstatic.
That spring, though, he began receiving calls from teammates urging him to return, and the 9-to-5 lifestyle just couldn’t match the competitive fire of football.
“I’ve got to get this done, Pop. I don’t think I’m done yet. I had to return, “May, according to his father’s friends.
His parents were understandably surprised, if not terrified, by the prospect of their son returning to the football field after putting his body through so much abuse.
“I was expecting him to go away many times,” Jamie said. “It was difficult to see his agony and see him go through those operations, especially after hearing about what happens to men’s bodies who play football. My heart actually sank with dread. So, yeah, after the first four years, I would have been OK with him being done. We were going to support him since it was his life and his passion.”
Folks was on his way back to college, this time wearing a helmet and pads instead of his coat and tie. Because to COVID-19, FCS institutions decided not to play a fall season in 2020 and moved the season out to the spring of 2021.
“That was a gift in disguise since I wasn’t even close to being ready to play. I wasn’t in good physical condition “People explained things to me.
He dedicated himself entirely to being in the greatest condition of his life and returning to high-level tennis. He was stretching, sleeping, drinking more water, and eating more healthily.
“I’m also praying more,” Folks said. “It was a complete transformation. Our strength instructor even gave me my own training regimen.”
He didn’t skip a beat when the spring season arrived, leading the Bucs with 50 total tackles in six games and was awarded the Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
Satterfield, who is now the offensive coordinator at South Carolina, exclaimed, “Holy crap, he’s still playing.” “It’s not like he’s at Notre Dame, where he gets all the advantages and benefits that come with being a member of the Power 5. You’re at ETSU, and you board a bus that will take you to The Citadel for an eight-hour game. So he’s not doing it for any other reason than to enjoy the game, which is fantastic.”
Because to COVID-19, the NCAA decided that the 2020 season did not count against any players’ eligibility, allowing Folks to return for the 2021 season. As a result, the eighth season was born. With such a short turnaround from the spring season, he contemplated accepting a graduate assistantship in the ETSU sports information department and not playing football this autumn.
“I went home and took my time,” Folks said, “working in the yard with Pop and hanging out with my siblings and sisters.” “I had no choice but to do it simply to recharge.”
But he couldn’t get away from the sport he’d been doing since he was five years old in the end. He missed the first two games of the season due to a pectoral muscle injury, but has since played a key role in ETSU’s record start and No. 10 national position in the FCS coaches poll.
Donovan Manuel, a redshirt sophomore linebacker, stated, “When the team needs anything, anything, you can go to him and he’ll solve it, on the field or off the field.” “You don’t come across that type of leadership every day.”
Folks jokes that he tries to keep away from MRI machines these days, and that the only ailment he hasn’t had is a concussion.
He joked, “My mother always claimed I had a thick head.”
Folks, on the other hand, is preparing for life off the field, although not necessarily life without football, as he perseveres. He wants to coach and plans to join the ETSU staff as a graduate assistant next season. Folks thinks about how he’s closer to 30 than he is 20, and how he’s never really had a stable career.
“But then again, I don’t have any debt,” he said, “so it may balance out.” “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t obtain anyplace else.” I want to make the same impact on other people’s lives that all of these instructors had on mine.
“That’s why I’d want to be a coach.”
His résumé has taken eight hard (and steadfast) years to complete.
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