BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — To put it in Jake Riddle’s words, he “cried like a baby” when he got the call to come play football at Samford University.
“It was really embarrassing when he (tight end coach Kurt Kennedy) called me,” said Riddle, reflecting on the call that came back in January. “I just kind of broke down just because I knew God was looking out. It was just a blessing.”
The day before, the pass-catcher had left Louisburg College head coach Quinderra Spellman’s office, informing him that he would be hanging up his cleats. Riddle had decided he would attend Samford University as a normal student, allowing himself to be close to his fiance Carly Moyers, an actuary for Protective Life in Birmingham. Then, it appeared that football, which Riddle came back to after a five-year stint in the Marines, was not going to take him where he wanted to go. However, the stars aligned for Riddle, though not in the way he imagined.
Ultimately, the military turned his Riddle’s life around, and a former coach’s connection to Samford gave Riddle a chance to compete at his dream school. He said that if you told him back when he was a high school student in 2015 that he would end up with Samford football this season, he said he would have counted down the days.
Because of his lackluster grades, college football wasn’t a possibility for Riddle when he graduated from North Buncombe High School in Weaverville, North Carolina back in 2015. Instead of putting on pads, he was spending his days pouring concrete, working trade jobs or clocking in at the local shoe store. Riddle said those jobs weren’t fulfilling to him.
“I knew I had to get away from home and just kind of go do my own thing for a little bit,” Riddle said. “And that was the military for me.”
On September 5, 2016, Riddle stepped onto boot camp for the first time in Parris Island, South Carolina. He was then transferred to Norfolk, Virginia for two-and-a-half years before being stationed in Twentynine Palms, California. During his time in the Marines, Riddle was deployed to Spain, Israel, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Canada, Ireland and Greece.
“I’m very fortunate to be an American, 100%,” he said. “I never really was a big patriotic guy growing up. Didn’t really recognize things like that. But seeing other parts of the world was eye-opening.”
As Riddle’s perspective on the U.S. changed, so did his character. In the military, he learned how to take initiative and prioritize his work. The 6’2″, 220-pound Marine noted his superb physical attributes and marksmanship helped him progress to the rank of sergeant.
Toward the end of July 2021, Riddle’s military contract had ended, allowing him to go back to North Carolina to play football at Louisburg College. Though he said he was stronger than the last time he suited up, the tight end faced some challenges.
“There were some parts that I felt to my advantage about being a little older, and there were some things that were to my disadvantage about being older,” he said. “I was quickly out of breath. My stamina wasn’t as good as I used to be.”
Riddle’s freshman season wasn’t the best – he recorded one catch for 16 yards over four contests. His statistics popped in 2022, with Riddle’s 13 catches accounting for three touchdowns and 135 yards in eight games. He also tallied a touchdown on the ground.
Riddle is now an honor student, something he never accomplished before arriving at Louisburg College.
While a freshman, Riddle reached out to a coach he played under who used to work on Samford’s coaching staff, telling him about his interest in joining the Bulldogs’ program. Riddle said that apparently, the coach sent his highlight film over to Samford, which liked what it saw.
Riddle has since been accepted to Samford, where the military will cover his tuition. He’s now considering majoring in graphic design or marketing.
As a Bulldog, Riddle will represent a program led by head coach Chris Hatcher that won the Southern Conference and reached the FCS quarterfinals during the 2022 season. Though Riddle will be older than many of his teammates, he said he’s not there to be “the big dog,” but is planning on working as hard as he’s ever had in his life.
“I’m willing to do whatever they need me to do,” Riddle said. “Whether that’s being on the practice team and getting the guys ready for who they’re playing that week or being in the starting rotation or whatever it is they want me to do. I’m going to keep my mouth shut and do it and be happy to be there every single day just because this is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was a little boy.
“There’s been a lot of people that never guessed in a million years that I would be at Samford University playing football and getting a great education. So this is definitely a huge blessing.”