Jake Zembiec has been around the sport of football for half his life. Mostly playing, though the last few years have seen a shift to a coaching and mentoring role.
More on that shortly.
Only, football doesn’t tell his whole story. Really, not even close. There’s much more going on, and it’s important to Zembiec for fans to understand that.
He’s on a path to become a physical therapist and plans to attend graduate school next summer, most likely close to his parents’ home in Rochester, New York. He’s missed plenty of time with them over the last four years, playing football and studying at Penn State, and making up for those missed opportunities motivates that decision.
He completed two internships and shadowed an orthopedic surgeon over the last year, an example of his detailed preparation.
His mom, Maureen, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Or, as Zembiec said, she “defeated breast cancer twice,” an indication of his competitive mentality. His mom’s resilience inspired Zembiec to volunteer at local clinics, where he’d set up and tear down meeting spaces and conference rooms as a way of helping out.
The family also routinely gave back during breast cancer awareness walks, serving as road marshals. Nowadays, Zembiec returns to his former elementary school, speaking with youngsters who still view him as a superstar, even if he laughs while saying he no longer sees himself that way.
His legacy lives on back home through his playing days at Aquinas Institute, a Catholic high school in Rochester, and his name carries considerable weight. So, while football is the reason for most of the attention he’s received, it’s not how Zembiec defines himself.
“I take so much pride in academics and being a good guy in the community, and for people to only see you as a football player, sometimes that’s frustrating,” said Zembiec, who’s been selected as a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar at Penn State.
“As you start to move your way up in recruiting and you go to all these All-American games, people start to forget about the other stuff that makes you who you are. I want to get as much recognition for my grades in high school as I did for making the Elite 11.”
He added: “I think it’s special, the commitment you have to have to be successful in more than just football here.”
Excelling as a student-athlete at Penn State is perhaps the inevitable next step for Zembiec, who grew up surrounded by high expectations from nearly everyone who knew him.
He started playing football at age 11, training with his dad in the backyard — “that’s all you need really, if you’re willing to put in the work,” he said. He was bigger and taller than most other kids his age, and a self-described natural athlete.
As he matured and the playing field leveled out, Zembiec said it became about who was going to work the hardest. A fierce competitor on and off the field, Zembiec kept on grinding.
His father, Tom, is the one who put Jake on the map, he said, writing emails and letters to coaches throughout the region and country. His dad was his quarterback coach starting in middle school, and the two traveled quite a bit during Zembiec’s senior year in high school.
The hard work paid off with a scholarship at Penn State, and he enrolled early, always wanting to outwork everyone. Zembiec’s commitment garnered plenty of attention, as he was rated a four-star recruit by multiple outlets and the No. 1 player in New York and the No. 10 quarterback in the country by Rivals.
Shortly after he arrived on campus, he was introduced to a packed crowd at Pegula Ice Arena during a men’s ice hockey game, and the fans roared at the mention of his name.
Zembiec, now a senior, saw playing time in a handful of Blue-White games, though never during the regular season. He possessed a strong arm, though didn’t have the chance to fully display his skills because of one injury or another.
He missed his junior year because of complications with his wrist, and shoulder surgery further derailed his progress. Zembiec knew it’d be near-impossible to move up the depth chart because some days his shoulder would feel great, and other days not so much. Coaches couldn’t rely on him, and the nagging pain started to sap his enthusiasm.
Practices would loom, with Zembiec not knowing what to expect. He began to realize it’d be unlikely he could regularly throw the way he used to, when he was leading his high school team to state championships in his sophomore and senior seasons.
Zembiec’s rebounded from what he called a low point, to now feeling totally at peace. He looks forward to practice, where he can impart his wisdom of the offense. He knows the whole playbook and can give advice from a player standpoint, while Head Coach James Franklin and Offensive Coordinator Ricky Rahne verbally coach up his teammates, he said.
Guys on the team see Zembiec as a veteran and someone who can be trusted, so it makes sense that Franklin and Rahne wanted him to stay with the program.
When the pain and injuries persisted, the two offered Zembiec a medical scholarship, something which the quarterback didn’t even know was possible. He took some time to himself, making the decision on his own and informing his parents after.
That was a little difficult. He knew his parents wanted the best for him, though only he knew the amount of pain he was experiencing. So many folks from back home saw him as a football player first and foremost, and even he acknowledged that football had been nearly everything he knew to that point.
However, with the enjoyment gone because of the physical toll, Zembiec announced on his Twitter account in August 2018 that his playing career at Penn State was ending.
“It took a little while for us to all get comfortable with it and the change,” Zembiec said. “But I think everybody realizes now (it was the best decision). When I call home to my parents, they can just tell from the tone of my voice — I’m just a lot happier with how things are going now.”
The 22-year-old Rochester native carries himself and speaks with a maturity that most people don’t attain until their 30s or 40s, if ever.
It’s be easy (and understandable) for Zembiec to be bitter, frustrated, or even angry, but he isn’t any of those things.
As Zembiec said, he didn’t hold it against anyone when injuries curtailed his development, and he’s still very much a part of the team, as Rahne pointed out.
He’s still friends with a lot of his teammates and is at practice every day, serving as an example that you don’t have to score touchdowns—or even suit up—to help propel the team forward.
“He’s able to share his story of how he’s got to where he is and show guys that there’s more than one way to contribute,” Rahne said. “We preach that as a coaching staff, and our guys really buy into that. There’s a bunch of guys on the team who people outside of this building don’t know about, but we understand they help us score every point and win games without being on the field.”
Even though he’s no longer playing, Zembiec still attracts plenty of attention. Look for him on the Penn State sideline on game day wearing a headset (and sometimes a red hat), and plenty of gold chains around his neck.
The flashy look belies his humbleness, though it’s a good representation of what starting quarterback Sean Clifford calls Zembiec’s “swagger.”
More than anything else, Zembiec is comfortable and confident with the decisions he’s made, where his future is headed, and with his Penn State career — cut short by injury, though maximized everywhere else.
“I’m so happy with my whole experience, and it’s awesome getting to come out to practice every day,” Zembiec said. “Since taking the medical, I’m just so pumped to practice every day and see the guys and be around everybody. I have a whole new perspective on how lucky I am to be here, and how special of an opportunity I have to be around this program, and be part of this football team, and run out in front of 107,000.”