Loonam defines dedication

Bulldogs TE maintains grueling responsibilities to team as well as Army ROTC

Updated: August 20, 2012, 12:59 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia football players often complain about the grueling winter workouts known around the program as mat drills.

Many of them have difficulty completing a mat drills session alone, much less another physical fitness test on the same day. But that's what Georgia walk-on tight end and Army ROTC cadet Jack Loonam accomplished one day last winter.

Loonam completed an Army PT test at 5:30 a.m. -- including a 2-mile run and as many situps and pushups as he could complete in two-minute intervals -- which he had to pass as one of the stipulations of his ROTC scholarship. Then he attended class all day before participating in an intense football mat drills session in the afternoon.

Because of the cardiovascular fitness level required to complete his Army workouts, Loonam weighs only about 210 pounds -- much less than the average tight end, but 30 or 40 pounds more than most of his fellow cadets.

Needless to say, he felt a sense of accomplishment after surviving that demanding series of events.

"I had to do a PT test in the morning, which is already enough of a workout as it is, where one thing is to keep my Army scholarship and another thing to pretty much keep my spot on the team," said Loonam, a redshirt freshman. "So it was a long, tough day, but after I got through it, I felt like I could do a lot more stuff after this day."

That was an extreme example of the juggling act Loonam must perform between football and ROTC, but both activities can be extremely time-consuming. He said new acquaintances' first question typically concerns how he manages to keep up with both.

"I tell them it's literally day by day," he said. "After last year, it was a big learning experience, so I've learned how to balance them a lot more. I feel so much more comfortable now this fall, knowing what I learned last year all through the fall and doing stuff with [the ROTC program] in the spring."

Unlike scholarship athletes, many Georgia walk-ons must seek part-time employment or find other means -- like Loonam's Army scholarship -- to pay their way through college. Such an arrangement keeps them busier than the average college student.

"We all have a lot of responsibilities and stuff, but adding ROTC in there is just another thing," said senior defensive end Ricky Lowe, who served as Loonam's team big brother last season. "We're all pressed for time as it is. I barely have any free time and he has ROTC on top of that. That's impressive. Plenty of guys have part-time jobs just to support themselves. I don't know where these guys find the time."

Loonam is not the first Georgia player to handle military and football responsibilities at the same time. For example, coach Mark Richt said his nephew Rowdy Francis walked on to the football team and worked with UGA's Air Force unit a few years back. But it's highly unusual for a player to commit to do both.

"He's got some class commitments that may keep him from being at a practice or at a meeting or at part of something like that. But he does a great job," Georgia tight ends coach John Lilly said. "He's one of those guys that probably gets more out of his 24 hours a day than a lot of people do."

UGA: A family theme

Loonam spent several years in Athens as a child while his father, Tim, completed his degree at Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine -- a time when he learned to love the Bulldogs. And just like he followed his father to UGA, he followed him into the Army.

Tim, whom Jack described as his hero, won a Bronze Star after his 13-month deployment to Iraq in 2004, during which time he treated military working dogs in an airborne veterinary detachment, among other duties. Jack was only 10 when his father was called up for service.

"I didn't know if I was going to see him again because it was combat, so it was really tough," Loonam said. "I still remember being in the hotel room saying goodbye, just me and him, and he told me to be the man of the house and to watch out for my mom and my little sister.

"I think that's when I started to grow up a little because my dad's gone and I had to take care of my mom and sister. After that, that's when I really thought in the back of my mind that maybe [ROTC] is something I want to do."

And so as he aged and realized a full ride in football was unlikely, Loonam explored the possibility of earning an Army ROTC scholarship, and he was impressed with the battalion at Georgia. At the same time, he expressed to Georgia's football coaches an interest in walking on with the Bulldogs after participating in Richt's summer camp and interacting with Lilly while the coach was scouting other players.

Loonam and his father were visiting Georgia in March of his senior year at Lexington (S.C.) High School when they learned that not only had he been accepted to attend UGA, but football recruiting assistant Charlie Cantor extended Jack an offer to be one of the Bulldogs' six preferred walk-ons. That meant he was assured of a spot on the team.

"They told me that, 'We're going to take care of it,' and that sort of thing along with ROTC. 'We've been in contact with them and they've said great things about you.' I found out that day I got into UGA and I found out that I was going to be on the football team I wanted to be on," Loonam said. "That was like the greatest day of my life."

Keeping it all together

Loonam's two-part responsibilities prevent him from fully immersing himself in football. Because of the cardiovascular fitness level required to complete his Army workouts, Loonam weighs only about 210 pounds -- much less than the average tight end, but 30 or 40 pounds more than most of his fellow cadets.

However, he does his best to maintain a balance so he can continue to participate in both activities.

[+] EnlargeJack Loonam
AP Photo/John AmisWhile his father completed his veterinary studies at UGA years ago, Jack Loonam became an ardent Bulldogs fan.
"I'm sure he'll never look back with any regrets that he didn't try," Richt said. "For us, that's a good thing."

Loonam views his football participation in the same light. He knows that with highly recruited players like Arthur Lynch, Jay Rome and Ty Smith ahead of him on the depth chart, he might never play a down at tight end. But he works hard on Georgia's scout team in practice and hopes he might someday make it onto the field in a game.

"I'm not going to be a starter tight end and I'm not getting any taller and I'm not going to get into a huge weight because I need to stay in this shape for Army," Loonam said, "but I told [Lilly], 'Coach, I'm going to work my butt off for scout team and special teams and all.' My goal before I graduate is to hopefully get on the field for special teams at some point. That's what I'm shooting for."

Lilly certainly isn't ruling out that possibility.

"He works extremely hard and will do anything that's asked of him," Lilly said. "He plays on a lot of our scout teams whether it be defensively, offensively or in the kicking game. More often than not, the way the story ends on those guys is they wind up finding a niche somewhere if they want it bad enough."

Desire probably will not be an issue for Loonam. Otherwise he wouldn't put himself through the grind of participating in both of his time-consuming pastimes.

But he wouldn't have it any other way. He views his membership in both the Army battalion and the Bulldogs football roster as an opportunity to reflect positively on both programs, despite the demanding time constraints he faces on a regular basis.

"I'm proud of what I represent," Loonam said. "I'm proud to be a football player and represent this great team and I'm also even more proud to be part of people that are serving our country and know that I can be an officer one day and lead people. It's a big deal to us."