Back to school
Jamie Potts is back in town, GV couldn't be happier
Matt Mitchell stares on solemnly from the sidelines behind a strategically tinted pair of aviators. His squad at Grand Valley State – named the No. 14 Division II football team in the country by the latest American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) poll – has been temporarily shipwrecked by No. 4 ranked Ferris State. So, too, have been any national championship aspirations he may have held.
With his team huddled around him on bent knee at halftime, Mitchell suppresses the growing lump in his throat as he attempts to bark life into his players. Mitchell has convinced himself that his Lakers still have a chance to best their arch-rival for the first time since Muskegon-area coaching legend Tony Annese took over at FSU in 2012, but in his twisted-up gut, he's re-living 2014's nightmare: a 42-17 defeat that moved GVSU to 0-3.
At the the conclusion of Mitchell's impassioned, yet thinly veiled, pep talk, the locker room falls silent. Deathly so, until a muffled click-clack of molded cleats over carpeted concrete echoes from down the hall. The figure attached to the cleats grips a helmet in his right hand as he lightly jogs towards the room. His face, as if for dramatic effect, is shrouded in shadow.
With notice to the inquisitive whispers now spreading from player to player, Mitchell slowly rotates his head over his shoulder to gain a better vantage. As he turns, he double-takes as he rips off his shades. It's prodigal son Jamie Potts that has implausibly returned, and Mitchell's sternness melts away.
Playing the part of smooth operator, Mitchell beams.
“What took you so long, kid?”
Led out by Potts, GVSU pours back out onto Lubbers Stadium in front of a record crowd re-invigorated. An incredulous Annese and his defending Harlon Hill winning quarterback Jason Vander Laan – who in this rendition is played by William Zabka – sprint spiritedly out to midfield to contest Potts' eligibility. They are debunked on one condition: Potts – GVSU's star receiver -- can play, as long as he declares the route he's going to run before the snap. Tough, but fair, thinks Mitchell.
With a confidently coy grin, Mitchell acquiesces.
“Potts will be running the Tripppppple Lindy. And he'll be running it all night.”
As the ruling is announced by the head umpire over the PA system, Annese and Vander Laan exchange a bewildered glance, shrug and then about-face back towards their sideline. A shirtless GVSU student, painted as if he had an interview lined up with The Blue Man Group, is equally confused, and turns to a peer in the student section to discover how difficult a route the Triple Lindy is to run. He's promptly informed that it's impossible.
After GVSU receives the kick, Mitchell sends out his offense. Potts lines up in the slot, rotates his trunk in a stretching motion and licks his thumb before dragging it out across the length of his frame to sample the wind. A befuddled defender adjacent Potts stands slack as the crowd falls silent in anticipation. At the snap, Potts pounces.
Instead of charging downfield as is the normal operating procedure for most receivers, Potts plants his feet and flips latterly over the entire offensive line. The entire Ferris State defense is aghast even before Potts lands and immediately springs back again across the offensive line to his initial alignment. As quarterback Bart Williams hits the back end of his seven-step drop, he hitches up into the pocket, and watches mystified as Potts first backflips behind the line of scrimmage and then front flips over an unsuspecting defender in what appears to be one fluid motion. Bart fires into the middle of the field to a wide-open Potts, who proceeds to fly downfield with the speed of a hanging curveball off a the sweet-spot of a bat. His path was so clear, he probably could have jogged.
GVSU wins big, the Laker faithful swamp the field en masse after the game and Potts is carried off into the night triumphantly on the shoulders of his teammates as streams of fireworks burst into the sky. It's at that moment that Mitchell awakes with a start from a nap in his office; his cellphone is vibrating across his desk and the caller ID reads "Spokane, Washington."
I hope you enjoyed that admittedly over-cooked, Rodney Dangerfield-inspired interlude enough that it still stands up when I level with you. I dig Dangerfield, old movies, football and combining them all in prose when the opportunity presents. I also have no reason whatsoever to suspect Mitchell day-dreamed this summer about Potts' return. It's pure speculation. But if he did, who could blame him?
It's not that GVSU's skill position cupboard was bare sans Potts – both junior Matt Williams and sophomore Brandon Bean have shown promise at receiver and the Laker backfield, spearheaded by senior Kirk Spencer, is well-stocked. It's that Jamie Potts is a different (read: Division II Bo Jackson-esque) brand of athlete.
