Jacob Stanko’s frame fills any room he enters.
Six-feet-two-inches tall and a chiseled 230 pounds with thick, dark brown hair that effortlessly frames his face as it tumbles past his ears, it’s hard to ignore the self-described introvert.
Against his competition, he’s a giant among titans. But Jacob isn’t phased.
He takes a breath to collect his thoughts and recites a prayer to God. He’s practiced the throw a thousand times. Still, a conversation with God centers his mind toward his goal.
An overwhelming tide of tranquility silences anxious thoughts. His body turned into a work of kinetic art.
He charges forward, with a once-white, sweat-stained 800-gram javelin cradled in his right hand. He calculates each step to produce perfect rhythm and momentum.
Six steps forward seamlessly transition into crossovers. His arms extend — the left to the sky while the right reaches back like a lever — to deliver each ounce of strength he generated. He lands his final step with his weight centered.
His eyes meet the horizon. His body snaps around. A burst of power travels from his hips to his shoulders and up to his arm. The javelin becomes weightless as it glides out of his fingers and slices through the air. The rest is in God’s hands.
"The people that perform the best are the people that, in a meet setting, they can just completely shut off their brain and let their body do what their body knows what to do," Jacob said.
Few compete as collegiate athletes. Fewer have the option to play two sports.
Jacob has never taken his athleticism for granted. Like most kids, he sampled many sports growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire. But no sport captivated him like football.
At Manchester Central High School, he captained the team as its quarterback. Jacob was ranked the 18th best quarterback in New Hampshire for the 2016 graduating class.
But football is a fall sport. As a sophomore with time at his disposal during the spring, he started throwing in track and field. It was an opportunity to improve himself for future falls. Despite his remarkable athleticism, he was raw and needed to iron out his mechanics to succeed in his new sport.
“He had no clue what he was going to do,” said Misty Francis, Jacob’s high school throwing coach, as she recalled his first experience with a javelin.
He didn’t mind the work. He never has. In time, he grew infatuated with his new sport.
“He’s an easy kid to coach,” Francis said. “He listens, he applies and he always asks questions.”
Throwing also allowed him to spend time with his parents, Mark Stanko and Lisa Maille, who are divorced.
Whenever Maille drives around town, memories replace reality as she thinks back to times her son was minutes, not miles, away. She misses watching him practice between errands.
“I still have days where I drive by that field and I’m looking to see if I could see him,” Maille said.
As a single mother of three, it was challenging for her to keep up with her children’s schedules. But she always found herself at each of Jacob’s games and meets.
Mark said his father rarely attended his own games, an aspect of his childhood that hurt him. He vowed that he wouldn’t make Jacob experience that same disappointment.
Mark allowed Jacob the freedom to follow his interests. All he wanted was to follow along and give his son a lifetime of memories.
Growing up, Jacob fluctuated from sport to sport before settling on football and throwing in high school. Mark was always in the crowd, proudly cheering Jacob on at any meet or game.
Watching Jacob play football meant Mark was sequestered in the bleachers until the game ended. He cherished track meets. Between throws, he was afforded precious time with his son, whether in conversation over upcoming throws or silent reflection.
“As somebody who was a son whose father didn't participate, I think I provided him with something that I would have liked to have had,” Mark said.
What his parents wished was to watch their son flourish. It just happened sooner than expected when Jacob first threw a javelin.
Jacob broke the school’s record in his first meet. Months later, he was crowned state champion. He finished the New England Interscholastic Outdoor Track and Field Championships as the runner-up in 2016, coming in third the year before. Jacob still retains the javelin throw record he set as a state champion more than four years ago.
Jacob’s success in both fields earned him a scholarship to the University of Maine as a dual-sport athlete. He spent a year there before transferring to UF.
But Jacob doesn’t pay too much attention to his accolades.
Jacob’s body is carefully calibrated. Nutrition, sleep and training combine to perform a symphony Jacob conducts.
