As Jake Waters prepares to play his final game in a Kansas State uniform, many are asking him to reflect on a career rooted in hard work that also feels like a storybook.
He is unafraid to stroll down memory lane as his Wildcats get set for their Alamo Bowl showdown with UCLA, but he struggles to find words that accurately describe his journey from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to college football stardom.
“Crazy,” Waters says. “It is absolutely crazy.”
He can’t think of anything else to say. It all sounds too wild, like the part about Waters amassing more yards in a season than any other K-State player. But it’s fact. By throwing for 3,163 yards and rushing for 471 this year, he has surpassed former standout Michael Bishop in total yardage, with one game yet to play. Add on 28 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 66.2, another K-State record, and he is in elite statistical company.
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He may even make it to the NFL.
That’s the craziest part. Five years ago, Waters wasn’t sure his passing talents would take him past high school. Back then, he was the guy almost no one wanted, going overlooked by every four-year college in the nation.
If not for a lone coach from Iowa Western, a community college in Waters’ hometown, taking a chance on Waters, his K-State accomplishments would not exist. Such is the fine line between commanding an offense for a top 15 team and attending college as a normal student.
“I wouldn’t be playing, I don’t think,” Waters says. “I might have walked on somewhere like Northwest Missouri State or maybe given Iowa State a try, but if not for Iowa Western I honestly probably wouldn’t be playing.”
Scott Strohmeier, the head coach who offered Waters a scholarship after Waters was done at tiny St. Albert High, takes no credit for the assist. But Strohmeier does admit to celebrating as if he won the lottery when Waters enrolled at his school.
“I was very surprised when we got him,” Strohmeier said by phone. “I didn’t really think I was going to have a shot with him. I thought for sure someone was going to go in on him. He was too good. Mechanically, he was as good as I have seen coming out of high school. From day one, he was pinpoint with his passes. He was also a great athlete and a winner, the total package.”
Why did Strohmeier view Waters as a future star when others, including K-State, had no idea who he was?
The explanation begins with Waters’ older a brother, a receiver who played for Iowa Western and went on to catch passes at Ohio. Strohmeier had such a good experience with the Waters family that he wanted it to continue.
He was also the only coach who watched Waters excel at three different sports. Every year, Waters went from football — 5,288 career yards and 70 touchdowns passing on top of 1,820 yards and 28 touchdowns rushing — right into basketball and then into baseball, spending every summer playing shortstop.
Jumping from sport to sport ruined any chance Waters had of gaining attention from Division I coaches. The few who asked him to attend their scouting camps were told he was too busy chasing state championships. For the longest time, he favored baseball.
“The thing with Jake is, whatever sport he is in he is going to give it his all,” Strohmeier said. “He wants to be the best in that sport. That is the type of competitor he is. He wasn’t focused on football going into his senior year. He was focused on baseball.”
Waters never felt slighted. Looking back, he admits “I wouldn’t have recruited me, either.”
That meant his only athletic option existed at Iowa Western, and the result was a brilliant two-year career that included school passing records, a national championship and recruiting calls from powerhouse programs, including Alabama and Texas. He ended up choosing K-State over Penn State.
“Once I made that decision to come here I never looked back,” Waters said. “I’ve been accepted into the family, and I respect these guys. I love these guys, love the coaches. I wouldn’t trade my decision for anything.”
Still, he nearly settled on North Dakota, a Football Championship Subdivision school, before that mushroom cloud of recruiting.
North Dakota was the lone four-year school to offer a scholarship after Waters’ first season of junior college, and he was tempted to transfer — very tempted. If not for his loyalty to Strohmeier, he may have.
“I was definitely frustrated,” Waters said. “I thought I deserved more looks, but that gave me more motivation to come back and work even harder and train even harder and make sure I had a better year.”
He carried that same determination into K-State, where nothing was given to him. To start, he had to learn a new offense, win over a new locker room and beat out Daniel Sams (now at McNeese State) in a semester.
Few players can make the transition so quickly.
“He just understood what it took to fight for your job,” K-State senior receiver Tyler Lockett said. “He was doing everything we saw him do in junior college within weeks at K-State.”
Del Miller, K-State’s quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator, added: “Jake is very passionate. You recognize those guys as winners, and he is a winner. He is very much like Collin Klein. I kidded him that if he got prepared well enough I could go eat chocolate chip cookies on the sideline. I could have done some of that this year.”
Indeed, Waters has thrown for as many as 400 yards in a game while also becoming K-State’s second-leading rusher on the season. He put the offense on his back and led a second-half comeback at Iowa State, he has played through injuries and he has helped turn Lockett and Curry Sexton into one of the top receiving duos in the nation.
Not bad for a guy almost no one wanted.
“I always thought I could play with the best, and coach Strohmeier gave me the confidence to go out and try to do exactly that,” Waters said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”