Everyone who went to college remembers the feeling of that first day on campus. Most likely leaving home for the first time, the new college student enters an unknown environment with new faces and places to discover.
Although, that new student is not alone — hundreds or even thousands of other people experience this new beginning during the same time span. Bonds and friendships can be formed through both the good and bad.
But what about the transition for someone who starts his or her journey in the spring semester? Jake Flath, a 17-year-old offensive lineman from Lakeland, Florida, now treks Mercer’s campus after graduating high school a semester early.
After earning Second Team All-State and First Team All-County as a senior offensive tackle at Lakeland High School, Flath finished his high school career in December and joined the Mercer football team at the start of the second semester.
But what is it like as the youngest athlete on campus, one just trying to find level ground during his first few weeks?
Question: What was your main decision behind coming to Mercer early?
Answer: Well, my dad was actually a coach at Lakeland until my 10th-grade year. He left at the beginning of my 10th-grade year. So, he knew all the principles and guidance counselors, and one of the guidance counselors one day at the beginning of my junior year told him, “Hey, look, your son can graduate high school early. All he’s got to do is get a credit for English, like a whole credit.” … I had three English credits, and I had all of the other requirements done, so she said, “Look, all you have to do is get this one English credit, and you have to do it in a semester.” So, what I did was take an online course, and I got the whole class done before the end of the first semester in high school. So I had all that done, and I had all my other credits done by the end of my senior year. What would have happened if I stayed in high school is I’d have to have five P.E. classes, a study hall class — which I wouldn’t have done anything in because I finished that online course — and an intern class, which was really no work at all either. I would have been able to participate in all the fun senior year events and stuff that they have, but I would have basically wasted a whole semester of schooling for nothing — just for a few small events. The time came that I needed to pick the college I was going to, and I said, “Well, I like Mercer.” So, I committed to Mercer, and they got it all set up and ready for me.
Q: What has the transition been like for you so far coming in during the middle of the year as a 17 year old? Obviously, you wouldn’t know what it’s like coming in as a freshman in the fall, but do you feel like it’s a little bit different?
A: It’s definitely been a little bit of a shock. There’s another kid on the football team who graduated early from high school and came early; his name is Zac Rice. What he’s told me is, basically, “Play it out.” All these freshman coming into the fall semester, they’ve all got each other and they know each other because they all come in at once, and it’s their bonding time. For me, you don’t get many people that are coming in together. It’s more, a lot of international students and transfer students. Generally, football players are going to hang out with football players, and I had two football kids come in with me this semester who are mid-year transfers. One is a junior who came in from another school, so he kind of runs with a different crowd, and I don’t see him much. One is a kid named Charlie (Davidson), who went to Navy Prep for his first semester, so technically, he’s already a year ahead of me already. But, I have frequent contact with him and we’re friends, but he still runs with a different crowd, too. It’s kind of hard because you have to find your niche in college, because me personally, I’m not a partier. I don’t drink and smoke; I just don’t believe in it. I’ve found a lot of people that, that’s what they do. And so I’m starting to find my niche a little bit and finding some kids who don’t do that stuff and spend their time doing other things. I’m not judging anyone; I just need to find my niche. It’s been hard, but I think I’m starting to fit in and find people I like and do the same things and are interested in the same things as I am.
Q: How has going from high school workouts to college off-season workouts been going for you?
A: I come from a high school where, we have a little saying. It’s: “Where winning is a tradition.” So, our coach is a very, very good, esteemed coach. He’s won like six state championships and two national championships, so it’s not easy at our high school. Some high schools, they just want to take it easy. We’ve really pushed ourselves. It’s definitely harder here (at Mercer); it’s college. But it’s not as much of a shock as a lot of kids who come in doing the minimum requirement for lifting and running and stuff to doing max of what you’re going to do probably for the rest of your life. I would probably say I was definitely closer to the amount of time and effort that we’re putting in here; I was a lot closer in high school than a lot of these kids. The transition between working out and running and doing all the physical conditioning stuff and team requirements has been a little bit easier for me.
