For many college quarterbacks, a serious rotator cuff injury would not only lead to the end of a season but the end of any serious NFL ambitions.
As a 3rd year quarterback at the University of Michigan, a college he was proud to attend as a Michigan-bred athlete who understood their strong football traditions, Jay Riemersma faced such a situation. In the midst of a battle for the starting position (against another future Bill, Todd Collins), he tore his rotator cuff and had to make a life-changing decision.
"I tried to rehab it, thought about surgery and all that kind of stuff, but all the coaches there told me I was too good of an athlete just to be sitting on the sidelines," Riemersma said. "The Wolverines had a need at tight end because we had just graduated an All-American so they said, 'Why don't you try this for the spring? If it doesn't work out, you'll have the surgery, and we'll move you back to quarterback.'"
Riemersma took the suggestion to try playing tight end, and what was at first an athletic experiment turned into a ticket to the NFL.
"I call it divine intervention because I wouldn't have thought of this plan," he said. "But you know what? That rotator cuff injury parlayed into a nine year NFL career, which I was fortunate and blessed to be a part of."
He attributed some of the success of his transition to the fact that he spent so much time at the quarterback position, saying that he better understood how and why plays and routes were designed the way they are. Most of the success, however, he attributed to his work ethic.
"I was always kind of a blue collar guy with a great work ethic that was established by my folks and in our community back home," he said. "Frankly, I didn't have the greatest athletic ability just to show up and play. I had to give the extra effort every time I stepped on the field just to do what I thought was necessary to have a chance to make the team. I knew I had to really, really work hard to have a chance but I had no idea I was going to get drafted."
And in a blue collar town, that work ethic resonated. Riemersma was drafted in the 7th round of the 1996 Draft by the Bills, where he would go on to play for seven of his nine years in the NFL. Buffalonians noticed his work ethic, and he said he was constantly encouraged and motivated by the way fans treated him when he'd see them at games and around town.
"Even though we struggled at times, you could really see – especially if you were a guy that worked hard and was disciplined and showed up every week – that the fan base was phenomenal," he said. "I didn't bounce around a whole lot in my career so I can only say how it relates to the Steelers, and I had the good fortune of playing for two teams that have a great fan base, but I will tell you flat out Bills fans are second to none."
In his second year with the Pittsburgh Steelers after being signed by the team in 2003, he ruptured his Achilles tendon – an injury he would struggle to come back from that would ultimately end his NFL career.
While he fought to recover, he headed home to Zeeland, Michigan to help coach the Zeeland East High School football team. After coaching for a few years, he took a full time position at the Family Research Council, which he describes as a Christian organization that tries to promote life, marriage and traditional family values. He's been there since 2007, overseeing their fundraising components and traveling throughout his region and to Washington D.C., where the Council is based.
In 2009, Riemersma tried to get to Washington D.C. another way when he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2nd congressional district in West Michigan. He lost in the Republican primary by only 600 votes.
"I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and others had encouraged me to take a look at it as well so I kind of got wrapped up in that and decided hey, if there's such a time as this let's give it a shot," he said. "It was heartbreaking but I absolutely believe that the Lord has a plan for you and I'm very satisfied in where I'm at."
He and his wife - who was his high school sweetheart - have three children ages 8 through 13, all just getting into their athletic careers. Though they couldn't appreciate their dad's cool day job while he was playing in the NFL, he's thinking his trip to Buffalo to Lead the Charge at the New York Jets game this Sunday will show them that their dad really once was a professional football player.
"Kirk Cousins is the backup quarterback for the Redskins and he's kind of a local hero here in Zeeland," Riemersma said, already laughing. "A buddy of mine had him come in to speak, and I brought my two boys because they know Kirk and they've followed his career. My son comes home and says to my wife, 'Oh mom, it was so cool! I met a real live NFL player!' She said, 'Well son, you know that your dad played.' He looks at her and goes, 'Yeah, but I mean a real one.'"
Riemersma is excited to return to Buffalo with his family in tow to show his kids where their real NFL dad spent much of his professional football career and made many fond memories.