At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, not only is Potts physically imposing. He's productive, and led GVSU in 2014 in both catches (54) – more than double anyone else on the roster - and touchdown receptions (10). A jack-of-all-trades and a master of many since high school, Potts quarterbacked his team at Muskegon Oakridge High School, took care of all kicking duties and probably would have filled up the Gatorade cooler, walked the dog and painted the back porch had he been asked.
He's also always had a penchant for baseball, and compiled a successful dual-sport career in his four years as a Laker. Last spring – his final season of collegiate baseball eligibility – Potts was named a first-team member of the Daktronics All-American squad.
So when Potts pulled a Russell Wilson as a football star drafted by the Texas Rangers, it came as only a mild surprise. Potts had expected he might get a call from the Detroit Tigers on draft day, but instead was selected this summer with the 918th overall pick in the 31st round. With little hesitation, Potts inked a deal to play for the Spokane Indians – a Class A Short Season affiliate of the Rangers -- and flew out to Washington for his first season of professional baseball.
“I've thought for a while now that I probably have a better chance of making it up to the highest level in baseball than I do in football,” Potts said. “I'm a little undersized to be a tight end in the NFL, which I would have to be if I went that route.
“Baseball – besides being fun to play – is also a lot easier on your body than football. There's a lot less health concerns, you can play a lot longer and I knew that if I got the chance, I'd play professional baseball.”
In 57 games with the Indians – most of which Potts hit cleanup and started at right field – he finished with a .217/.290/.311 slash and four home runs. He didn't commit a single error.
It was a promising start – especially for a Division II prospect like Potts that had nary been exposed to big league caliber pitching. It was the sort of start Potts was expecting to build on in fall instruction league and in workouts back home. At least, that's what Potts thought until he received a fateful text from Mitchell in late August.
“I was in contact with coach Mitchell on and off throughout the summer, and toward the end of my season with the Indians, he sent me a text to see if there was any possibility that I'd be able to come back,” Potts said. “I had previously heard from some other people in the Ranger organization that it would be very unlikely that I'd be allowed to play football, but I decided to check one last time.”
After the text exchange with Mitchell, Potts got in touch with the Rangers' minor league director of player development, Mike Daily.
What happened next was unexpected. The kind of thing that defies the laws of opportunity cost, and is generally reserved for overly optimistic day dreams.
“Mike was very supportive of my desire to come back to finish my degree and my football career, which was a little bit of a shock for me,” Potts said. “I have been at GVSU for four years and with two older brothers that went to school here before me, I've been around the program for even longer. Getting the opportunity to finish up the right way was important to me, and it's special to me that I was granted that opportunity.”
On Sept. 7 – the day after the second half of the Northwest League ended – Potts was on a plane back to Grand Rapids. The day after that, he was enrolled in the 13 credits he needed to complete his degree in allied health sciences, had cleared his eligibility with both GVSU and the NCAA and was back to practicing with the football team.
Potts dressed, but played sparingly, in GVSU's 27-24 come-from-behind, payback victory against No. 7 Ohio Dominican on Saturday. That won't be the case Saturday in a critical game against Ferris State that is expected to be played in front of one of the largest crowds in Lubbers Stadium history.
“Any time the Anchor-Bone trophy is on the line, it's a huge game for both programs, and I'm excited to be at full go for it,” Potts said. “It's Ferris State. There doesn't have to be a lot said about it. They're a good football team, and I think we are too. It's the biggest rivalry that we have, and there's major implications on the conference championship race.
“We want to win. I'm sure they do too. We'll have to see who wants it more.”
After a summer vacation spent without picking up a pigskin and only a week's practice to sync up with current GVSU quarterback Bart Williams, there's no guarantee that Potts will make the difference for GVSU, even if he does unleash a few Triple Lindys. Just as there's no guarantee that Potts will make it up to the Major Leagues or that the Lakers will play their way back from a disappointing 6-5 season last year all the way into the national championship game in this one.
For now, that's too far into the future for Potts, who is elated just to be a college student again. And for now, just having Potts back in school is a dream come true for Mitchell and the entirety of GVSU football.
“It's great being back here,” Potts said. “I really missed it all. Even playing pro baseball – and we'd fill our stadium just about every night – nothing compares to college athletics. As cool a spot as Spokane is, it's not college. There's a special feel you get when you're playing for your school, and it means a lot to me to be back for my senior season.
“I try to make it a practice not to look too far ahead – our approach at GVSU has always been to take everything one day at a time. That said, I can't help but to be excited to see where we end up at the end of the year if we take care of business every week.”