ZUKE: Quarterback Jason Vander Laan leaves lasting legacy at Ferris State

ALL-AMERICAN: Ferris State University senior quarterback Jason Vander Laan (15) passes against Grand Valley State University on Saturday at Top Taggart Field. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

ALL-AMERICAN: Ferris State University senior quarterback Jason Vander Laan (15) passes against Grand Valley State University on Saturday at Top Taggart Field. (Pioneer photo/Ryan Zuke)

Jason Vander Laan concluded his high school football career just looking for a chance to prove himself at the collegiate level, no matter what position.

He was a three-year starting quarterback at Chicago Christian High School, but also was the conference Defensive Player of the Year his senior season.

Vander Laan chose Ferris State University because it was one of the few schools to recruit him as a quarterback. A coaching change after his freshman season, when he was redshirted, left his status as a quarterback up in the air, but when then new head coach Tony Annese saw him practice for the first time, it was an easy decision to leave him behind center.

Vander Laan was Annese’s guy to run the Bulldogs’ run-oriented offense, and he ran it to near perfection for the past four years.

The 6-foot-4, 244-pound signal caller led the Bulldogs to a 37-9 record during that span, but that ninth loss came Saturday to Grand Valley State University in the second round of the NCAA Division II playoffs, signaling the end of an illustrious career.

He finishes his career as the NCAA all-time leader for rushing yards (5,953) and rushing touchdowns (81) by a quarterback. He also is the school all-time leader in passing touchdowns (85) and is in the top three in school history in passing yards (8,240) yards. He’s also a top candidate to win his second straight Harlon Hill Trophy as the top player in Division II.

Vander Laan is a player and a leader — an attribute coaches and teammates have raved about for years — who cannot easily be replaced.

“He’s like a son who you lose,” Annese said following Saturday’s game. “We talked the other day and I said, ‘We’re going to either win a national championship together and I’m going to cry after that because I’m going to miss you, or we’re going to lose together at some point in time.

“Jason’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever been around. We’re together all the time. It’s just the relationships between a coach and a quarterback. I’m a pain in the butt to him, he hates me for a few minutes, his parents hate me for a few minutes, but then we all love each other. So it’s hard, it’s really hard.”

Just about every NFL team has sent a scout to FSU to watch Vander Laan, but his focus remained on winning a national
championship.

And the Bulldogs had the team to it do it – having been ranked in the top five in the nation for the majority of the season.

They won all but one game during the regular season by at least 10 points — including a 61-24 thumping of the Lakers on Sept. 19 — and rode a 25-game regular season win streak into the playoffs.

But it was a much improved GVSU team on Saturday as the offense racked up 447 yards en route to a 38-34 victory.

It still was a game you felt FSU would win, though. Vander Laan threw five touchdowns, and when the Bulldogs got the ball back on their own 4-yardline down four points with 4:16 to go, there was a sense that his sixth touchdown was coming, it was just a matter of how long it will take to do it.

But the Lakers, the No. 6 seeded team in the region, stopped the No. 2 seeded Bulldogs on fourth-and-8 near midfield to pull off the upset.

“It’s hard to find words right now,” Vander Laan said. “We’ve come a long way the past four years, and this coaching staff and coach Annese have taken us there. I’m just lost for words right now because we weren’t ready to be done yet. We thought we had a great team out there and were fighting, and we fought incredibly hard that game. I thought we fought harder than we have all year. It just stinks we didn’t come out on top.”

Vander Laan’s collegiate football career might be over, but a new career is just beginning, whether that is with or without football.

He was the NCAA Division II National Scholar-Athlete of the Year last summer and is graduating in December with a degree in applied math actuarial science.

In the meantime, he will continue to work toward the NFL dream and hope to be drafted or signed in April.

“Hopefully my life with football can continue for a while,” Vander Laan said in October. “The NFL, that’s been a dream of mine since I was 3 years old. If that opportunity presents itself, I’m going to take it full blast and going to be excited for it and do everything I can to give myself the opportunity to be successful at that level.”

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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