Three knee surgeries later, Rams rookie running back Jake Funk appears ready to rumble
Jake Funk kept the faith through recruiting doubts and crowded depth charts, through knee surgeries and lost seasons, but as the future Rams rookie sat in a hospital bed in the fall of 2019 following a third surgery to his left knee, that faith was finally being tested.
An infection from the second surgery left the running back in misery. Funk couldn’t sleep. He struggled to eat or go to the bathroom. He lost 25 pounds. “I felt like a ghost,” he said.
He stayed overnight for observation after that third surgery, attached to an IV, ruminating on the frustrating path that led him to that point. He’d always managed to deflect the doubt, assuring himself with the utmost certainty that he was destined for the NFL, even when so few others seemed to believe. But the setbacks were piling up in dispiriting succession, and now, another lengthy rehab awaited.
Then, while Funk lay in his hospital bed, his father, Jim, told him something he would never forget.
“He told me, ‘The day you play in the NFL, you’ll remember this moment, and you’ll thank God that it happened,’” he recalled.
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Thinking back at a Rams practice earlier this month, Funk smiles. His father, he says, was right all along. On Saturday, when he slips on a No. 34 Rams jersey for his preseason debut against the Chargers, Funk knows he’ll have that moment on his mind.
“I look back sometimes, man, and I’m just proud to be here,” Funk said. “It was a long, hard road to get here. But I always knew I could play at this level.”
He’ll have plenty of chances to prove that to the Rams over the next four weeks. With Cam Akers out for the season with a torn Achilles, the Rams plan to play it safe with running back Darrell Henderson, leaving Funk, a seventh-round pick, and Xavier Jones, a second-year undrafted free agent, to lead the backfield through the preseason. Raymond Calais and undrafted free agent Otis Anderson are also expected to factor in.
The Rams have many roster questions that must be answered as training camp practices begin Wednesday, including who will replace injured running back Cam Akers.
Whoever emerges from that fray could play a critical, change-of-pace role on a high-powered Rams offense, assuming an established veteran isn’t added to the mix sometime this preseason.
“We feel really good about our depth,” Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said. “The competition will play out.”
Six years before the opportunity he’d long worked toward would finally present itself, Funk entered his senior season at Damascus High in Maryland without a single Power Five scholarship offer. As a junior, he’d rushed for 1,832 yards and 35 touchdowns for a 13-1 state runner-up. Still, most schools told him they saw his future at safety. Wisconsin wanted him to bulk up and try linebacker.
At first, Maryland didn’t see him as a running back either. Coach Randy Edsall was resolute in his decision not to offer Funk, who as a senior would set the state’s single-season rushing touchdown record (57). But in Oct. 2015, Edsall was let go midseason, and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley was inserted as interim head coach. Locksley sent an assistant to scout Funk a few days later and offered him that night. By the end of the week, Funk committed.
“I never gave up the faith. Life is about how you go through adversity. It’s about getting knocked down and getting back up.”
— Rams running back Jake Funk
“I’m very familiar with the DMV area,” said Locksley, who, after a stint at Alabama returned as Maryland’s head coach in 2019. “If you look at his high school stats and what he did his senior year, scoring like 50 touchdowns, he put up astronomical numbers, and he did it in one of the highest levels of high school football. He took his team to a state championship. It was pretty easy for me to justify giving this kid a chance.”
He had to wait a while to get that chance at Maryland. On a roster that produced four NFL running backs, opportunity was scarce during his first two seasons. Then, as a junior in 2018, he broke his hand in the season opener. When he finally returned two months later, Funk tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a kickoff against Ohio State. The universe, it seemed, was conspiring against him.
Locksley convinced him to stay as a redshirt junior, promising him a primary role. But after averaging more than 10 yards per carry over his first two games of 2019, Funk suffered a partial tear to the same ACL. He had surgery that October, ending his season just as it started.
The infection that came after was the worst of it, Funk said, more painful than either of the torn ligaments. He came out of that third surgery more determined than ever to work his way back, rehabbing five days a week with his brother, who owns a physical therapy clinic. Funk says he was ready to return to football after just five months.
But by then, the pandemic had put college football on pause.
“When COVID hit, and we weren’t able to train at Maryland, me and [my brother], one on one, five-six days a week, we got after it,” Funk said. “We were able to really get a lot closer and push me to a whole different level that I don’t think I could’ve pushed myself.”
Funk would ultimately get just four games to showcase how far he’d come. Four of Maryland’s nine games were canceled due to the pandemic, and Funk missed another after testing positive.
“I was overlooked,” Funk said. “Because I had a shortened season, I think it hurt a lot. I was on pace to be a 1,500-yard back in the Big Ten.
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Nonetheless, the small sample size was enough to convince the Rams, who were enamored by the data they culled from his shortened season. Among running backs with more than 45 attempts in 2020, Funk led the nation with 8.6 yards per carry. He also boasted more than 10 runs of 20 mph or faster, while Rams scouts graded his instincts highest among all running backs in the 2021 draft.
The Rams wound up drafting Funk 233rd overall with plans to first deploy him on special teams. But the injury to Akers may change that calculus. While Henderson is expected to receive the lion’s share of carries, Funk finds himself in position to carve out his own offensive role.
After all the setbacks and the surgeries and the seasons spent waiting on an opportunity, it’s a nice change of pace.
“I never gave up the faith,” Funk said. “Life is about how you go through adversity. It’s about getting knocked down and getting back up.”
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