Nov. 1, 1999
by Susan Reid
"I spent many an afternoon by myself, juggling the soccer ball in my front yard," senior Joe Jarzynka recalls wistfully. "You go to soccer practice and basketball and all that, but it's tough to make new friends right away, friends you can just hang out with."
That was back in eighth grade after the Jarzynka family had just moved from Adrian, Mich., to Gig Harbor, Wash. It was a more than just a cross-country move for the family of five, it was a move away from all the relatives, a comfort zone for Dave and Sue Jarzynka and their sons, Joe and Tom, and daughter, Julie.
"We are a very close family because of that move," says Sue Jarzynka. "All we had was each other and we really made sure we supported one another. It was a lonely time."
These days, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Joe Jarzynka has an entire city full of friends. While certainly he has his own circle of friends, he has endeared himself to Husky football fans far and wide. It's also not a stretch to claim that Jarzynka is one of the most recognized names in the Seattle sports arena. In a town filled with lifelong Husky followers, he has become a fan favorite. It seems as if everyone knows his story: undersized walk-on squad member worked his way on to team, hustled with heart, made plays, became legend, fan club formed.
He has come a long way from the lonely afternoons in the front yard, but it's a journey that Jarzynka savors. Growing up in a sports-minded family, with a grandfather who played semi-professional football and a father who also played football and had college scholarship offers, athletics came naturally to Jarzynka. He played just about everything, in particular soccer and basketball. But that wasn't all he did growing up.
"The biggest thing my husband and I agreed upon was that our kids were going to be well-rounded," says Sue Jarzynka. "If they were going to do sports, they were all going to do something else as well." "Eight years of my life I spent playing piano, and I hated every minute of it," Jarzynka recalls with an audible groan. "It was the most helpful and the most terrorizing thing I had to do growing up. I had to do it. I had no choice. My mom made me practice every single day. But I look back on it and realize it's the foundation of so many things I do now."
He is much more than Joe the football player, or "Joe the Toe" as he became known last year. He is the kid who took drama lessons and acted in plays during elementary school. He is the 9-year old who performed in the college play with the young adults. He is the boy who practiced piano over and over for most of his childhood. He is the college student who taught himself to play guitar. And he is the journeyman who lapses into another world when he begins to speak of the joy of fly fishing, his latest passion.
One of the traits that has endeared Jarzynka to Husky fans is his sense of self-confidence, often seen in the unwillingness to signal for a fair catch on a punt return. Both he and his mother attribute it to his exposure to a well-rounded childhood.
"Joe simply has the belief that he can do whatever he sets out to accomplish," says his mother. "Some people probably see it as cockiness, but it's not. He has a good head on his shoulders and won't take no for an answer."
Jarzynka says, with no pun intended, that the drama and music lessons 'set the stage' for his years in high school and college. He developed a self-confidence that came with becoming comfortable speaking and performing in front of people, be it on stage, in an interview or on the football field.
"Acting was a great experience," Jarzynka recalls. "It gave me the confidence to do a lot of things. I love being in front of people and getting a reaction from the crowd. Everyone likes to see a little personality."
It is that personality which seems to define him in the eyes of Husky fans. When he defiantly stands down field, ready to rip off another long punt return, we seem to sit on the edge of our seats, in an odd sort way, willing him to take on the world.
There is no doubt in Jarzynka's mind that he could. Along with that 'no-holds-barred' attitude comes the desire to share the philosophy with youngsters. He has gone back to his high school and to Gig Harbor elementary schools and spoken to kids about his college experience. He will speak until he his blue in the face, but often it is his actions that speak louder than words.
A little while back, Jarzynka received a letter from a seventh-grade boy, who said he wanted to play football but others made fun of him because of his small stature. Then he went to a Husky game and saw Joe play. The boy wrote, 'If you can do it, I can do it.' And he did. "It blew me away when I got that letter, just to realize I could have such an impact on someone I didn't even know," Jarzynka says. "I got all choked up. My mom read it and she started bawling. I feel extremely privileged to know that I've had that sort of effect on someone."
Jarzynka still expresses a sense of wonder in the reaction he receives from fans, when Husky Stadium swells with the chants of 'Joe! Joe! Joe!' as he runs on the field. He says he is continually overwhelmed by the support and if he could, would personally thank every one of the fans out there.
"In every interview I do, I always ask the person if they can make sure and write how much I appreciate the support I've received. I wish I could thank every person -- the Seattle community, the campus, the students, everyone in the athletic department. I just feel a need to acknowledge that support and let them know I appreciate it."
He has taken us on a joyride. We have cheered for him, pulled for him, willed him to get on the field, into the endzone, through uprights and to not take a fair catch. He has enhanced our fascination with college football and our love for the game that is played by a group of 18-22-year old men in stadiums across the country every Saturday.
And for that -- he thanks us. The pleasure has been ours.