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Jake Funk's resolve helps him continue to defy the odds
No matter what hurdle has been thrown his way, Rams running back Jake Funk has managed to clear it with an unwavering self-confidence.
By Stu Jackson Jun 30, 2021
Photographs By John McGillen and Brevin Townsell / LA Rams

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Jake Funk has never been one to be defined by the odds, always a goal-setter who met those marks no matter the obstacles.

Low-ranked recruit in high school? Didn't stop him from earning a scholarship to play college football at Maryland.

Two ACL injuries in college? Didn't stop him from a breakout game against Minnesota in 2020 and getting drafted.

Funk's football journey has been marked by unwavering self-confidence that has him on the doorstep of realizing what at various points seemed like an improbable dream.

Jake and younger brother Jordan Funk are two years apart and got to play together one year in high school. Jordan played left tackle for Damascus High School as a sophomore during Jake's senior season, when Jake rushed for 2,866 yards and a single-season state record 57 touchdowns on 249 carries.

Even before he had an up-close-and-personal view of Jake's performances, Jordan said Jake's perseverance stood out.

Entering high school and all throughout it, Jake had been told he was too small or too slow, but that didn't stop him from earning team MVP honors after playing junior varsity as a freshman in 2012. While Jake arrived at Damascus around "5-foot-5, 5-foot-6" and 140 pounds, he eventually developed into a 5-10, 198-pound running back by his senior season.

As that physical maturation progressed, he moved into a starting role as a sophomore, then broke out with 237 carries for 1,832 yards and 35 touchdowns for a 13-1 Damascus team that was Class 3A state runner-up as a junior. Jake capped off his career with that senior senior season which helped lead the Hornets to a 3A state championship and perfect 14-0 record in 2015. Jake scored a record seven touchdowns in the state championship, adding 270 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, recruiting websites rated him as a two- or three-star prospect. His positions on each profile ranged from running back (ESPN) to safety (247Sports) to athlete (Rivals) since he also played defense for the Hornets. Similarly, not every college viewed him as a running back at the next level.

"Everybody said that they'd have to take a chance on me to play me at running back," Jake told in May. "I've been called a fullback, I've been called a strong safety, I've been called a linebacker, for obvious reasons."

Jake would volunteer to play on Damascus' special teams because he viewed himself as a football player and wanted to be on the field, according to his father Jim Funk. Still, it had been reinforced to Jake multiple times that he was capable of playing running back.

"He had some people along the way who talked to him – extra coaches and things that he was doing with and working out with – and tell him, 'you are a running back,'" Jim said in a phone interview this month. "And he always seemed to be natural at that position. I mean, even from a young age, he seemed to have the vision, seemed to be able to see the field really well, had the speed."

The recruiting process took a sour turn in the spring of his junior year, when a former Maryland coaching staff member and area recruiter told Jake he wasn't a Big Ten running back, nor was there enough tape of him playing safety to extend a scholarship offer.

Jake initially wrote off Maryland after that, determined to prove he was worthy of a Power Five scholarship offer. While offers from the service academies and Ivy League schools would come in, he visited other Power Five programs across the country in search of offers, but those trips didn't materialize the way he hoped.

Current Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, who at the time was the school's offensive coordinator, visited midway through Jake's senior year. Locksley was up front with Jake and explained that he wanted to offer Jake as a running back, as the offensive staff was impressed with his improvement between his junior and senior year, but couldn't get then-head coach Randy Edsall to sign off on it.

Edsall was eventually let go, with Locksley installed as interim head coach. Two days after being hired, Locksley offered Jake and sent Maryland's running backs coach out to one of Jake's practices.

"Jake was not being heavily recruited at the time, but with me knowing this area so well, (and) the numbers that he was putting up that year, I just thought, 'there's no way you don't offer the leading rusher, the guy that's rushed for 57 touchdowns, playing that level of football in the state of Maryland, the chance to come play (here),'" Locksley, a Washington, D.C., native, told last week.

Later that same week, Jake committed to Maryland.

"Once Maryland took their shot on him, we kind of knew, this is where he's going to go and he's going to make something of it," Jordan said.

Indeed, Jake would, though it took some time for him to get a chance.

He appeared in all 25 possible games across his freshman and sophomore seasons, but since he shared a backfield with a pair of future NFL running backs in Trey Edmunds and Ty Johnson, he was primarily a special teams contributor.

Johnson was still on the roster in 2018, but a boost of confidence from spring practices in early 2018 had Funk feeling good about what his junior season had in store.

"Was really going into the season thinking I was going to contribute a lot more," Funk said. "And then two years of injuries hit."

First came a broken hand in practice the week after their Sept. 1 season-opener against Texas at FedEx Field. That injury healed in time for Funk to face Indiana on Nov. 10, only for him to tear his ACL against Ohio State one week later.

Funk said in the Ohio State game, he was running downfield on a kickoff when he felt his knee buckle on him. It wasn't very painful – in fact, he was able to jog off the field – but something didn't feel right while running and cutting on the sideline, even with a brace on. He removed himself from the game instead of attempting to play, and an MRI later confirmed a torn ACL.

"Stay positive, stay focused," was the focus of the conversations after the injury between Jake and his parents, according to his mother, Alisa Funk.

"It's a setback, but keeping forging forward," she told him.

