MENOMINEE, Mich. - Jacob Pedersen can go about anywhere in Menominee and see a familiar face; there are very few places he can go where people don’t know him. These days, most people he comes across have similar questions and the same request.
“Don't go to the Bears!” said Pedersen of what he hears all the time around town. “I get that a lot.”
Pedersen starred at Menominee High School in several sports, leading the football team to Michigan state championships. He went on to play tight end for the University of Wisconsin; his 17 career touchdown catches the most ever for a Badgers tight end. Now he’s preparing for the NFL Draft. Half the people around his hometown are pulling for him to get picked by the Packers, the rest, by the Lions.
“I always see how different people in the community respond. I don't want to disappoint them.”
—Jacob Pedersen, Badgers/Menominee Alum
Wherever he goes, Pedersen will have the support of all of Menominee, and of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a whole. That’s part of why everyone knows him, and it comes with pressure. The U.P. is an area steeped in football tradition: Menominee High School has some football trophies older than some states. Despite that, there have been very few NFL players coming out of the region. According to Dennis Grall, secretary of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame, Pedersen could become just the 14th person from the U.P. to make an NFL active roster, and first since Houghton’s Chuck Klingbeil played for the Dolphins in the mid-1990s. Escanaba High School graduate Jace Daniels spent last season on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad.
“One of my biggest fears: one, is a fear of failure; two, a fear of disappointment,” said Pedersen. “For me, not just a fear of disappointing myself, my family, whatever it may be. It's also disappointing my community. Why? Because everyone always talks about how I'm one of the first people to go at a (NCAA Division I) level from our town in a long time. I always see how different people in the community respond. I don't want to disappoint them.”
Grall says Pedersen would be the first player in the NFL from Menominee High School since wide receiver Bill Rademacher played for the New York Jets in 1969.
Walking around his old high school, Pedersen knows current Menominee students look up to him, especially athletes. He takes pride in that.
“(Current students) admire him and what he's done,” said former Menominee football coach Ken Hofer, who coached Pedersen. “He sets the example; they try and fulfill the example. They realize the chance of doing what he's doing are probably very minimal, but hey, it's nice to have someone from our school be out there.”
Pedersen’s younger brother, who played football for a time at Northern Michigan University, says athletes took some inspiration from watching Jacob.
“I didn't know anybody before Jake that actually pursued college football,” said Lucas Pedersen, Jacob’s brother. “I guess it's kind of opening people's eyes that, hey, I can do it, too.”
Pedersen believes he can do it as well. Perhaps some of the underdog spirit comes from being from the U.P., but for whatever reason, Pedersen is used to overcoming doubts. He wasn’t recruited by Wisconsin until after his senior season. Now he’s projected by several NFL Draft websites as a late-round draft pick.
“People always talk, ‘what about them saying you're a small tight end, you're too small, you're too slow,’ said Pedersen. “I just kind of laugh. I'd be worried if they weren't saying it.”
Pedersen says he has no idea who will draft him. He’s had requests to narrow down the list, even just to save on buying team hats for draft day. Wherever he lands after the NFL Draft, whether he’s selected earlier than expected, later or not at all, he’ll bring his roots with him and continue setting an example for those looking up to him.
“I don't want to be the kid who, if I make it in the NFL I become cocky, too good for Menominee,” said Pedersen. “That will never be me. Everything I can do to make Menominee and Marinette, all the smaller towns around here, it's all one big community, all the places around here, whatever I can do to make it a better place is what I'm going to do.”