Homegrown. Winner. Jake Fromm is the pride of Georgia
Saturday, Jake Fromm and No. 3 Georgia take on No. 7 Notre Dame. A nation will be watching. Including those in his hometown, who saw this rising star from the beginning. The Georgia QB is a reflection of the city — and the people — who built him.
WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — A peculiar arrangement of letters stretches above the entrance at Ole Times country buffet in Warner Robins, Georgia:
E D I M G I A F A D
Most outsiders to the area haven’t a clue what these strung-together letters mean, but for locals, it’s a familiar acronym that encompasses the way of life in middle Georgia, the place where Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm was raised.
Warner Robins, Fromm’s hometown, is a city on the move. Although it is a transient town just south of Macon that welcomes a melting pot of humanity and conspicuously lacks a downtown, one gets the sense fairly quickly that people like living here. New restaurants seem to be popping up all the time, schools and athletic facilities are constructed in handsome, robust buildings, and places like Rigby’s Water World, the Museum of Aviation, and Little League Southeast Park welcome travelers from far and wide.
Ole Times is one of the lingering vestiges of the town’s past, a ponderosa-style eatery with wooden walls and a healthy display of meats and vegetables under long rows of warmers. As one reviewer recently put it, the restaurant is a “sampler’s paradise.” Lynn, an amiable lady who vacillates between server and part-time manager at Ole Times, says that just a few weeks ago there was a celebrity sighting at the restaurant when Fromm came in with his grandfather and uncle and sat at the “six top” (as Lynn describes in server jargon). “I knew who he was, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it. My boss didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Lynn said. “Jake came up to me — he was going to go ahead and leave because it was kind of getting crowded — and said, ‘I appreciate you not making a big deal about me being in here.’”
The truth is, Fromm can’t go many places in the state of Georgia without being mobbed. Such is the life of the 21-year-old “kid” with the killer smile who recently made the cover of Sports Illustrated. His hometown is especially proud; Fromm played locally for the Houston County (HOCO) Bears before exploding on the scene in Athens and taking Georgia to the doorstep of a national title his freshman season. Warner Robins’ special adoration for Jake is extolled in places like The Butcher Shop, originator and proprietor of the world-famous “Fromm burger” (a delicious patty with bacon, Swiss cheese, and mushrooms), and the Taco Shed, which offers the “Fromm-inator” taco. It’s fair to say that Fromm’s presence is still palpable, casting a long shadow over the town of Warner Robins.
But it wouldn’t do the boy justice to reserve the celebration solely for his fame, Hall-of-Fame looks, or statistics. His life is far more profound than that. The story is only complete when we peel back the layers of his past and investigate the people — and the town — that built him. For if there were a widget that Warner Robins could belch out of a factory that served as the perfect avatar for this 75,000-person municipality squatting beside I-75 in middle Georgia, William Jacob Fromm would be it.
The Art of Discipline
An Air Force town, Warner Robins is a place where flags seem to fly a little more proudly and discipline is the undercurrent that silently moves throughout the city. Since World War II, it has been the home of Robins Air Force Base, the largest employer in Houston County (pronounced “HOW-ston”) and the principal catalyst for the town’s population explosion and major economic uptick over the past 20 years. The military cuts such a strong presence that one is certain to see the patriotic pride smattered throughout town. In fact, the lettering at Ole Times stands for “Every Day in Middle Georgia is Air Force Appreciation Day.”
E D I M G I A F A D
Review the file of Jake Fromm and one thing you’ll discover is that the discipline that so inherent in this place has filtered into the life of its favorite son. A common narrative among those who knew Fromm growing up was that his wisdom and maturity were uncommonly “beyond his years.” While other kids were indifferent, callow, Fromm was the outlier, approaching life with an elevated degree of devotion and gusto. His teachers share that he seemed deft, if not ecclesiastical, in his ability to know when to cut up and when to be serious, and he separated himself from the flock by working harder than everyone else. When others went home, he put in a little bit more. When others said, “I’m done,” Fromm possessed the mental toughness to persevere. While others trailed, Fromm trail-blazed. Dr. Douglas Rizer, principal at HOCO High School, says that Jake led the entire weight room, a rare thing for a quarterback, and was often the last to walk off the field after drills. “It wasn’t your freshman or sophomore or somebody maybe who doesn’t start,” Rizer said. “It was the star quarterback staying late to go pick up the cones from practice.”
