WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — Shooting docks. That’s where the Fromm family says it got the first indication that their eldest son, Jake, was not an ordinary kid.
“Shooting docks” has nothing to do with guns or actual shooting. It’s a type of fishing. But 4-year-old Jake Fromm mastering this very specialized form of fishing learned from his granddad was one of the earliest times that his loved ones remember turning to each other and saying, “Wow!”
They’ve said that a lot since then.
Shooting docks is essentially fishing underneath docks. The art is in getting your lure as far underneath as possible. That’s where prize crappie reside. And it’s not easy with often less than a foot between the dock and the water. To do it, one cannot merely cast bait in a traditional style from a rod-and-reel. In order to get your jig into the far reaches, one must “shoot it.” That means to grab the lure between one’s fingers, pulling it back with one hand to the point that the rod bends significantly, and letting go of the jig and the line at the same time to catapult the bait underneath the dock.
As one might imagine, it takes considerable hand-eye coordination, not to mention some intellect, to master. But young Jake had it licked and was reeling in lunkers before he was out of kindergarten.
“There’s a technique involved and it’s tough,” said Bill Haskins, Fromm’s maternal grandfather and the person most responsible for the young man’s obsession with hunting and fishing. “There’s just a little space between the bottom of the dock and the water, so there’s not a whole lot of people who can get it up under there.”
Here Haskins turns and points to his now full-grown grandson standing at his side. “This guy was like this (holding his hand about 3 feet from the ground), just a little bitty old thing, maybe 4, and doing it like there’s nothing to it. I remember people seeing Jake do it and they’d just shake their head. Couldn’t believe it.”
Fromm, now standing over 6-foot-2, has been pretty much astonishing folks ever since. He’s done it on the lake, on the baseball diamond, sometimes on a ping-pong table or up on a deer stand, always in the classroom. And, yes, on the football field as well.
Fromm hopes to continue amazing folks as he moves on to the next stage of his life. A record-setting, 4-star quarterback from Houston County High School, Fromm will enter the University of Georgia as an early enrollee Jan. 8. All that remains for him to put a bow on his high school career will be his formal graduation and an appearance in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7 in San Antonio.
To understand just who is this football-flinging phenom, one has to start with fishing and hunting and Granddad. That’s who he is and what he does and with whom he does it. Mostly.
Conducting an interview for the story you’re currently reading required catching Georgia’s prized quarterback signee between an after-school dentist appointment and a standing appointment with his grandfather in a tree stand in rural Twiggs County. Fromm has lots of friends and easily is the most popular student at Houston County High. But his best buddy unarguably is his grandfather.
“It goes back to day one,” said Fromm’s mother, Lee Fromm. “It’s always been that way. They bonded from the beginning because he was the first grandchild. My dad’s a big outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman, so Jake just kind of gravitated to it and they’ve been hunting and fishing ever since.”
The Fromms lease some hunting land in an area known as Plum Creek in a tiny town called Dry Branch. It’s about 38 minutes northeast from their home in suburban Warner Robins. In deer season, you can count on Jake being up there with Haskins on any day he doesn’t have an athletic or academic commitment.
That’s been pretty much every day here lately. Houston County’s season got over earlier than anybody down there wanted or expected. Fromm has long been committed and signed to Georgia, so that recruiting deal is done, and his high school academics were long ago conquered.
Oh, sure, there as an ESPN award show to attend, a documentary to shoot (produced in part by Peter Berg of “Friday Night Lights” and “Patriots Day” fame) and an official visit to UGA this past weekend. But Fromm wasn’t going to let that stuff cut too much into his stand time with his granddad.
“He introduced me to hunting,” said Fromm, who estimates he has tagged at least 10 deer on that land with his grandfather. “He had three daughters, so I guess he was glad to finally have a boy. He’s the biggest hunter and fisher I know. Man, he’s awesome. … I’ve just been hunting and fishing with him since I can even remember. Him and my dad, too; don’t get me wrong. Granddad’s just always had probably a little bit more time for it.”
Yes, dad and mom have to work. Fromm is the oldest of three boys. He has two younger brothers who are twins and also play on the Houston County football team. Dylan will succeed him as quarterback and the 6-foot-4 Tyler was one of Jake’s primary receivers and is a recruiting prospect as well.
The daily backyard competitions from the trio are said to have fueled all of their successes in sports. It’s very rare that big brother ever goes down. In anything.
“It’s his competitive nature,” Houston County coach Von Lassiter said. “He’s got God-given physical ability and stature and hand-eye coordination. But he’ll go out there and beat anybody in this school in ping pong, left-handed. He’s that kind of talented person. He’ll get you on the basketball court and if you’re better than him, then he’ll get physical with you. He’ll find a way to win.”
