“I don’t know who told you it would be a good idea to interview me.”
Jake Dembow chuckles, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve been told that it’s a mildly entertaining and enjoyable story by other people.” He says this about 30 minutes into our conversation, so at this point it’s been made clear that his story is at least mildly entertaining and enjoyable.
His far-from-linear path makes for an enjoyable story. To emphasize the story, Jake Dembow talks with his hands. He talks with his hands, a lot. He talks about his offensive line and motions toward the magnets with pictures of the players stuck to a white board. He talks about how no one has a linear path, and pantomimes a winding road. And he thinks about the future of what he is doing, but makes sure to knock on wood as not to jinx it—he knows he has a good thing in front of him, and always has.
Every word comes with a facial expression or hand motion. Before I have the chance to sit down, he’s interviewing me: “Where are you from? What year are you? What’s your major?” He’s animated, friendly, and above all, focused.
“Thick skin, short memory,” he repeats to his offensive linemen. Offensive linemen, by nature, are tough and focused. Thick skin, short memory. They’re not distracted by the last play, however great or disappointing it may have been. Thick skin, short memory. He drills this into his coaching strategy and—maybe intentionally or maybe accidentally—drills it into his own life.
Dembow has been on the offensive line from the start. Although he was “too big” to play until his freshman year of high school in Merrimack, New Hampshire, he had Ivy League prospects for college. When those didn’t work out, he looked toward his other options. Keeping in touch with Coach Jim Parady during his senior year, Marist became his home.
During his Marist tenure –playing, that is — he started in each of his 44 games. He never missed a Dean’s List. He was an All-MAAC honoree in 2007, and, as he said, was able to “represent the guys as captain.” The wording is important here. Jake didn’t look at his captainship as something to put on his resumé, or to push his own agenda. He took it as an opportunity to be a voice and a leader for his team, to work hard for them.
The Marist College football team that Dembow led, however, would hardly be recognizable from what the program is today. He remembers the enthusiasm of being provided cleats for the first time, something most college athletes would take for granted today.
The program has undoubtedly grown and changed, but Jake doesn’t look back on what he had or didn’t have. He looks fondly at the here and now, happy and excited for those who get to enjoy what the program has to offer today.
But in 2009, it was time to move on to the next thing, to adapt to the next situation. Like many, he had a perfect world in mind. And like with many, that perfect world doesn’t always work out.
It went something like this: play for the Arena League Football (AFL) team in his home state of New Hampshire, live at home, make use of his history and adolescent education degree by substitute teaching or volunteering, coach at his old high school, and go from there.
The indoor football AFL league seemed like the natural next step. But as his senior year came to a close, the opportunity with the Manchester Wolves was no longer being offered. After exploring other options, Jake set out for New Mexico a few days post grad. His two-game stint in the AFL ended with some back problems coming off back surgery in the year prior. It was time to adapt. Thick skin, short memory.
Hopes of playing in New Mexico and trying to get back to the Manchester Wolves, were no longer viable when the team went under in 2009. But thick skin, short memory. Dembow’slove for football couldn’t keep him out of the game, and he didn’t want out.
“What I wanted to do was go over to Europe,” he explained. “I knew I wanted to, I just didn’t know when or how I was going to get there.”
He had been communicating with a Danish football club that was looking to build a team from the inside out. Dembow was looking for his next path. The opportunity came, and he took it. He coached while rehabbing his back, and jumped back into playing once he was ready.
“It was a great opportunity to do some things in life that I wanted to. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to travel, and I wasn’t done playing football.”
Jake Dembow taught me a few things about the football clubs in Europe: There are limits to how many Americans you can have on your team, and sometimes even on the field (Americans wear a red “A” on their helmets to signify this). Many of the players have day jobs, some on oil rigs, some as stay at home dads. The phrase “putting in work” applied to everything, too; they’d run practice drills, then they’d mow the lawns.
For two seasons, Dembow was a part of the Danish football club as a player coach. It wasn’t the shiny and glamorous NFL or even the less shiny, but still somewhat glamorous AFL, but it was a “small, thriving subculture,” he explains. “They broadcast games over there. Guys are staying up late watching the NFL at [two in the morning.] They’ll watch the Super Bowl, go to work all bleary eyed.” The team was promoted to the elite level and made the playoffs in 2012, getting on track for their goals of building this team.
He reflects fondly on his old club’s goal of making the Mermaid Bowl, the Hans Christian Andersen inspired name for the championship in the Danish football league. Jake smiles and nods his head, beaming, when he says they achieved that goal in 2014, with local talent as well. “It was really touching to see. They wanted to do it, they did it, and now they’re looking to get back to that level.”
Between the friends he met in Europe, the ones who followed after him, and the travel opportunities he had, are all recounted with such fondness, that it feels like “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen should start playing. But I don’t think Jake Dembow believes in glory days, he believes in what’s in front of him.
