Former Bemidji State and Wadena-Deer Creek football standout Jake Krause always liked watching former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward when he was growing up. Krause's dad was the reason he got into football and was a Steelers fan, so naturally he gravitated to Pittsburgh.
Krause loved watching Ward not because of his statistics over 14 seasons with the Steelers or his two Super Bowls. He loved watching Ward because he would come up smiling after getting hit the hardest.
"He didn't talk much, he just played the game," said the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Krause. "He never let anything get to him, always having fun. I always thought that was cool. I brought that mentality to my game. I didn't talk. I let my play talk for myself and I just enjoyed the game."
Krause was hit the hardest heading into his first season with Bemidji State when he was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. He's smiling now, as the guy from an NCAA Division II school awaits a combine with the Alliance of American Football, a professional football league that will premiere on CBS a week after the NFL's Super Bowl.
He smiles because he and his NFL dream are still alive.
"I wouldn't want my story any other way," Krause said. "Cancer was a process and it turned me into the player I am and shaped my character and gave me the work ethic to be successful and perspective to be successful."
Krause believes he first threw a football at the age of 1. His dad was a huge football fan, playing in high school in Hazen, N.D. When Krause was 4 years old his dad told him to be ready because he was going to grow up to be 6-3. Krause remembers not being able to fathom being that huge.
Krause was on the offensive line for youth football because he was at the weight restriction. He was 165 pounds in fifth grade. He leaned out a bit in eighth grade and was put at fullback before heading to Wadena-Deer Creek where he played a little of everything. Being Class 2A football, he played everywhere out of necessity. He played tight end, offensive line, quarterback for a snap, fullback and was at running back as a senior. Krause, however, went to North Dakota State football camps for offensive linemen.
"Did I have him out of position? I guess that's debatable. He was just such a good athlete," said Wadena-Deer Creek football coach Howie Kangas, who coached Krause his senior season of high school. "He was already tall and strong, but he was only going to fill out when he got to college. That's when he packed on the muscle. It's really impressive. He's just a wonderful kid, unassuming, talented and kind and considerate. He still is today."
Krause's dad was right. He hit 6-3 as a freshman at Bemidji State. He was about 270 pounds, he was ready to focus on playing one position, the offensive line, and begin his first semester of college. That's when he began to feel itchy all the time, found a growth on his neck and had an 103-degree fever come and go.
Krause went home to see a doctor. Waden is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone. Krause knew the nurses and doctors, so he could tell something was wrong just by looking at them. On Oct. 15, 2013, he certainly knew something was wrong when doctors took his mom into the hallway at Tri-County Hospital.
"It was shocking to hear, but at the same time we knew what was wrong, so now we can fix it," Krause said. "I knew it was one of those things I just had to buckle down and get done."
Bemidji State football coach Brent Bolte knew in his first season Krause was a good one. The Beavers were on the road about to play Northern State and had just finished their team meal when Krause called Bolte to tell him he had cancer. Bolte will never forget that call.
"It was just a jaw-dropping experience," Bolte said. "He's just a kid that wasn't going to take no for an answer. The crazy thing is the athleticism really came through because he was torn down and it didn't take him long to build back up. You would've never guessed he's a cancer survivor."
Luckily Krause entered Bemidji State with 14 college credits because he dropped all of his classes and went home for chemotherapy. His mom was with him for every chemotherapy session.
"Football was my driving force," Krause said. "That, my family and my faith. Definitely having football as a silver lining and something I need to get back to, it was my driving force to get back to Bemidji.
"It was just like any workout plan or training session you have to do. You don't want to go do chemo for four hours, you don't want to lose your hair, you don't want to do it, but it's for the best. Once I got into it, it was another thing I had to do."
Krause took steroids for his immune system, which drove his appetite. He put on 35 pounds and it was not good weight. He worked out when he could and was an assistant coach for the varsity hockey team at Wadena-Deer Creek to keep busy, but he was just too tired to stay in football shape. He was told the cancer was gone in February, had his final chemotherapy treatment May 30, 2014, and was back at Bemidji State in June. By the time football started, he dropped the 35 pounds he gained.
He started 11 games his first season and only missed one of the 45 games in his four seasons with the Beavers.
"He was certainly very well respected around our locker room and by coaches and alumni," Bolte said. "He's got a pretty even temperament, and he's just a throwback. He's just fricking mean on the field, he plays nasty. He can turn it on and shut it off when he had to. I couldn't be more proud of him."
His junior year at Bemidji State is when Krause began to notice he was putting on weight, but not losing his athleticism. He was getting stronger. His coaches began to tell him that NFL teams were calling. At fall camp before his senior season a scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to watch him. It was Pat Perles, who coached five seasons in the NFL and 10 seasons between North Dakota State, Michigan State and Syracuse.
After practice, Perles talked to Krause about his technique.
"I was like holy smokes an NFL guy is giving me pointers," Krause said.
Krause's stock rose when he bench-pressed 225 pounds 33 times at the University of Minnesota's pro day in March, which was more than 11 former Gophers. He added a vertical jump of 30 inches, but hurt his hamstring during the 40-yard dash and position drill, which ended his day.
Krause got NFL invites to minicamps for the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears. He learned there's much more than size and strength in the NFL and that his size best fits the center position in the NFL. He played guard at Bemidji State.
"You can lift and do little drills, but it comes down to those fine details and that's where I tripped up," Krause said. "I kind of underestimated the amount of detail and technique it takes. NFL teams aren't going to trust a guy who hasn't played center before, so I'm looking for a second chance to prove I can play center and get my technique where it needs to be."
Krause graduated from Bemidji State with a degree in sports management, a business minor and got his coaching certificate. He wants to build his weight back up to around 300 pounds before the AAF combine on Aug. 25. He's around 280 currently. Right now he's enjoying smashing walls, as he's working on the elementary school in Wadena for Gopher State Contractors.
"First day on the job, they gave me a sledgehammer and told me to take down a wall," Krause said. "I said to myself, 'I think I can ride with this.'"
If playing pro football doesn't work out, Krause wants to be back at a school, but not knocking down walls. He wants to be an athletic director.
"I want to be able to help kids fulfill their potential in athletics and use it as a vehicle to go to college and build good character and work ethic," Krause said.
Krause was helping at a football camp at Wadena-Deer Creek a couple weeks ago. He stayed after practice to tell kids what they need to do to be successful.
"I had already left practice and heard that second hand," Kangas said. "No one prompted him to do it. It's just his way of giving back."
When Krause thinks of his story he thinks of sprints at Bemidji State. He remembers shrugging his shoulders and even smiling when the group text would come around 8 p.m. The message would tell the Bemidji State football team to report to the gym at 5:30 a.m. the next day.
He knew what it meant. The team referred to it as a "punishment run." A teammate missed class, a workout or something along those lines and the Beavers would be spending the next morning running 40 or so sprints.
Krause shrugged his broad shoulders at the text because sprints were nothing to him. He had beaten cancer. He's four years cancer free, one year away from being able to say he's cured.
Krause would smile when those group texts came at 8 p.m. because he was alive.
"Cancer gave me perspective," Krause said. "It's why I play the way I do."