Emerson Fromm, his father, runs Mid State Pools in Warner Robins along with Fromm’s uncle, Barrett Fleming. Lee Fromm is a nurse who works with Alzheimer and dementia patients in Macon. As all parents can attest, burgeoning athletic careers must be financed.
Fortunately, they won’t have to pay for Jake to go to college. He accepted a scholarship offer from Georgia coach Kirby Smart in December of 2015, spurning the one he’d already accepted from Alabama and Nick Saban.
They likely wouldn’t have had to pay for Jake to go to college even without football. He’s graduating from Houston County early with a 4.0 GPA in honors and advanced placement classes.
He can play ball, too
So there are a lot of reasons to like Jake Fromm. But the main one is the reason Georgia signed him and Alabama and everybody else wanted him in the first place.
The kid can play.
Fromm’s passing numbers are almost otherworldly. In fact, had Houston County not come up short and missed the playoffs this season (more on that later), Fromm would have ended his high school career as the most productive passer in Georgia history.
He came within 260 yards of the record held by Gainesville’s Deshaun Watson, now of Clemson fame. In 10 games this season, Fromm completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,910 yards and 41 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. That left Fromm with 12,817 career yards. Watson headed to Clemson with 13,077. Fromm also threw for 116 TDs and 28 interceptions.
Sure, that he’s physically gifted and surrounded by good teammates and coaches contributed to that production. But Fromm’s dedication and willpower was central to his success.
“He has an unbelievable inner desire to be great at whatever he does,” Lassiter said. “It’s just something that you wished you could see in everybody. You see some people who have parts of that. For him, it’s just such a consistent manner that he chases greatness. You know, it’s just a daily thing for him.”
That Fromm wasn’t able to leave as the state’s all-time passing leader is something that still stings for Lassiter, and might for a while. Fromm likely would’ve run down the record with just one more game, but the Bears were eyeing a lot more than that this season. In the end, they were victims of competing in arguably the toughest region in the state, 1-AAAAAA.
Houston County was ranked No. 1 and undefeated for the first six weeks of the season, but stumbled down the stretch. The Bears lost to Lee County and Coffee the first two Fridays in October, then fell to Valdosta 28-24 in the season finale in a game they led 24-7 in the third quarter. Fromm was a relatively modest 18-of-28 passing for 174 yards in the loss.
Making it even more painful was the defeat came a week after Fromm had the greatest game of his career against the school’s greatest rival, Northside-Warner Robins. Fromm accounted for 93 percent of the Bears’ 702 total yards with 534 yards passing and 119 rushing in the 45-35 win. But he also suffered an AC sprain in his right shoulder during that game, and that affected him against Valdosta.
The Wildcats went on to win yet another state championship, but that was little consolation for Fromm and the Bears. During the regular season, they beat three teams who advanced to the state semifinals in Mary Persons, Peach County and Northside, and lost to three that all made it at least to the second round.
“It’s a travesty is what it is,” Lassiter said of the team’s fate. “They put five teams in one region and all five of us were ranked in the top 10. We were ranked No. 1 in the state of Georgia for six weeks and didn’t make the playoffs. It’s crazy.”
Baseball vs. football
Despite the sudden, disappointing ending, Fromm and Lassiter made a good team at Houston County. They arrived at the same time at a football program that had an all-time winning percentage just above .500. Together they won nearly 75 percent of their games, made the playoffs three times and the quarterfinals twice.
Still, they felt like they could win it all this season.
“You just hate to see teams you’ve played and beaten to continue on through the playoffs,” Fromm said last week. “We had the potential to have beaten three state champions. Just think about that.”
It’s not merely coincidental that Fromm and Lassiter ended up joining forces at Houston County. In some way, you could say that Lassiter was the first coach to recruit Fromm.
It’s not what you think.
Fromm was a star baseball player well before he made a name for himself in football. He was a standout slugger and pitcher as a 13-year-old on the Warner Robins team that advanced to the third round of the Little League World Series in 2011 in South Williamsport, Pa.
Though Fromm’s team didn’t win it all like the 2007 Warner Robins team, his home-run hitting exploits made him a hometown hero. It also had the young man fixated on playing baseball.
“We thought he was just going to play baseball,” Lee Fromm said. “We spent all this money and time every weekend running up-and-down I-75 going to East Cobb. We just knew what he was going to do.”
That’s where Lassiter comes in.
“They were coming off that World Series deal and word was he wasn’t going to play football, he was just going to focus on baseball,” Lassiter said. “I found out when I first got here he was zoned for our school. So I went to the middle school and I pulled him out of class to talk to him about playing football.”
Fromm bought Lassiter’s pitch, though it didn’t take much convincing. He never intended to quit football. He planned to keep playing, but more as a pastime than a primary focus.
