Football games are often casually referred to as wars where gladiators battle in the trenches. It is just one of the many military metaphors to have made its way into the football lexicon, but ASU junior defensive tackle Jake Sheffield is one of the few who truly understands the difference between the two worlds.
Sheffield left high school with a desire to play football at the next level, but his father served in the Army and his family has a military tradition, so Sheffield and a close friend decided to serve their country for four years.
“I figured it was my turn to serve,” Sheffield said. “I almost joined the Air Force, but I figured it was go big or go home. I wanted to do the hardest, so I just decided to join the Marines.”
As the oldest player on the team, Sheffield, 25, provides the Sun Devils with a sense of maturity and life experiences that cannot be replicated.
“He went to war,” redshirt senior linebacker Brandon Magee said. “You can’t beat that, so I have the utmost respect and so do the other teammates. (His) maturity is sky high. It’s a mentality he’s got and it shows. I’m happy he’s on my team, especially on d-line.”
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive tackle served two tours of duty in Iraq. Although he was initially scared and faced a tremendous amount of adversity, Sheffield is appreciative of his time in the military and is glad he devoted four years to it. Sheffield’s continued devotion to the military is evident by the “USMC” tattoo on his left arm and the Marine Corps seal as the background on his phone.
Sheffield now appreciates the little things in life. When he was overseas, he lived a different lifestyle, spending months at a time away from loved ones and living in cramped, unfamiliar places.
While Sheffield said his mother believes he “left high school as a boy and came back a man,” there’s more to his story than simply growing up.
Sheffield, whose main job was artillery — though he did participate in convoys through Falusia, Iraq — estimates 20 to 25 people he regularly interacted with lost their lives while several more experienced injuries. Although he was fortunate enough to return healthy, his time in Iraq was not without risk.
“I got hit by a roadside bomb,” the Colorado native said. “We’d get pop shots everyday. After a while, you get used to it. We had a (rocket-propelled grenade) shot at us, they’d try to ambush us and set us up.”
Upon returning to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Sheffield rekindled his love for football by playing in the Pendleton Cup Series Tackle Football League. Sheffield spent the majority of his high school football career playing tight end, offensive line and linebacker, but the Marine Corps introduced him to the defensive line.
While Sheffield was playing in the base championships, a coach from College of the Desert, a junior college in Palm Desert, Calif., convinced him to play after his enlistment was up. He accepted the offer, but the transition from one league to the other was anything but easy.
“I had been out of the game for so long (that) I was in shape to run long distance, not sprints,” Sheffield said. “My technique was messed up and I had never played d-line either.”
Although Sheffield had not played a full season of football for four years, Ben Knapp, the defensive coordinator at College of the Desert, was not deterred.
“When I saw Jake, it was a no-brainer,” Knapp said.
Knapp worried the desert heat may have a negative impact on Sheffield’s development until the defensive end looked him in the eye and said one simple sentence: “I just spent four years in a desert dodging bullets. I think I can run around your little football field.”
“That’s how I met Jake Sheffield,” Knapp said.
Despite admittedly being out of football shape and without a complete grasp of the intricacies required to play on the defensive line, Sheffield’s work ethic, discipline and values instilled in him by the Marine Corps were vital to his success.
“I just want to be coached,” Sheffield said. “I always want to push myself to be the best. I just want to make sure I’m doing things right so I don’t create bad habits. It’s what makes you better.”
Not only is his Marine background present in his work ethic, but in his mannerisms and actions as well. Sheffield is a humble player who can often be heard saying “yes, sir” after talking with the ASU coaches.
Knapp noted Sheffield was a student of the game and Sheffield’s current coach has noticed that same mentality.
“He’s a perfectionist,” ASU defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said. “He understands that discipline and details are what will make him great.”
Playing through a broken hand, among other illnesses and injuries, Sheffield was a two-year starter at College of the Desert. Although he began playing at the junior college level simply to “enjoy the process” and get back into football, earning a spot on a Division I team was always the main goal.
When the Sun Devils offered Sheffield a scholarship — a moment he describes as his most memorable in athletics — he could not stop smiling. The Marine was set on attending ASU because he loved the campus, the area’s appreciation of veterans and, most importantly, it was only a few hours from California, meaning he could drive and visit his four-year-old son Haiden on the weekends.
Everything seemed to be working out until the 2011 Sun Devils went into a tailspin to finish the season and Dennis Erickson was relieved of his duties. While Sheffield always wanted to don the maroon and gold, he was not sure where he would fit in with the new coaching staff, so he kept his options open and visited other schools before ultimately deciding on Tempe.
“I just thought it was cool that everybody respects the military around here,” Sheffield said. “Being around people that respect you for serving your country made me feel good about the school.”
Although the new coaching staff didn’t recruit Sheffield, they are confident he will continue to evolve as a player.
“His focus, his work ethic — all those things are set in place because when he was in the Marines, it was life or death,” Randolph said. “It wasn’t for play, it was for real. Naturally, it makes you grow up and mature. He brings that same focus, maturity and intensity on the football field.”
While Magee describes Sheffield as one of the “hardest workers on the team” and a player everyone can look up to, Sheffield is simply trying to fit in during his first spring with the Sun Devils and does not expect to be treated differently because of his past.
“Since I’m the new guy, I need to prove myself,” Sheffield said. “I’m a teammate of everyone else. I’m not special because I’m past military or older.”
After achieving his previous goal of earning a spot on a Division I football team in a major conference, Sheffield now has his sights set on the NFL. He has been dreaming of playing in the NFL since he was a kid, but if there’s anything Sheffield learned in the military, it is to appreciate and focus on the present opportunities and situations.
A professional football contract in a couple years would be nice, but at the very least, Sheffield will enjoy his tenure in Tempe.
“A lot of kids go from high school right into college and they don’t step away from it and see how much (football) actually means to them,” Sheffield said. “You have a limited time to play. I always try to keep a positive mind. I get to play football for the next couple of years. How hard is that?
“I’m not overseas. I’m not getting shipped out in the field shooting cannons. I just had the mindset that this is fun, so it made everything else easy.”
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