That discipline bled over into his studies. One of the more understated aspects of Fromm’s vast wheelhouse of talent is his intelligence and academic propensity. As his mentors reveal, this wunderkind is not just good at throwing a football; he is, as they say in the movie Good Will Hunting, “wicked smaht.” Tammy Strickland, who taught Fromm at Mossy Creek Middle School, underscores the quarterback’s mathematical chops. “In the thousands of students I’ve taught over 24 years, he is probably in the Top 10. Not top 10 percent, Top 10 of those students,” Strickland stresses.
Describing Fromm as “erudite,” his former math teacher said he has been gifted with an intellect and an ability to make mathematical and intuitive leaps years beyond his peers. “He is so smart he sees, not only how to solve the problem but why the problem works the way it does,” Strickland added.
That gift wasn’t simply reserved for the classroom, as Fromm soaked up everything like a sponge and assaulted every life discipline with interest and vigor. Many in Warner Robins — coaches, teachers — testify how Fromm used to come into their offices and just sit, hoping to peck some pearl of wisdom he could place in his back pocket for use later. “There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t come into my office,” said Fromm’s high school football coach, Von Lassiter. “He would always want more. He had that devotion.”
And often, while others were out partying and socializing, Fromm would invest his discretionary time by studying film.
Another prevalent theme in the Warner Robins community — and middle Georgia at large — is that of faith. It is a place where Christianity has seeped down into the marrow of culture. Have a conversation with a resident and it won’t be long before he or she is bringing up something about the Lord. As Lassiter observed, “Identifying as a believer is huge in this area.” Fromm’s sense of identity was shaped, at least in part, with his affiliation with Southside Baptist Church, a 7,000-member congregation led by Senior Pastor Jerry Walls. “I tell people I’m Jake Fromm’s hometown pastor,” Walls beams from his office. As unashamed as Walls may be about preaching the Gospel, he’s every bit as brazen in admitting he’s a huge Alabama fan, his counseling office appearing as though a crimson grenade of memorabilia went off and splattered all over everything.
“When people come in here, the first thing they do is roll their eyes,” Walls chuckles.
Of course, this has created great theater between himself and his congregation throughout the years, but reached a fever pitch when Fromm flipped his commitment from Alabama to Georgia during his recruiting process. That back-and-forth has continued to intensify over the past 2 seasons when the programs have tangled in heart-wrenching fashion in the postseason.
Walls says he knew about Fromm’s decision to attend Georgia before it was made public. “When Jake decommitted from Alabama, he was concerned about what I would think in the sense that he didn’t want me to find out from someplace else,” Walls said. “So he texted me one night. It was kind of late. He said, ‘Hey pastor, before it breaks out in the news I just want you to know I am de-committed to Alabama and I’m going to commit to Georgia. You know how much my family loves you. We want you to know this before it comes out.’ I got the feeling of “please don’t be upset.’”
But instead of being upset, Walls used it as a teaching moment, an opportunity to validate Jake’s decision and his ability to make a good one at that. “I sent him a text back and said, “Jake, I want you to be where God wants you. If you are at Georgia, I may not be able to say, ‘Go Dawgs,’ but I can say, ‘Go Jake,’” Walls said. (Later, Jake assured Walls that Alabama was going to be just fine at the quarterback position. There was a player coming from Hawaii whom Fromm had met at a showcase in Oregon while a senior in high school. That quarterback’s name was Tua Tagovailoa.)
Forasmuch as Walls is a big fan of the Crimson Tide football team, he is equally a fan of Jake Fromm the person. Over the years, he witnessed growth in Jake and says that on many occasions he and the quarterback discussed spiritual matters at length. “It’s evident that he’s in the Word,” he said.
Walls was always impressed with Fromm’s willingness to share his faith to groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and younger kids who looked up to him. “When he has that opportunity and when the door is open, he’s always been willing to share his faith and that’s what I appreciated about him,” Walls said. “Everything I’ve seen from Jake is that he is ‘the real deal.’ I think he’s not only a leader when it comes to playing football, but spiritually. He’s not done anything to ruin that testimony.”
Now that the quarterback is in the limelight and the world is tugging at him from all angles, his mentors say that face-to-face conversation with has been replaced by text message, and Fromm often uses that medium as a way to demonstrate his faith. Walls still receives text messages from time to time, as does Jason Brett, Fromm’s high school baseball coach. Brett remembers one particular message he received from Fromm after the death of Brett’s mother in November 2017. “My mom was sick with cancer and she ended up passing away the day of the Auburn game,” Brett said. “About an hour after the Auburn game, I get a text from Jake, saying, ‘Coach I’m sorry to hear about your mom.’ For him to do something like that speaks to his character.”
