Slippery Rock's Jake Wickline feels, plays like himself again
Slippery Rock senior linebacker Jake Wickline finally feels like himself again, and that's been bad news for the rest of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
Wickline lost his father, uncle and aunt within seven months during his junior year at Edinboro, a period of time that not only caused personal anguish but also left the Riverside graduate a shell of his former self on the football field.
Since transferring to Slippery Rock and moving home to Beaver Falls -- which caused him to lose his football scholarship -- the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Wickline has re-emerged as the linchpin of what was the nation's top-ranked Division II defense entering the Rock's 48-27 victory Saturday over Lock Haven. He has also grown up quite a bit.
"I finally feel like my feet are on solid ground," Wickline said. "I feel normal again."
Wickline led Edinboro in tackles as a sophomore but did little his junior year. After his dad, a longtime assistant football coach at Western Beaver, Riverside and Geneva College, died, Wickline's focus wavered, so much that he lost his starting spot.
Since making the Slippery Rock team as a walk-on, Wickline has begun to enjoy football again.
"All three of those deaths only motivated me to work harder," said Wickline, a 4,000-yard rusher and all-state safety at Riverside. "They helped me become a better person. They really put everything into perspective and helped me appreciate things a lot more."
Wickline doesn't harbor negative feelings toward Edinboro, which eventually -- and reluctantly -- released him from his scholarship. If anything, he thanks Scotties coach Scott Browning for affording him the chance to move home to look after his mother, Gretchen, and 14-year-old sister, Olivia.
"I needed to be there for my family, and (Edinboro) understood that," Wickline said.
Wickline awoke to his mother's screaming on Aug. 12, 2010. He jumped out of bed, ran downstairs and saw his mom crying over his dad, Mike, who they later learned had died from a heart attack while running on a treadmill. He was 52.
Three months later, Mike's brother, Alan, died at age 54. An autopsy was never performed. Meanwhile, Glenna Dripps, Gretchen's sister, was suffering from a 10-year bout with cancer and was given a few months to live after doctors learned it had spread from her breast to her brain.
"They say when it rains it pours," Wickline said.
Wickline wanted to transfer home immediately, but his mother convinced him to stick it out. A year after accumulating 76 tackles, a visibly shaken Wickline had less than half that, with no sacks, fumbles or interceptions.
The family eventually decided around Thanksgiving that a transfer to Slippery Rock would be best, even though Wickline left Edinboro unsure of whether he would be released from his scholarship and be eligible to play this fall.
Wickline lived at home during the spring semester and spent most of his time picking up Olivia, baby-sitting and cooking dinner, while Gretchen visited her ailing sister in the hospital.
"I remember when my husband first passed, (Jake) said, 'I'm not ready to be an adult.' " Gretchen Wickline said. "I said, 'Well, you were just punted into being an adult. This was something no one expected."
Wickline learned later in the spring that Edinboro would release him from his scholarship. He attended Slippery Rock's spring tryouts, and it wasn't long before the coaching staff noticed the new kid, flying to the ball, delivering punishing hits.
"It was the sort of thing where he basically said, 'I'm not going to tell you what I can do; I'm just going to show you what I can do,' " said Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik. "And believe me, it didn't take long for us to notice."
At home, Wickline developed into a father figure. When Olivia went to her first homecoming dance earlier this fall, Gretchen texted her son a picture. A few years ago, Jake would have made a snide comment. Now he offered praise and constructive criticism.
"He's really grown up quite a bit," his mother said.
Wickline earned a starting spot as Slippery Rock's "Will" linebacker and has wasted little time again making a name for himself on the football field. In eight games, he has 56 tackles -- including eight for a loss -- to go along with a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
"Jake has a knack and an ability to blitz," Mihalik said. "We can bring him from the inside as well as off the edge. He has a great ability to anticipate the play."
The Rock entered yesterday's game allowing 11.29 points and 211.57 yards per game -- both tops in Division II. Slippery Rock also is ranked No. 22 by the American Football Coaches Association of America and held California (Pa.) to more than three touchdowns below its season average during a 17-3 win two weeks ago.
Off the field, the 22-year-old Wickline has a 3.5 GPA and wants to go into education. Just like his parents.
"It's been a total 180 since last year," Wickline said. "Guess you have to walk through the flames, you know• But everybody deals with problems. To me, how you respond is what really matters. In my mind, things couldn't have worked out better."