Should I leave or should I stay? How do athletes decide when it’s time to turn professional?
By Adam Doucette
Accomplishing a lifelong dream that’s so close you can almost touch it is not an easy thing to turn away from.
Leaving the life you know behind for a new city, new teammates, and new responsibilities can be equally difficult.
This is the decision that some of the best college athletes are faced with: Finish your college career, or leave early and turn professional.
Compete for three years at Northeastern, win a CAA title, get drafted, and sign the MLB contract he’d been working towards his whole life. That was the plan for Sam Jacobsak when he arrived at Northeastern in 2017.
Two and a half years in, it looked like things were going according to plan. But on March 11, 2020, Northeastern baseball’s first home game of the season turned out to be the last game of the year.
The next morning, head coach Mike Glavine called the team to Cabot to tell them the remaining 38 games were cancelled due to COVID-19.
At a time when the home games were just beginning and scouts were supposed to be watching, Jacobsak’s pivotal third year was over. His decision to leave after the season just became more difficult, but at the forefront of his mind were the guys who didn’t have any decision at all.
“It was tough because you’re looking at the fourth and fifth years who might never get to wear a Northeastern uniform again… That was the hardest thing, to look at those guys,” he said. “It will be stuck in my head forever, the atmosphere in that room.”
Not long after that meeting, Northeastern sent students home. Classes were moved online. There was still a month left in the semester, but the year felt over.
For the following months, Jacobsak went back and forth in his head countless times trying to decide what to do. The dream of a CAA championship was yet to be accomplished. But he now had the opportunity to be one step closer to playing professional baseball.
In early May, word got out that the MLB was cutting the draft from the normal 40 rounds to only five. The odds of Jacobsak getting drafted – and getting the signing bonus that comes with it – took a huge hit.
On June 9, two days before the draft, Jacobsak was at the beach with some friends, trying not to think about it. After all, he had just spent two and a half months sitting at home because of COVID; there had been plenty of time to overthink things.
His phone rang. It was Northeastern pitching coach Kevin Cobb.
“He almost convinced me, he really almost completely convinced me that day,” Jacobsak said of Cobb encouraging him to come back to school the next year. “It was tough because the whole reason I came to that school was Kevin Cobb and Coach Glavine. My end goal was I wanted to win a CAA title, that was my number one thing.”
June 11, 2020: Jacobsak’s 22nd birthday, and the day of the MLB draft. Surrounded by friends, family, and his girlfriend, he watched and waited while he received calls from front offices wishing him a happy birthday and expressing interest in drafting him.
The fifth and final round came and went without Jacobsak’s name being called. His decision now boiled down to whether he wanted to sign with a team for $20,000 – the maximum amount allowed by the MLB that year for undrafted players, a one year COVID rule to save teams money. It was a fraction of what players would receive in a normal draft year.
“I understood I was going to lose my money,” Jacobsak said. “I lost six figures, a good bit, it sucks. But at the end of the day, the way baseball works is that if you walk in the door one day on the 40-man, you make it all back in that one day. So really, are you chasing your dreams or chasing your money?”
On June 13, two days after the draft – and the day before teams could sign undrafted players – Jacobsak got another call, this time from Glavine.
“We talked for an hour and a half, two hours, about the whole thing, what to do, and how bad he wanted me back.”
He had been leaning toward signing with a pro team for a while, but a coach, again, almost convinced him to stay.
June 14: After a sleepless night, Jacobsak chose dream over money. He had become close with the Phillies’ scout over the previous months, and when Philadelphia came calling, he agreed to a deal.
After he signed, he stayed on Cape Cod and worked out; everything was still shut down due to the coronavirus. That fall, he came back to Northeastern to take classes, and then down to Clearwater, Florida, at the end of September for instructional league, a place for young players to hone their skills.
After trips back to Massachusetts and to California, Jacobsak was called back down to Clearwater to rehab a nagging shoulder injury with the Threshers, Philadelphia’s low-A affiliate.
Meanwhile, in Wilmington, North Carolina, the Huskies capped off a dominant season with a CAA championship. It was an experience Jacobsak was supposed to be there for.
“I loved to watch the guys win that CAA title the next year. But it sucked not being there,” he said. “I just wanted something to really push me. It’s almost like a wake up call – everyone is good, everyone is unbelievable. [Playing pro] pushes you harder than you’ve ever been pushed before, and I enjoyed it.”
After six months of rehab, he finally got back in action in July, but just weeks after his return to the mound, he was one of 24 guys on the team to get COVID. Despite being vaccinated and only 23 years old, it was not an easy experience.
“I lost 15 pounds, I had brain fogginess for a while, couldn’t really do anything at all. It was wild.”
The shoulder injury he had just rehabbed for months was reaggravated, and after playing through it for most of 2021 instructs in October, it was too much to bear. Jacobsak underwent shoulder cleanup surgery late that month.
“I worked seven months as hard as I could every day in the complex at 6 or 7 a.m. to finish the season and go into the next instructional league and really show my stuff so I could get an invite to minicamp next year, and I thought I had a chance.”
Despite the frustrating setbacks, Jacobsak has no regrets.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said, “but I’m confident in my decision.”