Q: Have you been able to come upon a mentor yet since you’ve been here? I know you said Zac Rice was also in the same position as you. Has he helped you out a little bit?
A: Yeah, yeah. He introduced me to a guy who has a car, and he goes to church, and so last weekend (Jan. 16-17), I was kind of alone in my room for most of the time, but I got invited to church, so I went to church (Sunday) morning. Then, Zac Rice’s friend was having a Sunday football watch party at his house, so they invited me there. Mentor-wise for athletics and just having a friend outside of the class, there’s really not anyone yet. That takes time to develop that relationship. So not really anyone of the mentor status yet, but Zac and — the kid’s name is John Mitchell; he’s also a football player — hopefully I’m going to be able to engage in a friendship with them and hopefully that friendship can branch out as I meet people who are like them and are like me, and hopefully those friendships can start to develop in places like that. It’s hard to find a mentor in football that’s not your coach. Coaches reign supreme, and those guys are typically your mentors no matter what you do.
Q: Academics must be a pretty big part of your life, maybe just as big as your football game?
A: I want to be a coach, so football is going to be pretty high up there. The way a lot of coaches go, a lot of times when you play at a higher level, you learn more, and that gives you the ability to coach at a high level. Now, obviously that’s not true for everyone, but a lot of coaches these days have Master’s degrees. That’s just what it is; a lot of coaches have higher education degrees, and a lot of them are really, really, smart guys who know the game. If I want to keep playing this game, keep my scholarship and keep playing college football, I’m going to have to keep my academics up. I’m not super passionate about school. I think it’s very important to obtain that knowledge and to get a degree; I think it’s extremely important. My parents have always emphasized it. It is what it is. It’s a part of my life. I’ve embraced it; I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ve learned to try my best. Some people just get by lowballing the system and trying to scrape past the bare minimum, but I want to excel. I don’t want to be seen as one of those kids who are, “Oh, man, that kid, he’s just hanging on to that 2.3 (GPA) so he can keep playing ball.” I love ball, and ball is a big part of my life. But ball is not everything. Ball, I was blessed with the talents and opportunities to play ball, and that’s going to be my job. But my academics are certainly a huge part of what’s gotten me to where I am. A lot of schools, they see that you don’t have the right scores or good grades, or you haven’t maintained good grades, and they don’t even look at you. I’ve had people tell me in the recruiting process that one of the biggest things that caught their eyes was that I had a 29 ACT and a 4.2 GPA. That’s just what it is. I’m talented, and God’s blessed me with the talents and gifts that I have, but I’ve also worked really hard to maintain what I have.
Q: How has the coaching staff been so far, and how do you feel like they’ve helped you get comfortable?
A: Oh, yeah, that’s huge. The first thing I looked at when I went to colleges, it wasn’t how big it was, it wasn’t how big the college was or how successful they were or if they had the best stuff or anything that. It was: Do I like this coach? Can I work with this coach for four years? Is he a good man? Does the program treat his family well? Does he treat the program well? Those were my biggest questions coming in. I love the whole coaching staff here, and they’ve been extremely helpful. I had a rough little situation in the first week that I was here. I thought things were going to be certain ways, and they weren’t. And the coaches helped me, and they got things straight… It’s hard to be an athlete and have to room with a kid, just a random kid who’s up until hours of the night while you’re trying to sleep. And then you get up in the morning, and you have to be as quiet as you can because the kid’s asleep; he’s going to be sleeping in until nine or 10. So that was frustrating. And the kid was a little sloppy — a little messy. So, that was a big frustration for me. I’ve voiced my grievances, and they were totally great about it. And they said, “Look, Dude, we understand. We’re going to try as fast as we can to get you out of that room and in with another football player so you guys keep the same schedule, keep the same times and keep each other accountable . . . They’ve helped me through all my grievances and stuff I’ve had.