Former Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters played through considerable pain last season before undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder in January. Now he is trying to recover and impress NFL scouts at the same time.
Jake Waters cannot currently throw a football.
Give him a Nerf toy, and he will toss it around. Ask to see his throwing motion, and he will oblige. But passing a full-size, regulation pigskin is off limits.
“Doctor’s orders,” Waters said. “I’m still moving up to the real thing.”
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This, of course, is a problem. Waters is trying to impress professional scouts before the NFL Draft later this month, and he has not attempted a single pass since participating in a college all-star game shortly after the Alamo Bowl. Waters underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder to repair a torn acromioclavicular joint — caused by two physical tackles during a victory at Oklahoma — and the rehabilitation process has been slow.
“It’s tough when you show up for your pro day and all you can do is weigh in,” Waters said. “I am going twice a day to therapy, anything I can do to speed it up. I’m hoping to throw in front of cameras later this month and get that video out to all the teams, but for now I am relying on my Kansas State film.
“That is big for any player, but especially for me. I have to rely on film and what I did on Saturdays. That is what is most important. I think I showed some good things. Hopefully, that will give me a chance.”
One thing is for sure: Any NFL team looking for a tough quarterback will be impressed by Waters.
His recovering shoulder illustrates the severity of injuries he played through as a senior.
Waters had to fight through agonizing pain to start the Wildcats’ final seven games, after a trip to Oklahoma on Oct. 18. The first sign of the injury came on a long run at the start of the second half, but he stayed on the field in minor pain after brief medical attention. Then, on a fourth-quarter run that helped clinch victory, he got hit again. This time, he felt major pain.
“The second hit was when I really hurt my shoulder,” Waters said. “On the way home from that game I remember wondering how in the world I was going to play the next week. It hurt to lift my arm. But the trainers did a great job. I wasn’t 100 percent, but I was good enough to beat Texas.”
Indeed, he completed 19 of 30 passes for 224 yards in a 23-0 victory. He kept putting up good numbers from there, throwing for 400 yards against West Virginia and beating Kansas with four touchdowns. He finished the season with a K-State record for total yardage, throwing for 3,501 yards and 22 touchdowns on top of 484 yards and nine touchdowns rushing. The Wildcats finished 9-4. Waters was 5-3 with a bum shoulder.
Coaches helped Waters heal — as much as possible — by limiting him to one practice a week and reducing his rushes.
Waters hated taking a back seat in practices, but K-State assistant Collin Klein, a former quarterback who went through a similar experience with injuries, coached him through it, advising Waters to watch as much film as possible and stand behind the quarterback at every scrimmage. The goal was for Waters to envision himself taking every snap, even though he wasn’t.
The plan delivered positive results. Eventually, Waters learned to accept the pain associated with getting hit on the shoulder, realizing his injury could get no worse.
“Sundays after games weren’t fun,” Waters said. “I could still feel every hit.”
Through it all, he repeated the words “I feel fine” to every reporter that asked about his health.
“I felt good enough,” Waters said with a laugh. “I guess that is what I meant. I was good enough to play. I was dinged up, and I had to take a lot of mental reps, but I was back practicing after a few weeks. By the end of the season, I could throw without my shoulder hurting. The most frustrating thing was not being as sharp as I wanted to be.”
Each game was a physical challenge.
“Right away, zip was a big thing,” Waters said. “I didn’t throw it as hard or as crisp as I wanted to. I really had to work on it and change my arm slot to a more side arm delivery. Even when I am practicing my throwing motion now, people say I am coming way more over the top than last year.”
Things may have worked out better had Waters remained healthy, particularly as he prepares for a pro career, but he tries not to think about that. It was his choice to delay surgery until January, and he would do it again to help his teammates.
Draft experts say he has an outside shot of being drafted late, but he will more likely have to prove himself as an undrafted free agent. Waters understands that and gladly accepts those odds.
In some ways, this process has taken him full circle. Before he broke passing records at K-State, he had to prove himself in junior college. Before that, he was an overlooked high school quarterback from Council Bluffs, Iowa. All he wanted back then was a chance.
Same as now.
“I am going through some adversity with my shoulder, but I have never been more motivated to prove people wrong,” Waters said. “I want to show I can overcome this injury.”