He knew he had done his job in Denmark. “If I was going to do something else, I was going to kind of be on my own,” he says.
After talking to a few clubs throughout Europe, a Norwegian team came about. Looking also to build a team from “the inside out,” Jake’s offensive line background and European experience fit the bill. He was chosen for the job out of a large pool of candidates, and was named team captain.
“They were a relatively new club. We wore pink jerseys, it was really cool,” he laughs. “It was uniquely different from Denmark.” He goes on to talk about how most of the guys he played with in Norway worked on oil rigs, but just loved football. Kind of like Dembow. His time with the club in Norway only lasted four months. Making the playoffs, they lost in a “heartbreaker” in the semifinals.
“I knew I was going to be done playing,” he reflects. Jake knew then and knows now that football doesn’t last forever. But his love and passion for the game –and teaching it–was not something he was going to let go of.
The friendships and connections he had made while playing overseas stayed with him. Leading him to the football program at Tufts University, Jake was ready to try his hand at college coaching.
Stepping into Tufts was far different from what Jake had experienced in his past player and coaching positions. But his brother lived close, which provided convenience in terms of a living situation in a new place. This was his opportunity to hone and develop his coaching skills.
“We were an 0-8 football team in the middle of a 31-game losing streak. And I was a volunteer. So, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is different.’”
It almost goes without saying that a volunteer coaching position with an 0-8 football team doesn’t come with many (or any) benefits. So Dembow did what most 20-somethings trying to get career experience do along the way: waited tables at the Border Café. “I had a great time doing that, really!” Thick skin.
After some time, just as he was being to put his head down and get to work in a paid position at Tufts, the phone rang.
“It was the night after a late shift… I fell asleep on my brother’s couch, and I got a call from my good friend. He had actually just been promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and he said ‘Hey would you be interested in coming on as a GA [Graduate Assistant] at Marist?’”
He wasn’t going to take the position. With a paid position on the table at Tufts, he felt so grateful and loyal to them. Focused, if you will.
“[Tufts’] Coach [Jay] Civetti pulled me aside and said basically, ‘You’d be dumb not to go. It’s your home, it’s your alma mater, it’s Division I, you’re going to get more experience there. You need to take this.’”
Our story returns to where it began.
He started coaching the tight ends before switching over to running backs in the Fall of 2013 (they won the league championship that year.) In 2015, he returned to his true home, the offensive line, and got his master’s degree in educational psychology—which is very clear in the nurturing way he discusses coaching—along the way.
“Not only am I at my alma mater, I have my masters from here now, and I’m coaching the position that I played.” In a small way, he had kind of made it.
That is until he became the offensive coordinator this year.
He asked Coach Jim Parady, whom he had known for at least 10 years at this point, “Are you sure?”
“Well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I wasn’t.”
Coach Parady coached Jake, and worked with him. There are probably few people who know Jake in football like Parady. And from the beginning, Parady saw what holds true for Dembowstill. “I knew early on he was a guy who had a passion for football. When I recruited him out of high school I found that instantly,” he said. “That’s one of the things that made me so excited about recruiting him, was his passion for the game.”
“I’m a crusty New Englander through and through.” Dembow tells of the New Hampshire plates he had to take off of his car that now decorate his house. He’s a New Yorker now, he tells me in his best New York accent. He cuts in, “The Hudson Valley is a lot like New England.” Jake acknowledges with gratitude that it could be a lot worse.
“I’m excited about what we have here right now. I’m excited about our future. I’m excited about where we have come from. I’m excited about where we are going in the conference,” he says as if he’s a little apologetic for not having a “cooler” answer. But that’s Jake Dembow. He is grateful for where he has been and is excited for where he is going and for what the player she coaches are able to accomplish.
“He’s really good at seeing the big picture,” said senior — and offensive lineman — Dan Wittekind. Dan, like Coach Dembow, has been a four-year starter, never missing a game. And like Coach Dembow, he’s able to represent his team as a captain this year. “He’s really one of the most knowledgeable football minds I’ve ever met.”
Jake Dembow’s friends and former teammates will return to their old stomping grounds, and his current place of work, for their 10-year reunion this weekend. In those 10 years, he has played or coached football across two continents, three countries, and five teams. In those 10 years, he took the changes and challenges as they come and never got stuck in the past or worried too much about the future. Thick skin, short memory.
Right now, Jake Dembow is the Offensive Coordinator for the Marist College football team. That’s what he’s doing and that’s what he’s focused on. He doesn’t think about the cliche, “well, what’s next for you?”
“I don’t know to be honest with you, I will coach until I don’t feel the way that I feel. And when that moment comes, I don’t know.” Whatever it is, mildly entertaining and enjoyable is probably a safe bet.
Edited by Kourtney Kowalski and Will Bjarnar
Header Image by Kristin Flanigan