McDONOUGH, Ga. — Jake Hall wasn’t going to lose this game.
That wasn’t just the well-intentioned thinking of a stubborn junior signal caller. It wasn’t the product of any rah-rah coach speak pep talks from Ola head coach Jared Zito. It didn’t even have much to do with proving himself as a safety-turned-quarterback, making just his second career start as a quarterback in a football game since his Ola Middle School days.
This one was personal. This one was for Dad.
Speaking of stubborn, North Oconee was a pesky 4A school from Bogart that sauntered into Ola’s football stadium on a perfect Friday night for football, doing its best to halt Jake from making good on his promise to his father.
It was a blow-for-blow, non-region contest that had the feel of a playoff game and the intrigue of something altogether bigger than the game of football, or any game for that matter.
Jake’s father, Jeff Hall passed away the week before in his sleep—approximately just 48 hours after seeing his son’s debut as a high school quarterback.
Jake can’t really tell you why, but when you’re a 16-year old kid and you lose that big a part of yourself, the specifics really don’t matter much.
“I just know it happened sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning,” Jake said. “He had some underlying health issues, but we’re not really sure. I woke up to my mother screaming after finding his body in the bed. She’d just come home from her night shift job. When I got up to see what was going on, his face was purple. I already knew it was over, and I just burst into tears.”
So who would’ve blamed Jake if he decided to sit out the following week of practice? Who would’ve taken issue if he decided to wait a while before getting back out onto the field? After all, Jeff Hall wasn’t just Dad to Jake. He was also, Coach.
“A lot of these kids around the community knew him as Coach Jeff,” Zito said. “I never got the chance to coach with him, but he did coach a lot of kids in this area. Avalon Park.”
Jake was one of those kids.
“Since age 6 he was my first coach,” Jake said. “He got me started in the game. He was coaching me through little league when I played with the McDonough Cougars, the Locust Grove Falcons and the North Henry Tigers. I enjoyed it and just kept playing since then, trying to improve my craft and grow in the understanding of the game.”
Coach Jeff made sure it happened, too. Jake said his dad was his biggest fan and toughest critic. But even in the tough moments, he felt the love.
“He pushed me like no other coach has,” Jake said. “When he coached me, people didn’t even know I was his kid until like midway through a season. That’s how hard he would ride me.”
Coach Jeff had a little Bobby Knight in him too. Knight, the illustrious former Indiana Hoosiers basketball coach, was known for his demonstrative antics on the sideline that displayed his passion for the game. Coach Jeff was a lot like that—minus the chair throwing, of course—when it came to the game of football.
“Man, I tell you, he was a character,” Jake said with a laugh. “He was the yelling type, you know? He’d throw his hands around and make a scene. I was never embarrassed by it, though. It was just him. He was just funny like that, but he always wanted the best for me.”
Zito says Coach Jeff was a fixture at Ola practices and always hung around to talk shop with Zito after the game—especially about No. 2. He was always proud, but always critical, albeit in a good, constructive way.
Take, for instance, Jake’s first game as Ola’s starting quarterback, the last game Coach Jeff would see him play. Jake helped the Mustangs to an impressive 52-28 season opening win against Jackson. In that game, Jake completed 9 of 16 passes for 90 yards and rushed for 141 yards and three scores on 19 carries in Zito’s somewhat run-heavy spread attack. Not bad for a kid who was an all-region safety as a sophomore.
But Jake also threw a pick in that game. Coach Jeff wasn’t happy about that.
“Jake played really great for us in that first game,” Zito said. “And after the game, his dad hung with me on the sideline, and he’s talking, and he’s saying, you know, ‘Jake’s gotta get the ball out of his hand faster. Gotta work on that footwork.’ And I laughed. We knew we were working on it, but that’s just the coach in him coming out. I expected that. His dad was just one of those dads who’s always around at practice, always supporting the program. We really did have a great conversation that night.”
And unbeknownst to Zito or anyone else, it would be their last.
