Wednesday, October 28, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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No Ordinary Joe -- UW's Little Big Man On Campus Captures Hearts Of Husky Fans

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

It's lunchtime and the joint is jammed like a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage. The student union at Washington isn't called the HUB for nothing. It is the center of a swirling universe of dog-eared books, backpacked students and miked professors.

As Joe Jarzynka navigates this crowd, he cradles a footlong sandwich and keeps watch for an open table. A female student tries to catch his eye. Someone nods in acknowledgement. The conversations are hurried, superficial.

Football doesn't seem to be on anyone's mind. Here, Jarzynka doesn't inspire such thoughts. Here, he is just your average Joe, clad in the uniform of the incognito - a knockoff of a knockoff long-sleeved pullover with a stripe across the chest and khakis a little baggier than Mom would prefer. He is 5 feet 7, 175 pounds, with intense eyes narrowly straddling an aquiline nose. Not everyone notices the steel stud on his pierced tongue. He has, as Sue Jarzynka suggests, kind of a beach-bum aura about him. He's got some Sean Penn going on.

Make no mistake, Joe Jarzynka stands out. Just not in a crowd. Not this one anyway.

His is the kind of crowd that tends to congregate as he peers into the heavens at an airborne football. Once in a while, last Saturday being the latest occasion, Jarzynka will sense he's about to be plastered into a previous lifetime. Still, he won't take his eyes off the ball and he absolutely, positively will not thrust up an arm to call a fair catch.

This kind of chutzpah marks Joe Jarzynka, but only in an artificial sort of way. Although he plays the heck out of football for the Huskies, the sport for him has only been a more exciting than usual way to kill time. Some days, he isn't sure that he'd rather be playing soccer, fly fishing or strumming tunes on a guitar for which the lyrics never come.

"I'm more than just a football player," Jarzynka says.

Even as a football player, he's more. Joe knows punt returns. He knows kickoff returns. Joe knows wide receiver. Joe knows kicking. In three possibility-expanding weeks, Jarzynka has kicked life into a flagging season during a rout of Utah State, broken a longstanding Pac-10 record for return yards against California and kicked two 35-yard conversions and converted a fake field goal in a tougher-than-expected 35-34 victory over Oregon State. In tribute, Washington's student newspaper, The Daily, held a contest to give him a nickname and now dubs Jarzynka "Mo' Joe."

What has captured the imagination of a region is that Mo' has come from less. Scotty Glenn, longtime Husky fan, was at ground zero of this mushrooming legend. At the Huskies' 1996 spring game, he spied a smallish kid with flowing blond locks and a propensity for making big plays.

"Who is this guy?" Glenn wondered.

Jarzynka, he learned, was a red-shirt freshman from Gig Harbor. Moreover, he was an invited walk-on. Glenn kept watch of his discovery from his longtime perch on the north deck of Husky Stadium. Before the last game of the 1996 season, Glenn initiated the Joe Jarzynka Fan Club, leading cheers such as, "Joe, Joe, he's our guy . . . give him the ball and he will fly." Glenn also distributed handbills urging fans to "be an early believer."

Actually, Joe Jarzynka was the earliest believer. The MVP of the Pierce County League as a receiver and returner his senior year, he could only get the Huskies to encourage him to walk on. His only scholarship offer was from Eastern Washington, but he chose Washington, he says, "because football isn't the only interest in my life." He decided to try a college sport and chose football over soccer, at which he was an all-league forward at Gig Harbor. He then chose offense over defense.

None of those were clear-cut decisions. Jarzynka had always envisioned himself playing football for his father's alma mater, Notre Dame. He knew everything about Notre Dame football, almost nothing about Washington. He didn't even know Husky Coach Jim Lambright.

"One of the first days of practice, I saw an older guy talking to a bunch of players," Jarzynka says, "and figured that was Lambright."

Football has become adept at measuring things that don't always directly translate onto the field, things such as how quickly one runs 40 yards (in a straight line, no less) or where one tips a scale. The sport is much less scientific in more pertinent matters such as heart and creativity. Though Jarzynka had those things to overcome his handicaps - lack of size and lack of blinding speed - coaches still regarded him as someone keeping a spot warm for someone else.

"Joe's the type of guy that, you like him but you're always working to replace him," says Rick Mallory, Washington's special-teams coach. "But he has a great perseverance. I guess he just wore us down."

Jarzynka's evolution to a veritable football medley is a natural progression of things instilled by his parents. Two years ago, he taught himself to play the guitar, as his father did before him. Jarzynka majors in psychology not so much because he wants to become a psychologist (he doesn't) but because the subject matter interests him. Next year, he plans to enroll in a program that will take him backpacking into the rain forests of Ecuador, where he will live with two indigenous tribes.