No one would expect a Division I athlete to beat eight seconds riding a bull. But Jacob’s not most Division I athletes.
Equipped with a camcorder and teenage angst, Jacob and his older brother, Joshua Stanko, turned their yard into a low-budget “Jackass” set.
They wanted to appear on “America’s Funniest Home Videos”.
Mending bloody knees, scrapes and bruises became part of Maille’s repertoire.
“We had a backyard and our kitchen window overlooks the swingset and he says, ‘mom, watch this,’” Maille said between fits of laughter. “He's swinging higher and higher and higher. So, it seemed like the swing set was going to come right off the ground. And on the swing forward he let go of the seat and went flying through the air and landed about two feet in front of my window.”
When a friend presented Jacob with an opportunity to ride a bull, he didn’t deny the thrill. During a hot night in Melrose, Florida, Jacob did his best to look like a seasoned bull rider.
He mounted the bull in polished brown cowboy boots, worn denim jeans, a matching denim button-down beneath a brown vest and a Stetson cowboy hat. It shot out the gate and by two kicks, the 230-pound statue of a man was rolling in the dirt.
It won’t be his last.
“I've always kind of had a heart that really enjoys exploration,” Jacob said.
It all ties back to faith. Through enjoying new aspects of the world, Jacob tunes his faith. To enjoy life, he said, is to live without fear. Fear shackles individuals to a life of complacency — a nightmare for the Live Free or Die state native.
Jacob’s presence can brighten a burnt lightbulb. He lights up the moods of anyone around him. It’s partly why they love his presence and believe his company is infectious, Maille said.
“He attracts a lot of lifetime friends,” Maille said.
When asked to describe himself, he didn’t hesitate to call himself introverted.
Sports is a relief. It’s an opportunity for Jacob to knock away energy to break a sweat. When he competes, confounding thoughts don’t press their way into his consciousness. Winning together with teammates makes the fleeting feeling of competing richer.
But there’s a limit to what sports can provide. When Jacob needs to escape, nature is where he finds peace.
Forests blanket more than three-quarters of New Hampshire. As an Eagle Scout, Jacob has done his best to explore each acre of wilderness in the state.
Jacob spent his childhood crawling through nearby forests, rivers and creeks. Anything to throw himself in a new environment. Granted, Maille, like any mother, felt anxious letting her son free to explore. Nonetheless, she trusted her intrepid son.
When outdoors, Jacob immerses himself in his surroundings. Sometimes it manifests through writing, prayer and contemplation. Other times it’s through hunting.
Jacob doesn’t hunt for the sake of hunting. When he’s out, he disappears to a serene world away from the monotony, precision and stress of everyday life. A destination where he, and only he, can immerse himself in a setting so quiet one could hear a pine needle drop, tree fall and even a bear defecate in the woods.
“You got to intertwine yourself with nature to be invisible to everything else that's going on around,” Jacob said. “You're just sitting there, taking everything in. It's so cool, how, just all of a sudden, it's like, you've become one of the animals.”
Hunting became part of Jacob’s life when he used to hunt with his grandfather. He couldn’t live without that connection, even while at UF. However, he wasn’t allowed to keep his guns with him in his dorm, so he stored them at the police department.
For a year-and-a-half, he focused on athletics and school without his favorite method of escaping the rigors of life.
Roommates who share his passion for hunting created more opportunities to escape. He regularly visits Ocala National Forest, Devil’s Hammock and Osceola National Forest.
“I mean, you're going from essentially the top of the United States to the bottom and seeing the differences in the way the land is laid out,” Jacob said. “It was a fun thing to kind of submerge myself back in something that I was used to but in a new environment.”
His favorite memory of Florida’s wilderness comes from hunting wild boar two springs ago. As the sun rose and its light stretched across the horizon and into millions of droplets of dew, he stumbled on a deer no more than 15 feet away. With deer hunting out of season, he couldn’t help but marvel at the moment presented before himself.