Lassiter says that their once player-coach relationship has elevated into more of a friendship, one that is perpetuated on a daily basis via text. And although the two men certainly share the common thread of football, much of their texting conversations are of the spiritual nature, sharing Bible verses that might have enamored them, an iron sharpening iron kind of thing as opposed to crude or lascivious talk that is so commonplace. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it has nothing to do with football,” Lassiter said. “What does he say about the team? We don’t talk about that. We talk about Scripture, hunting and fishing, his girlfriend, my wife. Very seldom does it have anything to do with football.”
A fierce competitor
Evoking equal passion in Warner Robins (and in some instances, idolatry) is football. Every fall, businesses roll up the shades and the streets turn desolate as the dazzling allure of Friday Night Lights vacuum citizens into stadiums all throughout town. Here’s the 4-1-1 on local athletics. There are 5 high schools in the county, whose names shine inside her borders like bright marquees: Northside, Warner Robins, Veterans, Perry and our aforementioned subject, HOCO. Townspeople identify as fans of their respective schools, city rivalries can turn vitriolic, backyard pickup games and games of H-O-R-S-E and can convert into wars, and bragging rights are worn like oak leaf clusters. In short, Warner Robins athletics is competitive as hell. This is the environment in which Jake Fromm grew up — and thrived.
A relatively new kid on the block to Warner Robins academia, Houston County High School didn’t exist until the early 1990s, when students from Perry and Northside were rezoned to fill the new school for a community that was busting at the seams. As a result, HOCO was always trying to build an athletic tradition that did not exist. Why is that important? Because Jake Fromm helped to put a HOCO thumbtack on the Georgia athletics map by winning 2 state titles in baseball and ushering the football team to a region championship and state quarterfinal appearance his junior year. Fromm’s gridiron prowess, including over 7,983 passing yards and 77 touchdowns as an upperclassman, threw gasoline on the town’s competitive fire such that it blazed in inferno.
But Fromm wasn’t just competitive at football. Fromm led Warner Robins to the Little League World Series in 2011. Any game with a ball, marbles, tiddlywinks, even his adored hobbies of hunting and fishing oozed with competition. Principal Rizer says that he and Fromm shared a banter that extended from the local fields and ponds. “We mess with each other all the time because I like to hunt and fish, too. I would bring him a picture of a deer and he would go, ‘I’ve got one bigger.” And I’d have to go kill me one bigger. And then I would have a fish and he would say, ‘That fish is smaller than the one I caught,’” Rizer laughs.
Though Warner Robins is certainly competitive in its own right, Fromm got it honest. He came from a long line of competitors, his family and extended family enjoying the competitive nature of sport. “(Jake’s) mom will play you at anything, anywhere,” Lassiter offered. “His aunt? You don’t want to get her on the basketball court. Grandma is competitive. In that family, it doesn’t matter what you are doing, you are competing. Throw that family into a competitive town and you’ve got a situation on your hands.”
Brett says that Fromm and his teammates challenged one another on the baseball diamond in a way that produced an “Alpha Male feeding frenzy.” After Brett tossed out the chum of competition, Fromm and guys like Tony Locey and DL Hall (both of whom have moved on to be successful, Locey a pitcher at Georgia and Hall playing minor league baseball for the Baltimore Orioles organization), displayed a superb work ethic and uncommon ardor for the game of baseball. “That whole bunch … tried to outdo each other, one-up each other,” Brett said. “That, from the baseball end of it, changed our team.”
Fromm was clearly over the line of demarcation between average on the one side and excellent on the other. It always seemed like he was willing to do what most everybody else wouldn’t, go whole hog when the rest settled. Lassiter shares two stories that solidify that premise. The first occurred in a high school football game against Northside. As the story goes, when Fromm was driving HOCO down to score, he began to feel sick. A bit of background: in the history of its program, HOCO had never beaten Northside, and according to Lassiter, had lost to its crosstown rival by 1 point the previous 2 seasons. A win, therefore, would be monumental. Fromm was putting his team in position to do just that when he started feeling queasy. Then, just as he was crouching under center, he lifted his helmet and puked, vomit splattering all over the field.
But remarkably, instead of coming out of the game, Fromm snapped his helmet back on his head and promptly threw a touchdown pass. “Ninety-nine percent of kids would have come out of the game,” Lassiter said. “He never missed a beat.”
