Sullivan: As Bills search for a new punter, Jake Schum keeps on kicking
Two Mondays ago, on the second day of football practice, Frontier High head coach Mark Privateer got out of his car and began walking toward the field. He quickly noticed that someone was rocketing punts into the summer sky.
“I was completely shielded by the visitor bleachers,” Privateer said, “and I see these bombs getting hit. I’m going ‘My god, I’m the greatest coach in the world. One day and these kids are doing this.’ Then I walk out and, ‘Ah, it’s Jake!’ It figures.”
Of course, it was Jake Schum, still punting footballs, chasing the dream that has consumed him for two decades. He’s still at it, waiting for another chance, nearly six years after launching his last NFL punt for the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game in January of 2017.
Privateer saw the desire in Schum when he was a freshman at Frontier, engaging him in punting contests at practice. Schum told him he would play in the NFL one day. He told a lot of people, even when he didn’t get any Division I offers after high school. Most people thought he was nuts.
“I’ve had a lot of people give me the deer in the headlights look,” Schum said Tuesday morning at his gym in Lake View. “I’ve had a lot of support, from family and friends close to me who know me and know my drive. People who don’t saw it as a long shot.”
Schum never saw himself as a long shot. He never let the dream die. His parents, Al and Charlene, were behind him all the way. He played a year at Buffalo State, where he was their top special teamer as a freshman. But he had bigger dreams. He quit the Bengals after one year and walked on at UB, where he played a year as a receiver on the scout team and became the punter his second year.
He went undrafted in 2012, then began an odyssey of tryouts and rejections. Schum has been cut seven times by NFL teams. He knows what all those NFL players went through this week. But he finally won a job and punted for 16 games with Tampa Bay in 2015, then punted for the Packers in 2016.
Schum punted well enough down the stretch and the playoffs that season to get a one-year extension from the Packers. He had the lowest percentage of punts returned of any punter in the NFL in 2016. But he injured his back and, to his dismay, was released in the spring of 2017.
“It was an L4-L5 herniated disk,” Schum recalled. “I didn’t get surgery. I rehabbed naturally, thought that would look great. But they let my contract expire. I was hoping I’d be able to land somewhere else. That’s the big question, why no other team ever picked me up.”
Six years later, he’s still waiting. Schum has worked out for the Falcons and Jaguars during the intervening years. He punted for the Tampa Bay Vipers of the XFL in 2020, but that league suspended operations after five games because of the pandemic in April of 2020.
He punts four days a week at Frontier’s new turf field, while training about 20 young athletes and keeping his own body in top shape at the gym he had built next to his house on Dover Road in the hamlet of Lake View in his native Hamburg. He’s ready as ever for the next call.
“There’s been some frustration,” Schum said. “It’s a lot of patience. I’ve always told myself I’d keep going as long as I felt I could compete and my leg was swinging really good.
“I feel like I’m punting the best I ever have and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Everything’s going up, so I feel I can’t stop.”
At 33, he’s as confident as ever in his ability. He’s always felt it was his time. That’s what motivated him to punt all by himself on the old field at UB back in the day, hoping someone would notice, waiting for that big opportunity.
Imagine his reaction when the Bills cut their rookie punter, Matt Araiza, after the news that Araiza had been accused of rape as a senior at San Diego State. Not two weeks before the season opener, his hometown team was desperate for a new punter.
Schum said his agent has been in touch with the Bills. But as Wednesday morning, they had not contacted him about a tryout.
“I feel like they know me,” Schum said with a laugh. “I would hope they’d give me a tryout. I know they’re probably taking their time. I hope they have another punters workout. They just had one Sunday, but they didn’t sign anyone.”
Privateer said signing a local punter with NFL experience would be a nice way for the Bills to move on from the Araiza situation, and to remove some of the bad taste from the mouths of Buffalo fans. Schum’s father, Al, also saw it as a prime opportunity.
“When we heard the Bills had this dilemma with their rookie punter, of course everybody casts their eyes to the possibility of at least a tryout,” said Al Schum, a retired Hamburg policeman. “That’s all he asks for. It doesn’t cost a cent to bring him in. He lives 15 minutes from the stadium. We know they’d be pleasantly surprised with what they would see in Jake.
“He’s got great hands. And he’s used to the pressure. He’s a cold-weather punter. He kicks when it’s snowy out. He kicks when it’s windy out. Anybody can punt in nice weather. Anybody can punt inside a dome. But he likes to sharpen his skill by going outside. He’s smarter. He’s definitely much stronger, and he’s just waiting for an opportunity to show.”
Jake was a huge Bills fan as a kid. He remembers watching his father’s VHS tapes of the Bills’ four Super Bowl teams over and over. He had his pro day in the Bills’ field house after his two years as UB’s punter, and has worked out in that field house many times over the years.
“I thought it would be so cool to have a homecoming, to play for the hometown team,” he said. “I always tried to see myself in that Bills uniform. It would make that story full circle. That would complete my story in my heart. Obviously, I would play anywhere. It would be different to be able to play in Buffalo.”
Meanwhile, he kicks and trains and waits. As of 10:15 Wednesday morning, there was no word from the Bills. There were rumblings earlier in the day that Brett Kern, a former Pro Bowler and Grand Island native, wouldn’t be coming to Buffalo.
“It’s been full-time between the training and punting,” Schum said. He said he kicks four times a week, getting off around 250 kicks in all. “I’ll kick a rack, walk or run down, go get ‘em. Sometimes there might be some kids out there. They’ll say, ‘Hey, can we try to catch some?’ It’s nice to interact with the local kids. So many people know me because I’m there four times a week.
“It’s a very lonely job. I spend a lot of time by myself. But it has to be done. I’m not satisfied with how it ended. I feel I have so much more to prove. I’m 33, still young in punter years. As long as you can kick, you can kick. I feel one of the best parts for me is I can still go in as a fourth-year, minimum-salary guy. So, I feel like I’m a bargain, with my experience and everything else.”
Schum said he couldn’t bear to watch NFL games for a year after the Packers released him. He follows the games now and admits there are times when he watches an NFL punter — maybe last year during Bills games — and says, ‘I’m better than that guy.’
“Yeah, it’s been a lot of years I’ve been saying that,” Schum said with a laugh. “That’s been the frustrating part. I’ve always felt like I could have been the guy. If I feel I’m not there anymore, I’ll hang it up. But I know there’s so much more left, with how I take care of myself now and how I am kicking the ball.”
He empathizes with all those football players who got released from NFL camps this week, having their dreams dashed. But he also knows what it’s like to keep the dream alive, to keep pushing for that one chance. He got it in 2015, after being cut five times, and believes it’ll come again.
“It’s luck, it’s skill, it’s mental toughness,” Schum said. “That’s what I’m hoping for right now, that luck, whether it’s for the Bills or any other team. Just give me that opportunity. Because once I’m in, I’m not coming out.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.