A few years ago, Jake Zilinskas placed a bet on himself.
Deep in his heart, he believed he belonged on a major Division I college football team. Not only that, Zilinskas believed he could get on the field and be a contributor. But, considering not one NCAA Division I FBS team had made him an offer when he was coming out of high school, a lot of people probably thought Zilinskas was delusional.
But Zilinskas didn’t listen to them. Instead, he listened to his heart.
Five years later, his bet has paid off in a big way.
The 2016 Indiana High School graduate is now a key member of the Pitt Panthers’ offense, on a full athletic scholarship, and living the life he had envisioned for himself four years ago when he left John Carroll University to walk on at his dream school.
“I wasn’t out to prove anyone wrong,” he said. “I just wanted to prove myself right, and it feels good to achieve it.”
Zilinskas, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound tight end/fullback, played in 10 of the Panthers’ 11 games and was on the field for many important situations, with his blocking serving as his main attribute for a team that at one point in the season was ranked in the Top 25.
Technically, it was his senior season, but because of the uncertainty surrounding sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA announced that any player who took part in the 2020 season will not lose a season of eligibility.
“I’m excited about next year,” he said, “and I’m excited about where I’m at now.”
That’s a change from where Zilinskas was when he first arrived at Pitt in January 2017. He had spent one
miserable semester at John Carroll, in Ohio, where he couldn’t enjoy where he was because he yearned to be somewhere else. He could have stayed at the Division III school and probably been a really good player for a really
good small-college program, but Zilinskas had higher hopes than that.
“I grew up wanting to play at Pitt,” he said. “I never forgot about it.”
In high school, he was on track for a likely Division I scholarship as a quarterback, but a serious leg injury ended his senior season after three games. All the Division I interest dried up, so he took an offer to play Division III football, where athletic scholarships do not exist.
But the yearning to play Division I football didn’t go away, so Zilinskas bet on himself by transferring to Pitt and joined the football team as a walk-on, meaning he would pay his own way without a scholarship.
Zilinskas, 23, spent three seasons with the Panthers and practiced every day, but he never played on Saturdays.
Then this season came, and things changed.
For one, Zilinskas found a position he could call his own. He had been a quarterback in 2017, a tight end in 2018 and a linebacker and tight end in 2019. In the offseason, he settled in as a tight end-slash-fullback who could help as a pass catcher and a run blocker.
“Last year I was a core special teams guy,” he said. “I thought it was a good experience for me, a good foundation. I was really glad to have that experience and have another year to improve.”
Proof that Zilinskas has really arrived came during preseason camp. During a team meeting, players in the senior class were asked to introduce themselves to the rest of the team, and when Zilinskas said his name, hometown and position, his teammates immediately celebrated as if he had won an award.
The truth was he had: on a video screen high up on the wall behind him, Zilinskas saw his picture and a message under it: “Congrats Jake! You’re on scholarship!”
“It wasn’t something I was expecting,” he said. “I was caught off guard. I had to like get a hold of myself. It was a really cool moment.”
Zilinskas spent a lot of time with the first-team offense this season, but it wasn’t until Nov. 21, in the eighth game of the season, when he got his first highlight.
With a 26-point lead on Virginia Tech in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were trying to milk the clock when they faced a fourth-and-3 at the Hokies’ 19-yard line. Rather than kick a meaningless field goal, Pitt went for the first down, and quarterback Kenny Pickett hit Zilinskas along the sideline for a 14-yard gain and a first down. Two plays later, Pitt scored a touchdown, ending a drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock.
“It’s not a play we run often, but we practice it a lot,” Zilinskas said. “I was grateful they called it because the last time I made a play with the football, I got hurt (in high school). They called the play, we lined up and we did it. It was cool to make a play and see my coaches and teammates happy for me.”
That was the only catch of the year for Zilinskas, but it proved he belonged. And at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters to him.
“I knew I was taking a leap of faith when I left John Carroll,” Zilinskas said. “But it was all worth it.”