Jack Ham remembers walking off the field of his final game at Massanutten Military Academy in the fall of 1966, thinking he had played his last game of football
Little did he know he was set to begin a journey that would include four Super Bowl rings and eight Pro Bowl selections, eventually seeing him inducted into the Pro Football and College Football halls of fame.
Now one of the most decorated players in Penn State history, Ham was — to put it kindly — a lightly recruited player out of high school. Following high school, he went to prep school for a year at Massanutten in Woodstock, Va., playing what he thought was his final season of football. He now admits he didn’t stand out, or even play as much, as he would have liked.
He had no scholarship offers, no real interest from colleges during his time at the academy. He seemed destined to move on from football. It was a fact that stuck with him for most of his one year at Massanutten. But it took one twist on the recruiting trail, and a good word from a friend, to change his life’s direction.
Ham had a teammate, Steve Smear, who was recruited and offered a scholarship by Penn State. When one of the Nittany Lions committed players instead switched up his recruitment and chose Iowa, Smear reached out to the coaching staff and suggested Ham. Smear saw potential in his teammate, even if no college coaches at the time saw it. Ham didn’t have a single college scholarship offer; the closest thing he had was an offer from East Carolina that, he remembers, would cover “$300 or maybe $400 in books a semester.”
So after watching some game tape — “there was no highlight package of Jack Ham” — and hearing Smear’s recommendation, the Penn State coaching staff reached out to Ham late in the spring before his freshman year of college.
The irony is that Ham planned on enrolling at Penn State, though football was out of the equation. He didn’t even plan on attempting to walk on to the team. Ham was going to go to class, work and be a normal student. Over four decades later, he has a gold jacket from the Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best Nittany Lions to ever play the game. But at one point in time, one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game had plans to never play again.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself," Ham told Sporting News. "It showed. All you want is an opportunity and they gave me that opportunity with that scholarship and I ran with it. Of all the people that were instrumental in my life — when you’re 18 or 19 years old and you get that opportunity — I took that opportunity and was fortunate that they gave me that scholarship. That’s why I’m indebted to them forever.”
Ham, shocked by the news and the scholarship offer, immediately signed up. Since he was going to enroll at Penn State, his destination wasn’t going to change. But now he was going to play big-time college football — and do so on a scholarship.
He was now on a trajectory that led him to four Super Bowl trophies with the Pittsburgh Steelers and six All-Pro selections. He didn’t make an immediate impact, but the tough, gutsy kid from Johnstown, Penn., set about to seize the opportunity in front of him.
Per NCAA rules, freshmen were ineligible to play. So Ham used that year to practice, hit the weight room and get better on the field. By the following spring, he was showing out in practice. By training camp, the kid with zero scholarship offers, who was resigned to quitting football following his high school career, had a starting job locked down on one of the nation’s top defenses.
“There were a lot of guys coming back my sophomore year. It’s not like we had eight or nine spots open. It was one or two,” Ham said. “And I made the first team defense and got better and better, and getting confidence. Then I leave here after four years and go off to Pittsburgh.”
He was a starter on two undefeated Penn State teams, and finished with 251 career tackles. True to his word, Ham only continued to get better after he left college for a career in the NFL — a career that ranks him among the best linebackers to ever play the game. The unquestioned work ethic and intensity he showed in high school forged a path to stardom in the NFL.
Last week, Ham was inducted as a Hometown Hall of Famer, an award given in conjunction with the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Ford.
“Forget about my football career because I was sure I wasn’t going to play football again,” Ham said. “They gave me the opportunity, that’s what Penn State gave to me.
"They gave me an opportunity.”