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‘Extreme Love for Game’ Kept Dolegala’s NFL Dreams Alive

New Green Bay Packers quarterback Jake Dolegala could barely throw a football 10 yards for several months after an injury ruined his senior year of high school.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jake Dolegala had college scholarship offers and NFL aspirations. Then, during the third game of his senior year at St. Francis High School in the Buffalo suburb of Hamburg, N.Y., the strong-armed quarterback’s dreams suffered a crushing setback.

On the third drive of the game, one of Dolegala’s passes was tipped and intercepted. He tried to make the tackle but “completely whiffed on the guy.” That was the least of his problems. He had torn his labrum.

“I’m laying there and my shoulder’s just kind of hanging,” Dolegala, signed last month by the Green Bay Packers, recalled recently.

“When it happened, my athletic trainer was like, ‘Jake, you’re done,’” he continued. “I ended up getting surgery a little less than a month after that. I couldn’t throw a football more than 10 yards for four or five months.”

Needless to say, those scholarship offers evaporated faster than water in the desert.

“They all wanted to see my first three games,” he said. “My first two games, I had done great. That third game was the last one they needed to see and they were going to solidify some of those scholarships. Basically, when that happened, they all went by the wayside.”

It was a crushing blow for Dolegala, who hoped to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Al Bemiller, a nine-year starter for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s.

“My dreams were to play in the NFL one day,” he said. “When some doctors are saying, ‘He’ll never throw a football again,’ it was depressing. I was in a funk for a good while. But I had a really good support system in my family and a couple coaches back home. They were like, ‘Jake, if you really think you can do this, let’s get after it.’ That’s exactly what I did.”

He had surgery in October 2013 and diligently rehabbed. Ever so slowly, his calling-card arm strength returned. With his high school career over but no collegiate prospects, Dolegala enrolled at Milford Academy, a prep school in New Berlin, N.Y., in hopes of impressing recruiters. With a $20,000 tuition, it was an expensive roll of the dice.

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Dolegala took over at quarterback and, playing through some lingering pain, got back on the recruiting radar. However, schools like Iowa and Temple were scared off by the injury. So, he took his only offer – Central Connecticut, an FCS-level school. A full-time starter for the final three seasons, he posted four-year totals of 8,129 passing yards and 48 touchdowns. Plus, at his current height and weight of 6-foot-7 and 242 pounds, he bullied his way for 18 rushing touchdowns.

His size, arm strength and production put him on NFL radars. He went undrafted in 2019 but signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.

What gave him the belief when he was met with one closed door after another following the injury?

“Obviously, there’s an extreme love for the game and then there’s just the competitive side of it,” he said. “I hate losing. When people tell me ‘No,’ I want to go out there and prove them wrong. That’s just something that’s been instilled in me forever, growing up, playing everything. That was the biggest thing. People told me I couldn’t do it so I was like, ‘Screw you.’

With the Bengals, his quarterbacks coach was the former Packers assistant Alex Van Pelt, a favorite of Aaron Rodgers. “AVP’s the man,” Dolegala said. He absorbed every bit of Van Pelt’s experience as a player and coach and compiled a 100.1 passer rating during the preseason, fifth-best in the NFL. That was enough to give Dolegala a spot on the Bengals’ 53-man roster.

“It was a shock,” he said. “AVP was the one who actually called me. He’s like, ‘Hey, Jake, we’re going to have to find you a place to stay.’ I’m like, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Well, you made the squad, dude.’ I was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ I started jumping in my hotel room. Oh, man, was I excited. It was awesome. I called my parents and they were on the way with my older brother and his fiancée to my little brother’s game. I FaceTimed them and, I swear to God, I don’t know how they stayed on the road, they were just so damned excited. It was cool.”

Dolegala spent his entire rookie season on the Bengals’ roster. But Cincinnati used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft on Jake Burrow. That cost Dolegala his place on the team, and he wound up spending most of last season on New England’s practice squad. In 2021, he auditioned with the Atlanta Falcons at their rookie camp but was not signed. The Packers brought him in for a tryout before their minicamp, then asked him to stick around for the three-day event.

Dolegala did enough to get signed as the fifth quarterback. He’s spent the past month studying a playbook that the other unproven and unheralded young quarterback, Kurt Benkert, had been learning and operating since mid-May and amid an uncertain future that could be tied to whatever decision Aaron Rodgers makes about his place on the team.

Of course, Dolegala knew all of that before coming to Green Bay. His goal is put that physical therapist career on hold a little longer.

“That’s the goal,” he said of making the roster. “I’m going to do whatever I can for the team but that’s the goal.”