In June 2018, just weeks after graduating high school, Jordan Harris sat with his family and two advisors in the stands of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. As his name was called over the loudspeakers, he stood, hugged his parents, and took his first step toward the NHL. Harris was drafted 71st overall by the Montreal Canadiens, and unlike Jacobsak, who signed two days after the draft, Harris had almost three years before he had a real decision to make.
The first two of those years were everything he could have hoped for: a combined 45-24-4 record, two Beanpot championship wins, a double overtime Beanpot winning goal against Boston University, and a Hockey East championship. After the 2020 Beanpot win against BU however, the team ended the season losing five of their final six games before the Hockey East tournament was cancelled due to the coronavirus.
The third year consisted of a shortened schedule full of last minute postponements and cancellations. Halfway through, Harris had a meeting with Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Claude Julien. They felt he was ready to play professionally after Northeastern’s season was over.
On March 14, 2021 the season ended in a largely empty rink at UMass Amherst in the quarterfinals of the Hockey East tournament. The Minutemen would go on to win the national championship, but their success was little consolation for the Huskies, who ended a tough season with a disappointing 9-9-3 record.
Despite the possibility of it being the last game in a Northeastern sweater for Harris, it wasn’t on his mind during the game. The weeks following the loss were a different story.
“Every day I woke up for two weeks and had a different thought,” Harris said.
Conversations with his parents, advisors, and coaches were helpful, but nobody could make the decision for him.
“We chatted quite a bit,” Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe said. “It was just making sure whatever decision he made was going to be the best thing for him.”
Harris also spoke with former Northeastern goaltender Cayden Primeau, who is currently in the Montreal Canadiens organization. Primeau, who left Northeastern for Montreal after his sophomore season, had nothing but good things to say about the organization.
A week after the loss to UMass, Harris had a conversation with his advisor, Eric Quinlan, from BMG Hockey, a management and advising company. Quinlan told him that he needed to decide soon. On one hand was an incoming Northeastern team full of talent with the opportunity to end his college career on a high note. On the other was the opportunity to sign the contract he’d been dreaming about for years.
“It’s your dream. And it’s one step closer to achieving the highest level of it as a hockey player and something you go to sleep thinking about for fifteen years,” Harris said of signing an NHL contract. “Every single day you work toward it.”
The next morning, with his girlfriend Codie, and teammate Julian Kislin with him in his West Village dorm, he decided he was coming back. He would be playing home games at Matthews Arena for one more year.
After calling his dad, Harris called his coaches Jim Madigan and Jerry Keefe.
“He just goes about his business and people see how hard he works, and it’s infectious, to be honest with you,” Keefe said of Harris. “I think Jordan definitely made the right decision coming back, being our captain, and leading the way.”
There were a lot of elements that factored into his decision, and finishing his degree was certainly one of them.
“You hear stories of guys who turn pro and they’re not done with their degree five, six years down the road. Fortunately I didn’t have that many classes left this year, but it was nice to think I would be done. I’ll always have that, I’ll always have a Northeastern degree.”
Aside from academics, Harris was excited about the team Northeastern would put on the ice in the winter of 2021. It was a chance to make one more run at accomplishing something special after a year so adversely affected by COVID.
“You’re part of a team for three years and all you want to do is help lead your team and win championships as a group and do the best you can. Being part of the leadership group this year, I want nothing else than for us to win and do well. Coming back, that was one of the major things – having a full year and seeing what we can do with it.”
Keefe has had a front row seat to see Harris’ chemistry with his teammates since Harris arrived in 2018.
“Jordan has 28 best friends in that locker room that mean something to him. I think that’s a big part of it, too.”
Money was also something that Harris had to think about. At 21 years old, It’s not easy to wait another year for an NHL contract and a signing bonus.
“The thought of making money doing your favorite thing in the world – who’s going to say they don’t want that?” he said. “But I really try to take that out of the equation because money’s money and hopefully it will always be there… I really try to not have that be the deciding factor.”
After his decision to come back for one more year, there wasn’t much down time for Harris and his teammates, but that was exactly how he wanted it. About half the team was there for spring workouts in May and June, and they practiced at 7 a.m. five days a week.
“Being able to do that as a team and work hard and really seeing how much guys want to be a part of a team and get better is huge,” he said. “Every team says they have a really good group, but our group this year is really high character, a lot of really good guys, and guys that are team first.”
At the end of the day, Jacobsak gave up money to leave school and sign a pro contract. He, like everyone else, got his COVID year of eligibility back from the NCAA. He could have come back for his fourth year and maintained the leverage to sign the bigger non-COVID contract he was initially expecting after that season.
“I went back and forth in my head countless times,” he said. “Once they cut that thing down to five rounds, that was when I really started talking to Glavine… It was a last minute decision.”
Harris, on the other hand, gave up money to come back to school. He had the opportunity to sign the deal he was expecting, but chose to wait.
“Every day I woke up for two weeks and had a different thought… I woke up and said, you know what, I think I’m going to stay.”
Both watched the teams they hadn’t joined find success. Jacobsak watched the Northeastern baseball team win a CAA championship, while Harris watched the Canadiens make an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Neither of them had an easy choice, but they’re both confident in the decisions they made. Regardless of where they end up next, it’s evident that Jacobsak’s resilience and willingness to take a risk, and Harris’ commitment and leadership, will lead to success wherever they go.