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  • Since coming to the NFL undrafted out of a Division-III program, receiver Jake Kumerow has three times come up short trying to make a roster. In July, he was sitting behind three established veterans and three freshly drafted rookies. He played well enough to earn the respect of his Hall of Fame quarterback and become a fan favorite. On cut-down day, he was waiting for a call…
By Kalyn Kahler
September 03, 2018

Jake Kumerow is holed up in his hotel room trying to lose himself in Fortnite. His opponent is Packers teammate Rob Tonyan, who is staying just two rooms down the hall at the Wingate Hotel near Green Bay’s airport. Both players have their phones close, screens turned face up and ringers set on loud so they won’t miss any incoming calls or texts.

Kumerow and Tonyan are neighbors—for the rest of the day at least—as roster longshots in Green Bay. Kumerow anxiously pushes his brown, shoulder-length hair behind his ears. He can’t help but look down at the phone every few minutes to double- and triple-check he hasn’t missed a call from a Packers staffer, letting him know he had been cut. No news is good news. They break for a Chipotle lunch; by then it’s nearly 3 p.m. CST, the deadline for teams to submit final rosters to the league office.

Kumerow’s agent Ron Slavin calls. They’ve been through this together twice before; both times, the receiver’s phone rang with disappointing news. (A third time he was already on injured reserve.)

“What happens if they don’t call me?” Kumerow asks Slavin.

“If they don’t call you, it’s good,” Slavin answers. Kumerow stays on the phone with Slavin until 3 p.m. hits. Silence.

He gets a text from Joey Bosa, the Chargers’ star pass rusher and Kumerow’s first cousin: What’s the word over there in Green Bay?

Kumerow replies with something he’s never thought—let alone said—this time of year: I think I’m good.

Kumerow is a product of nearby University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. His local roots and underdog story—not to mention how easy he is to spot due to the long, brown hair cascading out of his helmet and scraggly beard—has made him something of a Packers folk hero. During training camp practices you would hear occasional exclamations from the crowd, Hey, there’s the Whitewater kid!

His NFL bloodlines run deep. His father, Eric Kumerow, was the Dolphins’ first-round pick in 1988. His uncle, John Bosa, was Miami’s first-rounder in 1987, and Kumerow is first cousins with Joey Bosa and Nick Bosa, the Ohio State edge rusher projected to be a top pick in the 2019 draft. Though Kumerow grew up in Florida and Illinois—he started his collegiate career at the University of Illinois—he won two D-III national championships at Whitewater. The 6' 4" receiver spent his first three seasons toiling in anonymity as a practice squad player. This is Kumerow’s fourth NFL season, but he’s never played in a regular season game. He spent his first two seasons on Cincinnati’s practice squad and started last season with the Bengals on injured reserve before the team released him in Week 3. New England signed him on their practice squad for a few weeks, then he wound up on Green Bay’s practice squad for the final week of the 2017 season. 

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This summer the 26-year-old performed well enough to earn a vote of confidence from the most influential voice in the locker room. “He’s made a ton of plays, did it all spring and summer and now he’s getting reps with me and making a ton of plays,” Rodgers told reporters after practice in early August. “He’s running the right route all the time and making contested catches and putting the ball away. It’s been pretty impressive for a guy from a small school in Wisconsin.”

Though Rodgers has yet to play in a game with Kumerow, he frequently threw to the “Whitewater Kid” in practice, and noticed his effort. The Packers came into the summer with three veterans—Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison—as virtual locks to make the team, and had drafted three more receivers—J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown—between Rounds 4 and 6 last spring. Kumerow started camp at the bottom of the depth chart. He had only two reps in his first training camp practice but quickly worked his way up to 15 or more on some days.

Kumerow says playing with Rodgers has taught him to always be ready. “You can think that you’re not going to get it and the coverage is wrong, but he still might throw it and when he scrambles you have to always be ready,” he says. “You never know when he is going to throw it to you.”

He learned this lesson the hard way. Early in camp, Kumerow was lined up as the X receiver. He ran a post route, but the quarterback (Kumerow can’t recall which of Green Bay’s backups threw the pass) didn’t see him open. Rodgers watched the film of the play and made a mental note that Kumerow was open on that call. A couple days later, Kumerow was lined up at the X again. Same play call, but this time with Rodgers at quarterback. Rodgers saw Kumerow open and threw it to him, right on the spot, but Kumerow wasn’t expecting the ball to come his way and missed it by a half-beat. After practice, Kumerow says Rodgers found him and told him, ‘Hey, you ran that route well the other day. I saw it on film and noticed you were open. I was trying to throw it to you, so be ready. Keep moving.’ ”

“I was pissed off that I didn’t catch the ball,” Kumerow says. “There’s nothing more disappointing then not catching a ball from him. To have him telling you the one thing you didn’t do right, it’s the worst. It makes you really want to play hard when he’s out there.”

Kumerow was frustrated with himself, but realized this criticism was a sign he was doing something right. Aaron Rodgers wanted to throw him the ball.

What We Learned on a Newsier-Than-Usual NFL Roster Cut-Down Day

Kumerow is hardly a young guy. In fact, at 26, he’s the team’s second-oldest receiver, behind only Cobb. The experience of three NFL training camps helped him to show Rodgers and Packers coaches he could practice well and then show up in games when it mattered.