Making Good On the Promise
As North Oconee punched in a touchdown to take a 23-22 lead over Ola at the 10:33 mark of the fourth quarter, Jake was on edge while pacing the sidelines. He was chomping at the bit to get back in the game.
“Any time I came back to the sideline after going out there, and any time they would score, I knew I just had to get back out there and answer them,” Jake said. “It’s how I normally approach a game. But that night, it was like that even more because of my dad. I had something to prove. I had to prove that I could be tough enough to get through the moment. That’s what Dad would’ve wanted me to do.”
To be sure, Jake didn’t just discover his toughness last Friday night against North Oconee. We’re talking about a kid who played part of the season at safety for Ola as a freshman starter with a broken arm. Toughness was Jake’s identity. The fiery outward persona of his father manifested differently through his more soft-spoken son, but make no mistake about it—it was there.
“That’s just who Jake is, man,” Zito said. “You know, I told him, ‘You don’t have to come out here and practice if you don’t want to, Jake. I mean, if you get out here and you get in two or three days and you just realize you’re somewhere else mentally and emotionally, that’s okay.’ But he kinda gave me a look and, without hesitation, he said, ‘I’ll see you (Monday) at 5:30, coach.’
“He’s been that kind of tough kid since middle school. He’s kind of a smaller guy. As a quarterback, he doesn’t have that fluid, perfect throwing motion yet. We’re still working on the mechanics, but man, he’s just got this moxie about him.”
It’s rare for Zito to find it in a kid so young. Now in his seventh year as Ola’s head coach, Zito’s always had a thing about pushing freshmen players into the varsity limelight too soon. But he’d been watching Jake since middle school. And whether it was safety, corner, slot receiver or situational quarterback, Zito knew he had in Jake a player who’d make it count when the team needed it from him the most.
“Most freshmen can’t handle that emotionally, but Jake was like, ‘Meh,’” Zito said. “He never thought the lights were too big. No moment ever made him rattled.”
Not even the passing of his dad.
“I never, for a moment, considered not practicing or not playing,” Jake said. “I knew that’s what Dad would’ve wanted me to do. He wouldn’t have wanted me to miss this game especially. He would’ve wanted me to be tough and play through it.”
Toughness was for moments like 2nd and goal on the 2-yard line with Jake under center and his team down by one. He takes the snap and plunges ahead through the Mustangs line for a score. Then he promptly makes good on the 2-point conversion.
Ola 30, North Oconee 23 with four minutes left in the game.
Jake trots back to the sideline after that score, reciting the pre-game mantra in his head: “I’m not losing this game,” he said to himself. “There’s no way I’m losing this game.”
A New Normal
Post-practice and postgame with Dad were two of Jake’s favorite times.
“He’d always be the first one to meet me outside the gate of the stadium after a game,” Jake recalls. “That’s one thing I missed last week after North Oconee. Every game he’d be waiting when I came out, and then we’d go back home and watch film and count up my yards.”
Against North Oconee, Jake was more comfortable in his quarterback role, and the numbers showed it. He went 9-of-13 for 146 yards passing to go along with 97 rushing yards on 19 carries. He had both a passing and rushing score along with the aforementioned 2-point conversion.
Typically after a game, Jake’s dad would pull out the tablet at the kitchen table, or connect it to the big screen and the two would watch and critique Jake’s performance together. The day after North Oconee was different, though. Really different.
“I really missed seeing him at the gate, and really missed him at home,” Jake said. “I ended up watching film alone on my cell phone. It wasn’t the same. The whole week felt different, really. A part of me was missing for sure. It was a different vibe because every time I came home from practice or a game, I had him to talk to. But now I was by myself. So, yeah, it was really different.”
There was nothing different about Jake’s in-game tenacity, though.
After Jake’s go-ahead 2-point conversion, North Oconee promptly answered with another touchdown that tied the game up at 30. Jake engineered another scoring drive, this time sprinting into the end zone from about five yards out on a 2nd-and-goal play to put Ola ahead for good, 37-30 with six seconds left in the game.