To play sports, the children of Sue and David Jarzynka also were required to do something arts related, to expand their horizons. Joe played the piano, as did older sister Julie and younger brother Tommy. There also were frequent performances for the theater program at neighboring Siena Heights College in Adrian, Mich., where the Jarzynkas lived until Joe was 13.

Nowadays, when Sue Jarzynka sees her high-stepping, place-kicking, no-fair-catch-calling son on the field, it's clear to her that "he's still on stage." To which Joe says, "I like performing for people. I like it when people say I'm fun to watch. It makes me want to get people to watch me more. It makes me want to give them more to watch."

Of Jarzynka's multiple acts, the one on which fans seem most fixated is his death-defying refusal to call fair catches. He started down that path as a red-shirt freshman when his role was limited to returning kicks. "You don't want to waste an opportunity fair-catching the ball," he says. Jarzynka deviated from that policy last season to try to protect his statistics. Game films revealed that he may have passed up ample returns with the few fair catches. He vowed not to take another the rest of his career.

Jarzynka's no-fair-catches rule is consistent with team philosophy. Fielding kicks helps preserve field position. Moreover, returners are protected by rules requiring the defense to give them a 2-yard cushion to catch the ball. Defenses often become so focused on providing the cushion, they leave an opening. If defenses violate the cushion, it costs them a 15-yard penalty.

"That's like a 15-yard return," Jarzynka reasons. "I'll take it."

Jarzynka took one - and good - last week when an Oregon State defender arrived with the ball and drilled his helmet into Jarzynka's chin. Jarzynka found himself laid out on the turf. He admits he didn't want to get up, and did so only because he didn't want his mother to know he was hurt. He initially had difficulty moving his jaw, but a couple of days later, all that was left were the memories. He'd survived what he considered his worst nightmare as a returner.

"I didn't like it," Jarzynka says. "But I'm glad it happened. I took the worst hit I possibly could take and I came out of it with no broken bones, no contusions, not even a cut. If that's the worst that can happen to me, I can take one of those every so often."

Besides, the payoff can be enormous. Two weeks ago, Jarzynka zigzagged through the Cal defense 91 yards for a touchdown. He immediately headed to the fans in the end zone and shook the fence in front of them in a brazen attempt, he later admitted, to get on SportsCenter. ESPN didn't notice. Jarzynka couldn't do much else but catch his breath, compose himself, then kick the point after.

Matters didn't change much later that night, during a celebratory prowl on the town. Jarzynka's Pac-10 record and status as folk hero already were cemented. DJs working a live remote from Lox Stock in the University District were exhorting women to locate Jarzynka and drag him down to the club. Unaware of this, Jarzynka and some teammates pulled up at Lox Stock about an hour before closing. By then, the place was packed and only stamped, returning patrons were allowed in.

A teammate was incredulous. "You aren't even going to let Joe Jarzynka in?" he asked.

The bouncer considered little Joe, rolled his eyes and came to the conclusion that thousands before him have reached: Who the hell is Joe Jarzynka, and what's he got to do with anything?

It's an assessment Joe Jarzynka understands. Last January, he chopped his shoulder-length hair and thought it might have signified a new seriousness in regard to football. Yet 10 months later he's still showing up to non-pad workouts dressed in old coach's shirts that he fishes out of the equipment room's lost and found.

"I try to let football influence my life as little as possible," he says.

Still unruffled more than a week after the night at Lox Stock, Jarzynka enters an elevator at Husky Stadium. He spies someone approaching and holds the door. The guy is delivering pizza for the weekly media luncheon to which Jarzynka is headed.

When the elevator stops, Jarzynka doesn't move.

"Here," he says. "I'll help."

"That's OK," the guy says.

Joe knows that, but he stoops and picks up a couple of boxes anyway.


A cup of Joe

From fake field goals to a touchdown reception, Joe Jarzynka has done almost everything this season. Here's a game-by-game look at the highlights:

Date Jarzynka's exploits.

Arizona State Returns opening kickoff 41 yards to set up a touchdown. Brigham Young Returns a season-high eight punts. Nebraska Catches first TD pass for UW's only score in 55-7 blowout. Arizona Catches a pass, punt and kickoff. Utah State Kicks two field goals and five PATs, totals 148 all-purpose yds California Returns a punt 91 yards for touchdown. Oregon State Runs 9 yards on fake field goal to set up a touchdown.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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