Until I started research for Farewell to Football? I never gave much thought to how football teams prepare for their games. I had a vague notion of something called a “game plan,” but I didn’t know many of the details that go into a week of preparation and practice for a big game. By the time I talked to then-Georgia Head Coach Mark Richt in May of 2014, though, I had learned a lot more from interviews with coaches and through reading about how the game plan evolves out of film study of the opponent, and how practices to put the plan into motion rely upon role-players like Jack Loonam.
Jack Loonam, son of my old Army buddy “Dawg Doc” Tim Loonam, grew up wanting to play football for the Georgia Bulldogs, but he was realistic about his chances of being recruited as a scholarship athlete. That wasn’t going to happen, but with recruiters like Georgia Tight Ends Coach John Lilly coming around to see players like Jack’s teammate Shaq Roland at Lexington (SC) High School, Jack saw his opportunity to make the connection and let the coach know that he would love to be considered for a “preferred walk-on” slot on the team. “Walk-ons” don’t receive scholarships, they play for the love of the game, and they can play an important role in getting the starters ready for the big games.
Coach Richt told me how for the walk-ons, the biggest job is to simulate the upcoming opponent on the scout squad in practice, showing the starters the formations and plays the opponent is likely to deploy against them. Jack was “always willing to do that job to the best of his ability.” In fact, he added, “Jack Loonam contributed his heart and soul, loved his teammates, Georgia, and the game itself.” It was never easy to put in all that work (not just on the field but in the meeting rooms and in the weight room, too) without hope for any obvious reward, and the Top Dawg realized that not everyone can keep themselves motivated. “Guys over time wear out,” Coach Richt reflected, “wear down and quit, but he’s never done that.”
Jack Loonam never quit, spent four years as a walk-on at Georgia, running the scout team plays at practice, but he did get in the game for one series of downs late in his senior season. That was his external reward for four years of service as a walk-on. There’s no way to measure the intrinsic reward of the experience, though, the fellowship and the character development, and I think Jack really came out way ahead on the deal he made with football and academics at Georgia. (I might be biased, of course: Jack went the same ROTC scholarship route as his dad and I took to commissions as Army officers.)
As they say in those public-service announcements for the NCAA, Jack went pro in something other than football: as a result of his ROTC scholarship, he’s now serving as an Army lieutenant at Fort Hood, Texas.
Read more about the Loonams in Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience, available in paperback and Kindle formats.