But his life is too tied down by regimen to explore new parts of the world constantly.
As a student-athlete, his days often begin before the sun rises. He eats breakfast, one of several meals timed between two-hour intervals. He then balances practice, classes, working out, delivering food for UberEats and later homework and breaking down film. The pandemic, Jacob said, cut time from his usual routine. Still, it's hardly reprieved from the rigors of being a Division I athlete.
Jacob is no stranger to tough schedules. It’s why he hates wasting his time. When his hands were idle, he found art.
“Whether it's music, or painting, or writing or drawing, whatever it is, I just find that the arts are a beautiful expression of humanity,” Jacob said.
Jacob’s artform of choice: country music. His fingers have a decade of experience with a guitar. He’s written songs since the second grade when he performed an original piece in the talent show.
However, his writing process used to fluctuate because of anxiety.
“It's not something that people would want to listen to,” he would think to himself.
As his love of music developed from a hobby to a passion, his confidence grew, gifting the athlete with songs that blend his emotions with rhymes sung from a rich, warm baritone.
“I really love music,” Jacob said. “I mean, it's kind of one of those things where it's like you're offering your audience an opportunity to experience something.”
A silver chain hangs around Jacob’s neck. A gift from his stepfather, the chain holds a crucifix and medallion with the image of St. Christopher, the patron saint of traveling and athletics. It was meant to grant him safe passage from Orono, where the University of Maine is located, to Gainesville.
It’s a reminder of who protects him.
“It makes me feel a little bit more secure,” Jacob said.
If hard work is the pillar to Jacob’s desire to succeed, his faith is the foundation. Jacob attends Mass each Sunday. His family would pray the rosary each Sunday night.
“It's very important to me that he's living an intentional life,” Mark said. “He's recognizing where he's been gifted, and he's putting those gifts to use because God gives us those gifts for a reason.”
Jacob adores the fruits of his labor. Every ounce of success he has he attributes to a higher power. It’s why his faith is inseparable from his life. While he may not know his purpose, he understands it’s part of the larger plan he believes God put forth for him.
The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation in March and held no punches as it cut down sport after sport.
Last spring marked the beginning of Jacob’s final season at UF. He trained in the summer of 2019 like a cliche. His blood, sweat and tears were pumped for his last dance as a Gator. He cut out distractions, honed his focus and aspired to be an Olympian.
The Olympics were everything to Jacob.
He didn’t drink for a year. His diet was rigid and “very bland.” He was in bed by 9 p.m. His relationships were strained.
All he needed was to ride off into the sunset.
Instead, he was left stranded, temporarily without a sport, wondering what remained in store for his athletic career.
“I poured myself into it,” Jacob said of his mindset before his ill-fated season. “It came at the expense of losing some sight of what’s important like spending time with family.”
Jacob said he has doubted his faith before. Each time, it was a test of his strength and his doubts never allowed him to waiver. Losing his senior season, however, was a shattering loss. But one he couldn’t wallow in.
“My position on it was, I'm just gonna keep working through this,” Jacob said. “I'm not gonna let this thing affect my desire to excel athletically.”
Jacob can’t put to words how he feels entering this season.
Jacob believes he’s fortunate to end his career as a student-athlete once more this season. He had his dream stripped from him before, and there’s still no guarantee it will remain. He had more than a year to train and prepare for his final waltz with a javelin.
He understands his career’s mortality. Each throw is one closer to the last. After emptying his tank for the season that never was, his motivation waned.
“To do that twice in a row would have been an emotionally draining task,” Jacob said.
But Jacob isn’t running on fumes. He believes blessed to have another chance. It’s been a battle, he said, but it’s one he won.
Now, the next season is in his grasp. His eyes are toward the horizon. And whether it’s on a bull or a horse, he’s ready to ride off into the sunset.
Contact Christian Ortega at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @unofficialchris