The second instance occurred when Fromm and Lassiter flew out to Kansas on a turkey hunting trip this past May. Hunting rules stated that the limit for each hunter was 2 turkeys, and by Day 2, Fromm had already maxed out on his limit. What would the normal 20-year-old do on Day 3? That’s right, sleep in. Rest on their laurels that they’d had a successful trip. Not Fromm. The third morning, Fromm got up early so he could watch the sunrise over Kansas one last time. Then, in order to have even more success in the future, he took the time to observe the other hunters in the group throughout the balance of the morning. “Kids just don’t do that, but that’s kind of who he is,” Lassiter said. “He enjoys life. Life outside of the walls of his house. Life outside of his cell phone.”
Fromm’s love of the outdoors has been well documented and is certainly another embodiment of the way of life in middle Georgia. People love to hunt and fish and enjoy activities related to being outside. But like everything else in Fromm’s life, this hobby is not a lukewarm, passing fascination. He has a tendency to take it to another level, and is quite comfortable with it, in fact. Like the time he showed up in full camouflage for a morning recruiting visit with former Georgia assistant coach Jim Chaney. Rizer tells the story: “Coach Chaney shows up and Jake walks up and he’s fully camoed out, duck paint all over his face. He walks in there and it wasn’t like, ‘I’ve got to go home and change, I’ve got to go take a shower.’ No, he walks in there and it’s just like this.”
Other comedic outtakes occurred whenever ducks or geese would fly in V-formation overhead during high school football games. Fromm would stop, raise his air shotgun, take aim, and pantomime shooting the flock. “If any type of wildlife flies over, it doesn’t matter if it’s a neck-and-neck barnburner. If you let a flock of geese come anywhere close to that field, he is going to pretend and get down and kill ’em,” Lassiter said.
Through only 2 seasons and change, Fromm has already cemented his visage on the Georgia football relief. You get the sense that one day or another he’s going to slip up and beat Alabama, but most of his hometown mentors ultimately believe his legacy is not tarnished if he does not overcome that hurdle or bring home Georgia’s first national championship since 1980. The consensus is that if he never played another down, he’ll go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Georgia football history.
More broadly, they share an overwhelming confidence that no matter what he chooses to do, Jake Fromm is going to be successful in life. “He just wills himself to do better than the next guy,” Brett said. “If he’s a used car salesman, he’s going to be the No. 1 seller in the nation. If it’s NFL, he’s going to go and be Jake and be successful. He’s got stuff you just can’t measure. Winners just win.”
Lassiter’s familiarity with Fromm also helps him to see the big picture for the splendid young quarterback. “It’ll be scary to see what happens over next 10, 15 years,” Lassiter said. “Football is what he does, but it’s not who he is. He has a lot of hobbies. He could walk away from football and be successful in hundreds of other things. He will get a finance degree. I can see him running his dad’s pool company or going and filming hunting shows. Whatever that kid does, he puts a lot of energy and passion into it. It turns to gold, not because of luck, but because of hard work, preparation and understanding when to take the opportunity to run with it.”
In any hometown, certain sadness exists when individuals of the caliber of Jake Fromm leave, when the people who remain realize how fleeting it all was and that it was time you can never get back. Yes, Dr. Douglas Rizer knew what he had when Jake Fromm was marching through the halls, but he also knew what he lost when Jake left. “There is no doubt that I did not take him for granted. I never got tired of drinking the Kool-Aid,” Rizer said. “You may work your entire career and never have another kid like him.”
And while most observers have a tendency to think of Fromm’s life already reaching a crescendo, his life narrative approaching a climax, Walls believes his story is just beginning. “I think the best is yet to come for Jake Fromm,” Walls said. “I think his legacy is not going to be just Georgia football.”
* * * * * *
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and from an early age it is clear that Jake Fromm was encircled with a group of individuals of the highest character. From Dr. Douglas Rizer to Jason Brett to Pastor Jerry Walls to Von Lassiter to Tammy Strickland to Fromm’s family members, each of these individuals invested in Jake in their own unique way and helped build the man who is now making a town extremely proud. “It’s kind of cool to be a small blip on that journey,” Brett said. “The first time I met him you just knew, talking to the kid, he was going to be special. There was something different about him. We are all extremely proud of where he is and where he’s going. It’s cool to be part of the journey.”
Senator Fromm, Governor Fromm, Pastor Fromm, NFL Hall of Famer Fromm, Family Man Fromm. What does the future hold for this unique talent from Warner Robins, Georgia? Where will the chapters of his life take him? God only knows.
No matter the direction, Fromm’s influencers remain shrouded in hope. They pray fervently that this young man will continue down the path he’s on and not depart from it.
And they choose to believe that in the life of Jake Fromm, the most exciting part of the story is that which is not yet written.