Five-year-old Jake Laird told his mom that he was going to play soccer until he was 50. Although he isn’t sure if his body will hold out that long, the 22-year-old still has a strong love for the game.
Jake’s mom and dad, Donna and Jeff, started Jake in soccer when he was only three years old. He cried on the cooler and refused to play. After the first half, he agreed to go in, and after that there was no looking back.
“Second grade was when he went to a select team,” Donna said. “In second grade, everyone wants to play around and mess around. He would do that, but he’s always been very focused.”
Jake was playing in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy in St. Louis his senior year of high school when the Missouri State associate head coach, Michael Seabolt, discovered him.
“He was interested pretty late,” Jake said. “I was already talking to a couple other schools, but he really interested me, so I committed here.”
Jake was not the player to kiss up to coaches or to receive playing time purely because of his talent. He played a lot of minutes in high school, but he consistently worked hard for those minutes.
That wasn’t necessarily the case when Jake arrived in Springfield as a freshman. A senior at the time, Parker Maher, started in all 18 games at left back and later continued his career as a professional athlete.
“He was working and working and not getting minutes in any games,” Donna said. “He was frustrated, but we saw Parker playing. He was then told that he was going to be a redshirt.”
Redshirting his freshman year was not initially in Jake’s big plan. He struggled to keep his eye on the ball as he tried not to lose heart. Jake used his mother as a crutch.
“Jake has contacted me every single day since he’s been away at college,” Donna said. “After he told me that (he was redshirting), I sent him quotes, Bible verses, little cartoons, anything I could to keep him up and going.”
As he worked through freshman year, he talked to his mom about quitting soccer.
“I told him, ‘Jake, bud, you do what you want. But I’m going to tell you, I’ve watched you all of these years working your butt off to play DI soccer,’” Donna said. “‘And you’re here. Just because you’re a redshirt doesn’t mean you quit working.’”
Donna and Jeff knew they had to let Jake figure it out on his own.
“That freshman year really toughened me up,” Jake said.
After making it through his extremely mentally challenging freshman year, Jake doubted the sport again.
He received his first career start at home against Evansville during his redshirt freshman season. He started in eight games that year, followed by 16 games his sophomore year and in all 17 games his junior year. His junior year, Jake switched positions to center mid.
“We had a freshman left back come in, and we needed players in midfield,” Jake said.
He has stayed at center mid through his senior season.
“He’s worked extremely hard over the last five years to improve his game and mature and become even more technical,” Seabolt said. “He took about a year and a half to really break into the lineup, and then after that he never looked back. He’s been a mainstay, one of those guys you put on the lineup every game without question.”
Many college athletes go through a similar struggle as Jake did his freshman year.
Not all of those athletes, Jake said, transition to a “mainstay” player as he has. His best friend from high school, his roommate freshman year and four other freshmen in Jake’s class at MSU all quit soccer after their first year.
“There’s a lot of freshman guys that come in and are disappointed because they’re not playing, and I understand that,” Jake said. ”But once you get through that year and you get yourself into the team, it gets a lot easier.”
Jake will graduate in December with a sociology degree, but he doesn’t plan to move on from soccer just yet.
“I want to keep playing until someone tells me I can’t anymore,” Jake said.
“Soccer is his love,” Donna said. “To see your kid’s dream possibly come true is the best thing for a mom. My heart feels like it’s about to burst for him.”