Eric “Jake” Jacobson can’t remember what it’s like to coach a football game without significant pain in his feet. But he can’t wait to rediscover that feeling today.
Jacobson, who is in his 22nd year of coaching at his alma mater, El Camino High School, suffered through ever-worsening issues with first his left and then his right foot over the past eight years. Ultimately, after more than 20 surgeries, an infection in his right foot started to spread up his leg a year ago, leaving Jacobson in excruciating pain and without any other options.
On Thanksgiving Day last year, Jacobson had his right leg amputated below the knee.
Nine months later, he feels like a new man. Jacobson, 41, is finally pain free. He is rapidly adjusting to the prosthetic limb he got in February, and his left foot has heeled and is in a protective boot.
And, boy, is he ready for football.
When El Camino kicks off its season at Menlo-Atherton today, Jacobson will be coaching in both games. After completing a 10-year stint as the varsity head coach in 2009, he is now the defensive coordinator for the frosh-soph team and the defensive line coach for the varsity.
“It’s going to be really special to be back where I belong,” said Jacobson, whose podiatric issues stemmed from Charcot Marie Tooth disease, an inherited nerve disorder that causes a loss of muscle tissue, a high arch and then a bone drop. “I feel like a kid again.”
In the darkest days, and there were plenty of them, Colts football was largely what Jacobson could throw himself into to try forget about the pain. The El Camino program has always been a tight-knit family, and Jake, as everyone but his parents calls him, fosters that perhaps more than anyone else.
“It just means everything to him,” his wife, Chrissy, said. “He just puts his heart and soul, 100 percent, more than 100 percent into it.”
In October of 2007, Jacobson, a physical education teacher at El Camino, was placed on catastrophic leave because of complications with his dislocated right foot, and he went on to miss the final seven-plus months of the school year for the second straight year. Jacobson had to temporarily surrender his head coaching duties, but that didn’t stop him from being an integral part of the coaching staff.
He was in attendance at every game – watching from a variety of angles, even from inside his truck during a rainy Bell Game against rival South San Francisco – and was an important part of the defensive game-planning. From home, Jacobson also wrote an inspirational letter to each player every week.
And there wasn’t a person more proud when that team captured the program’s first outright league championship since 1970.
Remarkably, through his minefield of medical issues, Jacobson only missed three football games – all at the end of the 2006 season. But even at that juncture, when he was hospitalized with a life-threatening staph infection, he kept calling people to find out what the score in the Bell Game was.
One year ago today, Jacobson’s doctor told him that an infection from a permanent open wound in his right foot from a late 2008 surgery had worsened to the point where he advised scheduling an immediate amputation. But Jacobson begged his doctor for antibiotics to put off the procedure until the end of the football season or even the school year.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from El Camino football, and I’d already been away more than I wanted to in the last 5-6 years,” he said. “Selfish for me, but I wanted to be there with the kids and for the kids. I love it.”
So Jacobson gutted his way through the 2010 season, working as an assistant on the frosh-soph team. The pain was the worst when it would travel up his leg at night, and he couldn’t find a comfortable sleeping position.
“I was scared to go to bed,” he said. “I would scream. The only thing I could do was knock myself out with painkillers. … It got so bad my calf was the same size as my thigh.”
Not that he ever let his extreme discomfort show at school or on the field.
“He went about life like nothing was wrong. That’s the type of thing you have to respect and admire,” said El Camino varsity head coach Mark Turner, who repeatedly lauded the “positive attitude” of his friend. “I can’t imagine the type of pain he was going through. I had to look at that thing every day, and it was painful for me! It was like, ‘Man, how do you do it?!’”
Ironically, it was almost immediately after the season ended that Jacobson’s leg finally gave out for good. The constant pain started up his leg during the daytime, too, and he was brought to the hospital in tears the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
The amputation brought on what Jacobson called “a new level of pain,” but it all went away a day later, and he said he hasn’t taken a pain pill since.
Eager to shorten his third catastrophic leave from El Camino in five years, Jacobson tackled the difficult task of learning to walk again once he got his protheses. He wasn’t slated to return to school until August, but he pressed himself in his rehabilitation and made it back in May for the final four weeks of class. “I’m more proud of that than anything,” he said.
Now, Jacobson, who has a 9-year-old daughter, MaryKate, pushes himself to walk as much as possible -- “I’m getting stronger and it’s really noticeable,” – and he tries to rely on his three-wheel scooter less each successive day.
The amputation – a very difficult reality that the Jacobsons were forced to accept after no amount of morphine could stop Jake’s pain – has proved to be a liberating thing for the whole family.
“It’s just been a really long road. We never saw the end of it, we never saw the light at the end of the tunnel until now,” Chrissy said. “Now that he’s back, he’s so happy. It’s really unreal for both of us. It’s definitely a new way of living, a second chance at life, so it’s been great.”
Jacobson is teaching five periods of PE this fall. And in the week leading up to the football openers at Menlo-Atherton, he could hardly contain his excitement when talking about his hands-on work with the Colts at practice.
“Man, they’re a joy to work with. I’m having a blast. It’s fun to be back,” Jacobson said. “For me, God, it’s kind of like I’ve been born again.”