The family was there to support him, whether it was his parents taking him to doctor's appointments, or his half-brother Josh Funk, who owns his own physical therapy practice – Rehab 2 Perform – in the DMV area and worked with Jake and Maryland's athletic training staff to get him healthy in six months and ready for the 2019 season – Locksley's first as head coach after spending the 2016-18 seasons on Alabama's staff.

By this point, Jake had dealt with two years of position battles in addition to those injuries, but Locksley dissuaded him from considering the transfer portal, convincing Jake there was a role for him.

However, in the third game of that 2019 redshirt junior season, he tore his ACL again in the same knee. Another pop in his knee, but "less than the time before," he said.

While it didn't feel as bad as the first time, Jake said something still felt off. Testing and feedback from athletic trainers indicated the ACL was still intact, but an MRI later revealed Jake had partially torn it, forcing him to make a critical decision.

"If you could play on this, we could put a brace on it, you can play the rest of the season," Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, the Baltimore Ravens' head orthopedic surgeon who fixed Funk's first ACL injury and would be doing it again, told him. "But if you have any aspirations to play at the next level, your knee would not pass medical protocols. So you either have to get it done now or get it done later."

So, Jake "bit the bullet," as he described it, and opted to get the surgery done in October. Season over, but it afforded him more time to rehab.

However, one week after surgery, he dealt with a knee infection that required him to be on an IV three times a day plus antibiotics for a month. In the process, he estimated he lost 20-25 pounds – from 205 to "about 180" – though he later got his weight back up.

By the time he recovered from his second ACL injury, the COVID-19 outbreak had shuttered programs' remaining spring practices and their facilities, forcing athletes to train at home. Similar to the first injury, Jake worked with Josh for his rehab, with the two of them collaborating with the Maryland staff. Jake worked with Josh 5-6 days per week, with occasional two-a-day workouts, with a "nice, steady build-up" as the goal, according to Josh.

"Especially if you look at pandemic time, you could almost be like, 'Man, well, you're going to be concerned he's not going to get as many reps on his legs and his knee in particular,'" Josh said. "We did everything we could to make sure that when got to the University of Maryland and was going back into training camp, that there was little to no drop-off and little to no period of time where he needed to acclimate to the physical stress of practice or position-specific drills."

Jake also did his part when not working with Josh, including conducting workouts in a neighbor's "gritty and blue collar" barn with rusty plates, dusty floors and no air conditioning to compensate for Maryland's facilities being closed.

"From rehabs to lifting to football-specific training, came back for the 2020 season a whole new player," Jake said. "Completely changed my body composition, dropped like 5% body fat, was eating healthier at home, just completely different player."

He was in great shape and poised to take on a major role as a redshirt senior, but the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the 2020 season still loomed.

On Aug. 11, the Big Ten postponed fall sports with the possibility of resuming competition in the spring, then reversed its decision a little over a month later and announced plans for to resume the season the weekend of Oct. 23 with strict health protocols in place.

Funk's path to proving himself was back on track, and he made the most of it with 516 rushing yards and three touchdowns in four games, only missing a November game against Indiana after testing positive for COVID-19. That included 221-yard performance against Minnesota after successfully petitioning running backs coach Elijah Brooks for more touches, knowing they were a better offense when he was on the field. He rushed for one touchdown in the game and caught another on three receptions for 22 yards.

"After I watched that game, I saw it all," said Rams Senior Personnel Adviser Taylor Morton, who gave Funk the highest instincts grade of any running back in this year's draft. "I saw him as a runner, in terms of the instincts, the quickness, the speed, the toughness. Being able to catch the football. Everything we grade, I saw in that game."

By the end of the season, Funk finished as the Big Ten leader in yards per carry (8.6), while his 129 rushing yards per game ranked second in the conference.

Still, Funk had a lot to think about. Between the medical redshirt and added year of eligibility provided by the NCAA due to COVID, he had two years of eligibility remaining – essentially at least one more chance to try to boost his draft prospects. He discussed the pros and cons with his family over the Christmas holiday, and came to the decision that declaring was the best move.

"We were like, 'well, what's keeping you?' and his mindset was, 'as long as I get an opportunity, I'll prove my worth and I'll make it,'" Jim Funk said. "He goes, 'I just need someone to give me an opportunity.'"

That someone would be the Rams in the seventh round of this year's draft. Symbolic of that unwavering confidence, he had requested a draft party even though he had initially received a priority free agent grade, so he got to celebrate with several family members and friends at his family's home.

"He came back at one point, and he had said, 'Mom, I want to have a draft party," Alisa Funk said. "And I'm like, 'honey, it's already taken care of. We're working on it.' And it all came together.'"

The celebration also represented validation.

"For me as a parent, telling him all along that the difference between the guys that make it and the guys that don't (is) the hard work you're willing to put in, it was really validation for me," Jim said. "It just validated the lessons that we've tried to teach him over life about hard work, commitment to self, and to believe in yourself and not let anybody knock you off that path when you're committed to that goal."

At Maryland, Locksley said Jake's teammates respected him because of the way he led by example, with a work ethic that displayed a willingness to do anything to anything without ever complaining.

In that regard, Locksley said he has a "tremendous amount of respect" for Funk, knowing his story and how he had to "fight and scrape and scratch for everything he got." Based on that resolve, Locksley is excited to see what Funk's football future holds now that he's healthy.

"I really believe his best football is still ahead," Locksley said.

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