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Ready for takeoff

JFK standout Likens commits to Air Force

Submitted photo John F. Kennedy’s Jesse Likens, center, shown here in a game last season, is headed to the Air Force Academy to play football after his senior year.

WARREN — Jesse Likens never really envisioned himself going into the Air Force after high school. He didn’t have anything against the military, but the thought just never really crossed his mind.

It certainly crossed the mind of John F. Kennedy coach Dom Prologo.

“I thought early on that he was the type of kid that would thrive in an academy setting,” Prologo said. “He’s a kid that gets up every day, goes to work, very regimented in what he does. He’s (meticulous) in the way that he kind of prepares himself. To me, that’s who academy kids are.”

Likens sure fits the mold.

The soon-to-be senior has a GPA above 4.0. He always shows up on time to practice. He works as hard or harder than anyone else on the team. Now a captain for the second straight year, he’s a “natural leader,” Prologo said. He’s also one heck of a football player.

Submitted photo John F. Kennedy’s Jesse Likens, above, shown here in a game last season, is headed to the Air Force Academy to play football after his senior year.

The running back/defensive back ran for 1,526 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also made 93 tackles as a safety. He will go to the Air Force Academy to play as a defensive back, and the opportunity to play on this stage and also join the services creates the ideal situation for Likens.

“I’m a young kid, and I really want to play college football. That’s always been my dream,” he said. “It didn’t matter where. It didn’t matter what division. I get to go to the Air Force, get probably the best education I could receive, comparable to the Ivy League, and at the same time, I can play big-time football. To me, that’s perfect.”

The choice wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

Villanova, Penn, Dartmouth, Tiffin and Lake Erie also were after the fleet-footed, two-way standout. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Likens really made a name for himself as a running back last year, when he helped lead the Eagles to a regional semifinal.

He has long been a stalwart on defense. Despite having the skill-set to be a star corner, Likens has been a three-year starter at safety because of his intellect, which is critical for that position, Prologo said.

“I think he has a 4.05 (GPA), and as a freshman, that was noticeable right off the get-go,” he said. “Our defense is very simplistic for our players, unless you’re one of our safeties. We put a lot on those kids. When we’re successful, that means we have two really good safeties, and he’s been a safety for us the last four years. …

“I truly believe he is a corner,” Prologo added. “His speed is world class. When you’re running 10.8 (in the 100-meter dash), that’s flying. And he’s got really good hips, which, to make a corner, that’s what it’s all about, having great hips. We’ve been forced to play him at safety. Jesse, he plays safety like a linebacker, and he plays pass coverage like a corner.”

Likens just wants to play football.

He has worked for this type of situation for years, and to see it pay off is a great moment for a player who added some bulk to work himself into more than just a speedster.

“I’ve been working at this for a long time,” he said. “My dad would train me, and I’ve always worked out with him. Things just started to work out (because) I kept working and never stopped, never got frustrated. I did start working a little harder, and I definitely got faster, definitely got stronger, and things just worked out.”

His confidence grew as he started to have more and more success.

His poise is only part of what Prologo appreciates about Likens’ mindset. He remembered a former JFK safety named Thomas Yanovich, who was a senior when Likens was a freshman. Yanovich mentored the young defensive back, and the impact it had on Likens has been passed along to others.

“Tommy took Jesse under his wing,” Prologo said. “Jesse took Tommy’s (football) number when he graduated. Tommy was a senior, and Jesse was a freshman, and I’ve watched Jesse do that every year since. I’ve watched him take a freshman, when he was a sophomore, and coach him up. I watched him do it as a junior, and now I’m watching him do it to our entire team. He’s actually taking that leadership role of, ‘I’m not just going to take that guy under my wing.’ He’s taking everybody, and saying, ‘Come with me.’

“He’s a natural leader.”

And a natural fit for the Air Force.

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