A few days after Rick Neuheisel took over as coach at Washington in January, he met with his players to introduce himself and discuss recruiting. He explained that the signing date was nearing and asked if anyone wouldn't be around the following weekend to host recruits. Only Joe Jarzynka, a senior wide receiver-kick returner-placekicker, raised his hand. "I won't be here," he said. "I already have plans to go skiing." Neuheisel was taken aback and shot Jarzynka an inquisitive look. "But, Coach, three girls are taking me up to Whistler," Jarzynka explained, sending his teammates into fits of laughter.
Whether returning kicks in his kamikaze style (he refuses to fair catch) or barreling down ski slopes, the 5'7", 175-pound Jarzynka is no average Joe. Last season he surprised everyone except himself by returning 61 kicks for 731 yards and a touchdown, including seven for a Pac-10 single-game-record 166 yards against Cal. When the Huskies were having problems with their placekicking last fall, Jarzynka volunteered for the job and converted 19 of 22 point-after attempts and six of eight field goal tries, the longest from 44 yards. He was voted All- Pac-10 as an all-purpose player after leading Washington with 849 total yards and 49 points.
But Jarzynka wasn't satisfied, because he saw only spot duty as a receiver. "Last year I proved I can play," he says, "but there's a lot more I can do. Everybody thinks it's a feel-good fairy tale of this scrawny walk-on. People think I'm thanking the Lord for my miracle, but I don't see it that way. I'm doing exactly what I set out to do."
Well, sort of. Jarzynka grew up following Notre Dame and dreamed of playing for the Fighting Irish. He was named second-team all-state as a receiver following his senior season at Gig Harbor (Wash.) High, but most colleges shied away from him because of his size. Eastern Washington was the only school to offer him a scholarship, and his hopes of walking on at Notre Dame were dashed when he didn't meet admission standards.
He was invited to walk on at Washington, but the first time Jarzynka entered the Huskies' locker room, an assistant coach asked him if he was a manager. Undeterred, he bugged coaches to give him a chance, and he did anything he could to get on the field. He returned six punts and a dozen kickoffs as a redshirt freshman in 1996. The following season he returned 13 punts and eight kickoffs, and caught two passes.
Jarzynka has developed a cultlike following on campus because of his guts, diminutive stature and free-spirited nature. He has a pierced tongue. He studies psychology not because he wants to become a psychologist but because he enjoys the subject. "Joe won't allow himself to be consumed by football, and he seems to find time to fit everything in," says Neuheisel. "He is so full of confidence—in a positive way—he doesn't realize that he is too small to play this game. But the way he sees it, this is Joe's world, and he's not going to get cheated in it."