The Linebacker on the Baseball Card

By Justin Long

Jeff Katz '11

[Football]  Jeff Katz is probably the only Division III football player who has his own baseball cards. I don’t mean he has his own collection. I mean you can actually buy Jeff Katz baseball cards.

And Katz is probably the only Division III football player who owns a log cabin in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He loves the outdoors, and for one week each year he invites his family to relax with him in what he calls his bachelor pad.

That’s how it is with Katz, a 24-year-old linebacker. He’s unlike any student the football program has ever seen. He’s a 6-foot-4-inch, 248-pound beast with a no-way-in-hell-I’m-messing-with-that-guy type of body and an unparalleled determination.

Most kids who wind up putting on the pads for Amherst are faced with the same debate as they approach the end of high school: Amherst or Williams? Katz’s debate didn’t involve the NESCAC. It didn’t even involve football. At Cheshire (Conn.) High School, he excelled as a two-sport athlete. Football was his true passion, but he shined brighter on the diamond as an All-State power pitcher. He knew he was going to play baseball after high school—he just had to decide between Boston College and the Atlanta Braves.

At the age of 18, Katz was drafted by the Braves in the ninth round of the 2004 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft (281st overall). He was good enough to be drafted earlier, but he rejected teams that didn’t agree to pay for his education. He knew he would go back to school someday.

In addition to a six-figure signing bonus, the Braves offered Katz $160,000 toward college. “I wouldn’t have accepted without it,” he says. “High school draft picks usually aren’t academically sound, so I think they assumed I wouldn’t wind up needing that money.” He pauses briefly and offers a proud smile. “But they’re reminded every semester when
I send them a bill.”

Katz played three seasons of rookie ball for the Braves—two in the Gulf Coast League and one in the Appalachian League. In 2005 he hurt his shoulder, and his fastball was never the same. The 2006 season was Katz’s last in baseball. Ready to spend the Braves’ money, he enrolled at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and returned to football. He appeared in 16 games as a defensive end in his two years with the Division I-AA Leopards, earning a spot on the Dean’s List and the Patriot League’s Academic Honor Roll.

When Katz wanted to transfer, he looked only at Amherst. “I kept things pretty quiet,” he says. “My coaches weren’t very happy with me, but I felt Amherst would give me the best possible academic opportunity.” At the end of 2008 Katz visited Amherst and met with head coach E.J. Mills, who assumed he was about to meet another “Rudy” who wanted to try out for the team. Mills changed from a skeptic to a believer when he saw Katz stroll in. “He passed the eye test,” Mills recalls.

Amherst Associate Dean of Admission Cate Zolkos remembers meeting Katz: “While Jeff’s focus and intensity were evident, he also conveyed a sense of quiet humility and self-awareness.” Katz maintains a 3.55 overall GPA (3.75 in political science, his major). He earned All-NESCAC honors in 2009 and 2010 as one of the conference’s best defensive players, despite never playing linebacker until he got to Amherst.

With the 2010 season now over, his football-playing will likely be limited to the Fantasy version. Katz has already earned his Series 7 license and, after graduation, will probably work in finance. Someday he might want to work in the front office of a baseball team.

The road Katz paved to Amherst wasn’t the most direct, and no one else might ever walk it again, but when he received that final check from the Braves in December, he knew it was well worth the journey.   

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04