JACKSON TWP.  Teamwork has gotten Hayden Junker to where he is athletically. It’s only fitting that the Jackson senior tight end and defensive lineman is relying on teamwork to make one of the biggest decisions of his life.

Junker, who is well into offseason work with his Jackson teammates in conditioning and camp work, is also progressing toward a decision on where to play college football and has a pair of Division I offers in his pocket already. They’re two drastically different paths and picking one or the other will determine the path not just for the next four years of his life, but beyond.

One, Kent State, would mean playing close to home at a typical Division I school. There would be classes, dorms and all the activities available to a normal college student. The second, Army, would be a different route entirely. Should he choose Army, Junker would be committing to not only the early rising, highly organized setting and strict life of a cadet at West Point, but also to the mandatory five years of military service that follow graduation. Graduates are commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and serve for five years on active duty. If they choose to depart the Army after those five years, they are required to serve three years on Inactive Ready Reserve, meaning that accepting the offer to play at West Point means eight years in the Army in some sense after graduation.

"It really is true blessing … because of military aspect, I have to be aware of the extra work and everything that would go into that," Junker said of Army. "But I’m excited about that and with Kent State excited as well."

The good news in making the decision - which Junker hopes to make sooner rather than later - is that he has plenty of good resources at his disposal. He knows, either directly or indirectly, several people who have attended West Point or the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. One friend, Franklin Shew, has a twin brother who attends the Naval Academy, while a neighbor went to West Point. Junker plans to speak to Griffin Baumel, the brother of teammate Nate Baumel, who attended Canton Central Catholic and now plays for Navy.

"I’m definitely doing a lot of talking with my coaches, my parents, my grandpa and other key contributors to my football career," Junker said. "I’m also doing a lot of thinking with myself and being religious, I’m also praying about it."

The offers from Army and Kent State come with a dose of good news, but they also come with a ticking clock. Many high school seniors have already made their college choice and while signing day won’t come around for a few months, offers are being verbally accepted and recruiting classes are filling up.

Junker is also aware of the fact that those offers come from coaches whose success and ultimately, their job security, come from getting the best players possible and turning them into even better players once they reach campus. Because of that fact, along with knowing that the stress of the recruiting process can weigh on a young athlete, he doesn’t want to drag things out too long.

"I was always talking to my parents, knowing when I get an offer, I can’t wait a year to decide," Junker said. "I respect the fact that coaches are recruiting other players, but for myself, I want to wait it out so you can have as much time as possible, although everyone has said it is nice to have decision made before your senior year so you can go focus on your senior year for your high school team."

Regardless of which offer he chooses, it will serve as validation for all the hard work he’s put in and also, of the efforts of those who have been a part of his journey along the way. Whether it’s his parents, coaches at the varsity, junior varsity or youth levels, his grandfather, brother Carson or former teammates such as Nick Shatrich and Ethan Kulich, Junker mentions them often when talking about both where he is now and what comes next.

He frequently notes that assistant coach Jay Rohr shows up at 5 a.m. to help him work on his strength and conditioning, which could come in handy not just with fitness, but should he choose West Point and have consistently early starts to his days.

"It’s definitely very exciting receiving these offers and it’s showing all of the hard work is finally paying off," Junker said. "I’m thankful for everyone who has gotten me to this point, whether it’s coach Rohr showing up at 5:15 in the morning for running, my grandpa who’s an ex-football coach .. so many people helped me out with a lot of it and I wouldn’t be here without them."

Following in his father’s footsteps as a Division I athlete is also appealing, as Dan Junker played volleyball at Penn State. Seeing his son earn a chance to compete at the college level should be a thrill in its own right and along the rest of Hayden Junker’s team off the field, it’s a group effort that is nearing its conclusion. Once it does, the focus will be entirely on helping his Jackson teammates through what they’d like to be a third straight playoff season and a successful defense of their share of last season’s Federal League title.

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or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com
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