He broke out in Green Bay’s first two preseason games with long touchdowns, earning him the nickname Touchdown Jesus among fans (because of his long brown hair and full beard). Against Tennessee, he beat his defender off the line of scrimmage and broke open on a go route down the left sideline. When he reeled in the throw from third-string quarterback Tim Boyle, Rodgers shouted, skipped and pumped his fist. Adams screamed and sprinted past Rodgers, nearly reaching the end zone to celebrate with Kumerow. “I’m always going to be jumping up and down, happy for everybody, but for a guy to go from the bottom and make the jump like that, I’m going to be a little more excited for him,” Adams says.

Kumerow found the end zone again in the second preseason game against the Steelers. He caught a 12-yard out route from DeShone Kizer on the left sideline and, after his man gambled and lost, turned to see only one defender and 70 yards of open field between him and the end zone. Seventy yards later, with two defenders closing in, Kumerow dropped his right shoulder and dove over the goal line, rotating in the air to land on his back. He popped up, flexed for the cameras and Lambeau Leaped.

A few minutes later, Kumerow noticed his shoulder and arm were aching. He got an X-Ray and MRI the next day that showed an SC joint sprain—on the landing, he had sprained the joint where collarbone meets the breast bone. SC joint sprains are rare injuries usually seen in high impact collisions like car crashes or violent tackles. In Kumerow’s case, all it took was a seemingly harmless tumble into the end zone. “I’ve hit the ground so many times like that and not been hurt, so I’m not thinking I have a risk of injury if I dive,” he says.

Kumerow’s father dealt with several different injuries during his career, which ultimately cut his time in the NFL short after just three seasons. When he complained to his dad about being injured and feeling frustrated, he was met with tough love. “He said, ‘Complaining is not going to get you better,’” says Kumerow. “’You have to get in there and go through the treatment. Go through the process.’ ”

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It’s the second straight year an injury threatened his roster spot. A year ago he had a good shot at making the Bengals, but stepped in a soft spot of grass and rolled his ankle badly while blocking on a run play. It was just the second day of training camp. He missed all of the preseason, and the Bengals released him when he was finally healthy again in Week 3.

Though preseason numbers can’t be extrapolated for regular season significance, Kumerow led the league in receiving with 190 yards and was tied for the lead with two 40-plus-yard pass plays after that second preseason game. “You want to see people have their stuff translate to the game and he does it, he’s very impressive,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said last Monday after the Packers final training camp practice.

“When you make an impact play like that, and he made a couple long touchdowns, those open up people’s eyes,” Adams says. “Those points, and big explosive gains like that, that’s what matters at the end of the day.”

The timing of Kumerow’s SC joint sprain was better than last season’s camp-killing ankle sprain, but still a potential deal-breaker for a player on the roster bubble.

“It sucks,” Cobb said last Monday, when asked about the timing of Kumerow’s injury.

“It’s terrible,” echoed Adams.

But neither player would shut the door on Kumerow’s chances of making the team. “You never know what happens,” Cobb says. “I definitely think through the offseason and through the preseason so far, he has done so much to really put himself in a good position, so we'll see…”

“It sucks, but I like him, that’s all I’m going to say: I like him,” Daniels says, with a knowing smile.

Kumerow was surprised to find his injury gave him a strange sense of peace as cut-down day approached. “I knew there was literally nothing I could do extra because I was hurt,” he says. “I didn’t have to worry about the final preseason game, and hope I don’t play bad. I was just like, Well, I guess it’s in their hands now.”

Kumerow feels at home in Green Bay, and he points to that comfort level as a reason why he’s played his best football yet here. “Something about being in Green Bay makes me feel comfortable and allows me to play up to my potential,” he says. “I just like it here.”

To push away any lingering doubt about his chances of making the team, he focused on what he knew he had accomplished. He had two impressive preseason performances, the trust of the franchise quarterback and a training camp during which he’d worked his way up from nothing. Would it be enough, especially at one of the most competitive positions on the team?

“It’s going to be an impossible decision,” Adams said Monday after the Packers final training camp practice. A few lockers down, Cobb agreed: “I’m glad I’m not in the position to make that call.”

At 9 a.m. on Saturday, Kumerow reported to the Packers facility for injury treatment. Saturday is an off-day, so only a few injured players are there. Showing up at the facility as a bubble player on roster cut-down day is a bit awkward. Even though he knows they either don’t know the answer or can’t talk about it, Kumerow was tempted to ask the trainers if there was anything they could tell him about his future in Green Bay.

While he ate breakfast in the dining hall, he ran into a few rookies who were already handing in their playbooks. Kumerow said his goodbyes and drove back to the Wingate, hoping he wouldn’t have to return to do the same.

The Ugliest Divorce

The call on Sunday never came, so on Monday morning, Kumerow reports to the facility for treatment at 7 a.m. He knows that just because he made Saturday’s initial 53-man roster doesn’t mean anything is set in stone, especially since Green Bay has kept eight receivers. He’s not in the clear just yet. That feeling becomes more acute when, a half-hour into Kumerow’s treatment, a Packers staffer calls him out of the training room and leads him to general manager Brian Gutekunst’s office.

Gutekunst tells Kumerow that he’s earned his roster spot, but the team can’t carry him on the active roster right now because his injury is going to keep him out for a few more weeks. He’s going to be placed on injured reserve.

He’ll rehab his shoulder and is eligible to return to practice in six weeks. (His Fortnite partner, Tonyan, made the roster as a fourth tight end.) Because the team waited until Monday to move Kumerow onto IR, he is eligible for the active roster after eight weeks if Green Bay decides to use one of its two IR-return moves on him. It’s not ideal, but Kumerow is relieved he’ll be staying in Green Bay, at least for now. He’ll have to be patient—but after three years of disappointment, he can wait another eight weeks.

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