A Different Road to Amherst
I can't say for sure, but Jeff Katz is probably the only Division III football player who has his own baseball cards. I don't mean he has his own collection—I mean you can actually buy Jeff Katz baseball cards.
And I can't say for sure, but Katz is probably the only Division III football player who owns a log cabin in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He loves the outdoors, and for one week each year he invites his family to relax with him in what he calls his bachelor pad.
That's how it is with Katz, a 24-year old senior linebacker on the Amherst College football team. He's unlike any student the program has ever seen. He's a 6-foot, 4-inch, 248-pound beast with a no-way-in-hell-I'm-messing-with-that-guy type of body and an unparalleled determination. He's the only Amherst player to wear a suit on Fridays, and he looks like a man among boys on Saturdays.
Most kids who wind up putting on the pads for Amherst are faced with the same debate as they approach the end of high school: Amherst or Williams? Katz's debate didn't involve the NESCAC. It didn't even involve football. At Cheshire High School in his hometown of Cheshire, Conn., he excelled as a two-sport athlete. Football has always been his true passion, but he shined brighter on the diamond as an All-State power pitcher. He knew he was going to play baseball after high school—he just had to decide between Boston College and the Atlanta Braves.
At the age of 18 Katz was drafted by the Braves in the ninth round of the 2004 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft (281st overall). He was good enough to be drafted earlier, but he rejected teams that didn't agree to pay for his education. He knew he would go back to school some day.
In addition to a six-figure signing bonus, the Braves offered Katz $160,000 toward college. "I wouldn't have accepted without it," he says. "High school draft picks usually aren't academically sound, so I think they assumed I wouldn't wind up needing that money." He pauses briefly and offers a proud smile. "But they're reminded every semester when I send them a bill."
Katz played three seasons of rookie ball for the Braves—two in the Gulf Coast League and one in the Appalachian League. In 2005 he hurt his shoulder, and his fastball was never the same after that. He was forced to "learn how to pitch" rather than rely on his power. "It was hard at first, but I matured as I got through that injury. I learned to put bad things behind me quickly."
The 2006 season was Katz's last in baseball, but his
athletics career was far from over. Ready to spend the
Braves' money, he enrolled at Lafayette College for the 2007
spring semester and returned to football. He appeared in 16 games
as a defensive end in his two years with the Division I-AA
Leopards, earning a spot on the school's Dean's List
and the Patriot League's Academic Honor Roll.
When Katz wanted to transfer, he looked only at Amherst. "I kept things pretty quiet," he says. "My coaches weren't very happy with me, but I felt Amherst would give me the best possible academic opportunity."
In December of 2008 Katz visited Amherst and met with head coach E.J. Mills, who assumed he was about to meet another "Rudy" who wanted to try out for the team. Mills changed from a skeptic to a believer in a heartbeat when he saw Katz stroll in. "He passed the eye test," Mills recalls. One month later Katz was enrolled at Amherst for the 2009 spring semester.
Amherst associate dean of admission Cate Zolkos remembers meeting Katz. "Jeff immediately impressed me as someone who was seeking an environment in which he would be challenged both intellectually and athletically. While Jeff's focus and intensity were evident, he also conveyed a sense of quiet humility and self awareness. He understood that Amherst could provide him countless opportunities for growth."
Katz has indeed been challenged at Amherst, but he has responded brilliantly. He admits the schoolwork has been more difficult than what he was used to, but he boasts a 3.75 GPA in political science, his major (3.55 overall). Last year was his first playing linebacker, but he adjusted to the new position and earned All-NESCAC honors as one of the conference's best defensive players.
Several coaches praise Katz's ability to analyze his own mistakes. "I'll do better today," he'll often say before practices. "I look back at the end of each day and see what I did wrong, and I try to fix whatever that is. My dad taught me that the sooner you fix something, the sooner you can put it behind you." (His dad also played professional baseball.)
Katz's teammates look up to him as a role model. "Jeff is cancerous in a very good way," says Sam Clark '13, who starts at outside linebacker with Katz. "He's one of the most motivated kids we have. He gives everything his all, whether he's writing a 20-page paper or working out in the gym."
"Jeff gives our younger guys confidence when he's on the field," adds defensive line coach Eddy Augustin. "When they look over their shoulders and see Jeff, they know they're going to be alright."
Katz says football has made him who he is today. He loves the family-like camaraderie and is quick to mention last year's win over Williams when asked about his fondest memories as an athlete. But his football playing days will likely be limited to the Fantasy version after this year. "It's gonna suck when football is over," he says bluntly. "After games I find myself saying, 'Wow, that ended quickly.' They seem like they're done in 20 minutes."
Still, Katz is ready to move on. "I'll be happy to graduate because I'll be a 25-year old senior," he says with a chuckle. "It's time to get a job." He has already earned his Series 7 license and will probably work in finance. Some day he might want to work in the front office of a baseball team.
The road Katz has paved to Amherst might never be walked again. It wasn't the easiest or most direct route to an Amherst education, but next May, when he sends that final bill to the Braves, he'll know it was well worth the journey.