That eventually would change. Fromm actually played his last baseball game for Houston County last spring. He hit a home run in his next-to-last at-bat. Of course.
“I knew right away there was something a little different about him,” Lassiter said of that meeting in a middle-school hallway. “He wasn’t shy; he shakes my hand; firm handshake; carries himself well. And he says, ‘Coach, I love football. I’m gonna play football for you. That’s not a question.’ Then I called his dad when I left, and that’s how it started.”
A star is born
Fromm’s life as a popular and sought-after athlete has been trending upward ever since. Once all the talk of Warner Robins, his circle of influence has widened to include all of the state and much of the South. And may grow even wider still.
Fromm was one of three high school athletes selected from hundreds nationwide to be the subjects of an upcoming documentary film. Ohio State QB commitment Tate Martell is also part of the project. Backed by acclaimed filmmaker Berg, it’s a closely-guarded operation about which little is known at this point. It’s expected to premiere next fall, but in what form or on what platform or network, no one is telling.
What is known is the prospect has only added to Fromm’s rapidly-growing celebrity. A documentary film crew from a group known as Film 44 followed him around for much of the fall. They chronicled all of his games, many of his practices and most every significant event of the last four months. And there have been a lot of those.
Generally there was a cameraman, a producer and a sound man tailing Fromm around the school, at practices, at games and at their home.
“They’re gone now,” Fromm said. “At least they said they’re gone. I don’t believe them. I still think they’ll be back sooner or later. But they’re a great group of guys, always high-spirited and looking for a good time. It wasn’t really a hassle. Personally I didn’t change anything I did. I was the same person throughout, and I’m sure they’d tell you the same thing.”
Perhaps, but it can be kind of tough to lead a low-key life when one has a three-man film crew following him around everywhere he goes. But Fromm managed to do it for the most part.
“You wouldn’t even know it,” Lee Fromm of how the attention has affected her eldest son. “It really wasn’t a big deal. It was a real laid-back deal, really. It wasn’t too overwhelming. It was fun actually, for all of us.”
Said Lassiter: “There were some times it was a little bit inconvenient, but really they stayed out of our way. Since it was him and the way he works and the way he does things, he deserves to have all that. So you try to make it work because everything he gets he deserves. When you look at it like that, it’s a small price to pay for what he’s done for our school, so it wasn’t bad at all.”
One of the ways Jake did it was by escaping into the deep woods with his grandfather. The other was by pouring himself into his work.
If Fromm has a trait that sets him apart from most, it’s his uncanny ability to focus and absorb a lot of information in a short amount of time. He is relentlessly self-motivated when it comes to film study, and the same can be said for his work in the classroom.
Lassiter said he’s never seen anything like it.
“He’s got a photographic memory,” he said. “He can look at something one time and remember it. It’s the dangdest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Next stop: Athens
That’s a good thing as the spotlight is only going to get brighter as Fromm moves to Georgia next month. He’ll immediately enter into a high-profile competition with another wildly-celebrated quarterback, Jacob Eason.
Eason, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound freshman, was an even more highly-recruited prospect than Fromm, and produced similar eye-popping numbers in high school. And he’s got a leg up on Fromm having started all but the first game of 2016.
Eason beat out fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert for the starting job and finished with 2,266 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. But he finished with the lowest efficiency rating among qualifying SEC quarterbacks (118.21) and completed only 55 percent of his passes.
For what it’s worth, Fromm isn’t going to UGA with the mindset of being Eason’s understudy. He wants to win the job — this year.
“Absolutely, and he knows that,” Fromm said of Eason. “We’re good. We talk all the time. He’s a good guy. He has a lot of great talent and he’s a good football player. But I can’t wait to get in there and compete with him. It’s about making the football team better.”
Some have wondered why Fromm would want to follow Eason at Georgia when he was recruited by other programs more desperate for immediate help. Fromm is actually relishing the chance to compete for a job. It’s something he hasn’t had to do since he entered Houston County as a ninth-grader.
“Competitors want to compete, and that’s what I want to do,” Fromm said. “I want to make myself and the University of Georgia’s football program better. Georgia is where I always wanted to be, so I’m going there. I’m excited to be there and help anyway I can.”
Lassiter, for one, says he wouldn’t bet against “his guy.”
“I know that either he’s going to win the job or he’s going to make Eason be the very best quarterback he can be,” Fromm’s coach said. “I’d like to see how both of them progress in a year. Because Jake’s never had that. The only type of competition he’s ever had is inner-driven.”
Perhaps it goes back to those docks on Lake Oconee and trying to catch a bigger fish than his granddad. Or all those backyard battles with his little brothers.
Either way, the Bulldogs are fairly certain they’ve reeled in a winner.
“A great kid, just solid,” Haskins assures. “I’ve got a bunch of grandkids and they’re all special. But this one’s definitely special.”