When you first meet Jake Fishbaugher, you might notice his broad smile, his firm handshake, his friendly voice, and his easy going manner. What underlies all of this is a true leader with a competitive nature, a willingness to work hard, an athlete’s discipline, and a strong sense of team spirit.
Jake, a seventh grade student at Fillmore Central, was recently presented with the NFL Student Athlete of the Year Award for 2017. The NFL recognizes several outstanding people each year with award certificates, but it is unusual for someone so young to be included in this ceremony according to Stacey Hildebrandt of Preston, who does photography for the Youth Football Program. Earlier this year, Jake was attending an event at the new Vikings stadium when he met several influential people including Wilson Edwards, Minnesota State Director for Youth Football. Jake showed that he had the kind of characteristics Youth Football values. The website for the Minnesota Association of Sports Officials (maosa.org) says about Jake in announcing his award, “He is a straight A student, two-year manager for varsity football and one-year varsity baseball manager, played in the fifth and sixth grade football program. He’s played baseball since he was four and has played basketball since third grade. He recently wrote and gave a speech at the school’s Veterans Day Program.”
One thing Jake likes most about playing football is, “You don’t have to worry about much, like homework or school when you’re playing. It’s a good experience just to be a kid.” The easiest part about football for Jake is, “having fun. The hardest part is when you don’t have the winning record and you have to keep going and don’t give up.” Jake plays both offense and defense. On offense he’s a tight end. “Coach likes me for a receiver,” says Jake, “because of my speed.” He’s 5’6”, which is tall for a seventh grader, and very quick. On defense he’s a linebacker. Jake actually prefers playing defense because, “I like how the team gets pumped up when defense is doing well.” Next year Jake will be one of the oldest players on the team so his goal is to keep that in mind and be a good leader.
Jake has been inspired and encouraged by many people in his life. His parents, Kristina and John, recognized Jake’s athletic interest and ability from a very early age. “Jake started going fishing up north at Lake of the Woods when he was two years old, golfing at three, and playing baseball at four,” says his mom. Jake just missed the big annual ice fishing trip up north with his dad for the first time because he had a basketball tournament. If he could have been in two places at the same time, he would have been! Other people in his life that Jake credits are his older twin brothers, Clay and Alex, his sister, Emily and her boyfriend Justin, his cousin Sam, who is like another brother, his grandparents, and many others. “My brothers and Justin encouraged me to be healthy,” says Jake. For example, he started lifting weights and paying attention to what he eats. After workouts he’ll often have a protein shake. “But I also have a sweet tooth,” Jake grins, “I got that from my mom.” Sam, who was a captain in his senior year, was a really good leader and his insights have inspired Jake towards leadership too. “You’re not born being a good leader,” Jake says, “You have to want it… to learn it. You need a willingness to not give up. You have to want to make your team better — you can’t get down on each other, but lift each other up.”
Jake’s father, John, says that his son works hard at what’s important. He’s been competitive from the start. “He had to have a bet on just about everything from who could race up the stairs the fastest to who could touch the car first after eating out at the Branding Iron.” Jake practices and builds his skills. “We played lots of catch,” John says, “we were out there even when it was 35 degrees with snow banks.” His dad played ball with him whenever he could, but even that wasn’t enough. When Jake was 10 years old, he took the money he earned from cutting thistles on the family’s CRP land and bought his own pitching net for practice. John says, “It’s important to get up and get things done.” Jake would get a boost in pay if he started his thistle cutting early. So he got out there at 5:45 a.m. and took a selfie to send to his dad as proof that he was being industrious enough for the extra cash. This same work ethic served him well as the fifth and sixth grade team manager for varsity football. He and his friend had to get all the equipment, help with water, mow the practice field (including the line markers on three fields). “It was hard work,” Jake recalls, “and on windy days half my body was green from the grass!”
While it’s an honor in itself for Jake to be recognized by the NFL, the Student Athlete of the Year award has additional benefits that go beyond honor and recognition. The awards ceremony was quite an experience. “It was CRAZY to be on the field with the players!” Jake says. He was fist bumping with NFL players, hanging out with the Vikings cheerleaders, exploring the new stadium including the tunnels and locker rooms where nobody gets to go. He was gifted two footballs by Vikings wide receivers; a blue one signed by Laquon Treadwell and another ball signed by Stefon Diggs. “There is no monetary award like a scholarship,” explains Stacey Hildebrandt. “Giving money to students isn’t allowed. It’s more about making connections. The MAOSA wants to empower outstanding kids with the tools they need to provide positive experiences in their communities, to know that they’re strong and they can overcome any obstacles. If they put forth the effort they can make a difference, a positive impact, on their friends, their schools, and their communities.” As an example, Jake was given a complete set of flags and belts so he would have the tools he’d need to help start up and coach a local flag football team. He will also be invited to several NFL events throughout the year. If they travel, Jake could go along.
Jake and his mom tell the story of how he learned he’d won the Student Athlete of the Year Award. Jake said, “It was shocking when it happened!” “We were golfing,” Kristina began. Family and friends golf every Sunday afternoon in season at the Old Barn Resort in Preston, where the scenery is beautiful. They find that Sunday afternoons are quiet, allowing them to take their time and just have fun. Jake started joining the older men on the course three years ago when he was in fourth grade. “At first,” said Kristina, “the men were questioning whether Jake was good enough to play. Then they saw him drive. Now everyone argues about who will get Jake on their team.” They were golfing the Sunday that Jake learned he’d won the award. “There is a particularly difficult hole,” Kristina explains, “they usually use an older ball when they tee off in case it gets lost. When it was Jake’s turn, we said, ‘Here, use this ball…” They’d written the news on that golf ball.
How does Jake manage all of his activities and interests that include many sports, friends, and most recently, nature photography? “He’s got a good balance between sports and school, work and play,” said his mother. “He will say when he’s had enough and it’s time to go home.” Jake is able to balance all the competition and responsibility in a healthy way. “He’s outside playing basketball. He’s outside hunting. He’s using sports, taking it seriously, and we’re proud of him,” said his father, “but he can still be a kid. No matter what happens in sports in the future, with his grades and his work ethic he will do well, he will be a good and responsible person.” And Jake adds, “A lot of it is planning ahead, making good decisions, deciding what’s more important. School comes before sports.” Jake’s favorite subject in school is math. Someday, he says he might like to be an orthodontist. Why an orthodontist? “It’s about helping people,” Jake answers. “There’s more,” prompts his father. “Well,” Jake says with a smile, “there is a guy from Faribault who’s an orthodontist. He has his own plane and flies up to Lake of the Woods every weekend. People have his food and everything he needs ready when he gets there and he fishes until Sunday. That sounds good. And if I had my own plane I would go and visit my brothers.”
No matter what Jake Fishbaugher ends up doing with his life, this award is recognition of how exceptional he is as an athlete, a student, and a person. He can’t remember who first said it, but Jake believes “you can learn a sentence from a win and a book from a loss.” Nelson Mandela said the same thing a little differently, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” This time, Jake has won a meaningful award. “He took everything in that day,” said Stacey Hildebrandt about the award ceremony, “he stood up, looked people in the eye, and shook hands; he was not on his phone, but there in the moment, grateful for the opportunity.” Through his wins and losses, Jake has also learned to be a leader and a good team player. Now, and in the future, if someone gets hit hard, misses a tackle they should have made, or just has a bad day, they’d be lucky to have Jake on their team saying, “Next play, next play. You’ll get it next time.”