Jake Lazzaro can’t throw a football.
That’s where we start because it’s easy to single out what the Oceanside senior cannot do. Start discussing the things that he can do and now you’re making lists. The 6-2, 180-pound wideout runs routes with precision, outleaps defenders for nearly every ball and, once he has it in his hands, it’s going to require track-star speed to run him down.
He is a football coach’s dream and is Long Island’s top returning receiver after making 59 catches for 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games as the Sailors reached the 2017 Class I title game. He caught five passes for 82 yards and a score in this season’s opener against Westbury. On Saturday Lazzaro had two receptions, one for a 70-yard touchdown, in Oceanside's 32-0 over Uniondale.
Oceanside coach Rob Blount calls Lazzaro “a generational football player,” which is a little bit surprising when one considers the circumstances. Football is Lazzaro’s No. 2 sport.
If he is a natural on the gridiron, he is supernatural on a baseball diamond. He runs the show on defense from the shortstop position, where he glides to devour everything close and has a powerful and accurate arm. At the plate, he hits rockets from the left side with a swing that has intrigued pro scouts.
“He was always fast and had a good glove,” said Oceanside senior Chris Silkas, who has played with Lazzaro at every baseball level for years. “In the eighth and ninth grade he shot up to 6-1 or 6-2. His arm strength got better. He became quicker and more agile. He started making every play. And at the plate he started crushing the ball and hasn’t stopped since.”
“I love playing football and I want to see us back in the LIC,” Lazzaro said. “That’s the focus right now. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that baseball feels like home.”
The football programs wanted him. Blount said that Boston College, Syracuse and Rutgers all expressed interest. Lazarro wasn’t tempted. He opted last year to commit to St. John’s over BC, Army and Columbia and play baseball. He has a chance to start for the Red Storm as a freshman — and is on track to academically qualify for freshman participation with a program that has a track record for players getting drafted.
That is, if he isn’t drafted out of high school. Lazzaro was the Nassau Conference AA-I Most Valuable Player after slashing .412/.510/.576 with 34 runs scored and 22 stolen bases out of the Sailors’ leadoff spot. Asked whether he would opt to play professionally if he were selected in the MLB Draft out of high school, Lazzaro said, “it would really depend on the circumstances . . . but I do dream of playing on a major league team one day.”
Of course he does. It’s like every kid that grows up with a bat and ball. Here’s the thing, though: He might just have what it takes to do it.
Long Island has some history with two-sport stars in baseball and football that went on to play one or the other at the highest level. Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, out of Kings Park, is one of the standards. So is former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason from East Islip. The road to the pros is long and hard —and few excel as those two did — but Lazzaro has the potential to be cut from a similar cloth.
Lazzaro played some football in middle school, but not in ninth grade at the high school. That school year, Blount was his social studies teacher and made it a mission to get Lazzaro on his team. Blount said “every single day for basically 180 days it was ‘Jake, you’re playing football’ and finally he agreed . . . when he joined it was straight to the varsity.”
“Each day [Blount] won me over a little more and now I love it,” Lazzaro said. “Football and baseball are both team sports but the team element is so much bigger in football. Everyone has to be doing things right to succeed and being a part of that feels great.”
While he seems the perfect fit for quarterback, Lazzaro said there was no shot. “I can throw a baseball maybe 80 mph and accurately. I can’t throw a football with any consistency.”
Lazzaro spoke to Newsday on Thursday, one year to the day of what might have been his biggest personal trial. That day, his father, Jack Lazzaro — long divorced from his mother — was found dead at his home at 47 of what the family describes as sudden and undetermined causes. His mother and Blount summoned Jake to the Oceanside football offices and “they told me. I was just shocked and didn’t know what to think,” Lazzaro said. “But not practicing, not playing, is not what my dad would have wanted.”
Offered the chance to go home, Lazzaro went to practice and he hasn’t missed a practice or a game since. “It’s still weird that I still have the impulse to call him, but I can’t . . . But sometimes I can still hear his voice talking me through situations.”
“Jake hasn’t always had it easy and that may be the reason that he handles adversity so well today,” his mother, Jen Lazzaro, said. “He was seven when his father and I divorced and when a kid’s parents are getting divorced, sometimes it exposes them to parts of their parents kids don’t usually see . . . He also had coaches on the travel teams when he was young that [critiqued] his game in a sometimes harsh light . . . Jake internalizes things and so he isn’t very emotional. Everything is in check with him, good or bad, in life or on the field.”
“I don’t know if sports is a place for him to find solace or not.” Blount said. “A playing field is definitely his comfort zone.”
Maybe that is why Lazzaro is the consummate leader. It comes to him naturally. Jen Lazzaro recalled that in sixth grade her son received a citizenship award at school and was cited for “helping others even when no one was looking” and for “kindness that was innate.”
“I am who I am because my parents always believed in me and what I hope to be,” Lazzaro said. “They always told me I belonged, no matter what. Has that given me my confidence? I think so.”
But that’s not all his parents bestowed on him. Jen Lazzaro was a star soccer player at Adelphi and went on to play professionally for the Long Island Rough Riders of the United Women’s Soccer League. Jack Lazzaro’s sport was basketball and Jen Lazzaro said “both of us were fast and I might see that in his speed playing [football].”
Lazzaro looks back and said he is thrilled that his father was alive to see him commit to St. John’s to play baseball. It was the latest stop on a road that Jen Lazzaro said began with them playing ball in the backyard when he was 5 and continued through Jack coaching his teams until he was 13. Jake said “at that point he’d given me all the knowledge he could give about baseball” and let others do the coaching.
“I know he loved the idea that I’d play at St. John’s,” Lazzaro said. “I know he loved the idea of coming to Queens to see every game.”
Jack Lazzaro may not be there as Jake travels a path that could lead to professional baseball. But everyone who remembers seeing Biggio and Esiason will be following it every step of the way.