According to Jake, it was the perfect play call for the moment, and he described it exactly as one would expect a coach’s son to do.
“That last touchdown was a quarterback run, and I saw the linebacker was already over pursuing, so I cut off of him and had a straight shot to the end zone,” he said. “And the earlier 2-point play was a pass play that I just ended up running in. When I scored that last touchdown though, yeah, I was so happy because I won the game for him.”
Closure for the Moment
Before the game, the Ola fans engaged in a moment of silence in memory of Coach Jeff. Zito said Jake was cool with it, as long as it wasn’t something he had to hear beforehand. He wanted to stay focused on the game. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t wholly appreciative of how his teammates rallied around him from the day his father died until the final whistle blew in Ola’s North Oconee win.
“The support was wonderful,” Jake said. “And it wasn’t just from my team. But from the whole Ola community, really. It meant a lot and it helped me get through it.”
Coach Jeff’s funeral was held the Saturday after the North Oconee win. Jake didn’t cry. He’d already gotten all his tears out in the days preceding. Plus, as painful as the moment was, he’d been here before.
“I kinda knew how this was going to be like,” he said. “It was just like it was when I lost my grandad last year. It was my dad’s father. We buried them in the same place, and Dad is about three feet away from him.”
Jake acknowledges there was tons of relief after pulling out the North Oconee win and making good on his promise. Now the focus is on making himself a better player by amplifying his father’s voice within.
“I’ve just gotta know and remember the things that he would teach me,” he said. “I have to continue to do the things we would do together by myself.”
The Ola football team will commemorate Coach Jeff’s memory throughout the season with helmet stickers. Personally, Jake is adorning his back plate with the words, “For You, Grandpa and Dad. RIP.”
Meanwhile, he’s also preparing for his third game as Ola’s starting quarterback when the Mustangs travel to play Spalding. It’ll be the last game before opening Region 4-AAAAA play at home against Dutchtown as Ola begins, in earnest, its quest to back-to-back state playoff appearances for the first time in school history.
He knows that with each passing day and game week, a new normal will set in. He already sees some of that happening as his mom, Michelle has returned back to work and Jake, his teammates and coaches settle in to navigating the rough terrain of playing football in the midst of a pandemic.
He has college football aspirations. ”I’ll play anywhere in the SEC,” he says. “But if I had a choice, it would be UGA. That’s Dad’s favorite team.”
He’ll miss watching Georgia games with Dad on Saturdays, and though he’s already feeling the void of not seeing his dad waiting for him at the gate, Jake says his mom is definitely that cheering and screaming type of football mom—the kind with the recognizable voice you can hear from the stands even in the middle of the action.
That won’t change. In fact, given the circumstances, Jake expects those cheers to get even louder.
As for Coach Jeff, well, let’s just say both Jake and coach Zito imagine a more celestial viewpoint for Dad to watch his son.
“As well as Jake played Friday, he did throw an interception late in the fourth quarter,” Zito said with a smirk. “But then his safety instincts took over and he ended up tackling the player who picked him off. Then he got back to the sidelines, and he was mad at everything. He was mad at the pick, mad at himself for throwing the ball, mad at me for the play call.”
Jake knows the play. It was a run-pass option play called “panther.”
“It’s really like a deep slant or a skinny bank post,” he said. “We’d done it a lot in practice, and I really didn’t like how I was throwing it. The timing was all weird, and that’s exactly what happened in the game for me to throw the interception.”
Afterward, Jake and his coach talked about the play in such a way that elicited the most moment-fitting memories of his father.
“Jake, your dad was probably in heaven cussing your butt out when you threw that interception,” Zito said.
“Oh, I know he was,” Jake replied. And as coach and quarterback shared a laugh, Zito added, “But you know he was cheering his butt off on that game-winning touchdown too.”
“Yeah,” Jake said with a smile. “I know he was.”