Jack Stagaard lives to be a quarterback.
“I played quarterback in flag football when I was five or six,” said the Phillipsburg senior. “That was fun.”
Being the man
But, as Phillipsburg quarterback coach Rich Price says of the position, the single most important position in sports: “You don’t play quarterback. You are a quarterback.”
And right now, as the Stateliners prepare for Senior Night against Westfield Friday night (7) at Maloney Stadium, few are better at being a quarterback than Stagaard.
In six games, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Stagaard, a team tri-captain, has completed 74 of 122 passes (60.7 percent) for 1,093 yards and averages 14.8 yards per completion. He’s thrown 9 touchdown passes versus just 2 interceptions (and one of those on a half-ending ‘Hail Mary’). Stagaard has run for 89 yards and three more touchdowns; his 29-yard fourth-quarter scramble against Union brought the Stateliner home crowd to its feet.
In the only stat Stagaard probably cares about, he’s led Phillipsburg to a 5-1 record and a current No. 1 seed in the NJSIAA North Group 4 power rankings. Last week he threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-6 win at Hillsborough.
More than stats
But Stagaard’s effectiveness at quarterback comes from more than numbers and achievements and touchdowns.
Quarterbacks cannot just throw passes and hand off. Perhaps more than any other position in sports, quarterbacks must lead. They must earn their teammates’ respect. They must inspire confidence. They must be the ones, in clutch, tight situations, to pick the team up and carry it.
An athlete can be endowed with the highest level of skills possible, but if they can’t lead, they will never be a great quarterback.
Jack Stagaard leads.
“Poise, command -- these are intangibles you look for in quarterbacks,” said Phillipsburg head coach Frank Duffy said of his quarterback, who is attracting recruiting looks from FCS and Division II college programs. “Jack has all the physical skill set, arm strength, accuracy, pocket awareness. Poise, that’s a big thing, and Jack has tremendous poise. It took some time, but Jack has grown into being a strong leader. He has command in the huddle.”
How much command?
“Sometimes it just takes one quick word,” Stagaard said. “It’s like, ‘Alright, let’s get together and focus and get the next play’. Or in practice, if a rep seems lackadaisical, it’s just, hey, let’s stay focused’.”
And how much confidence?
Imagine: Thanksgiving morning at a packed Fisher Stadium at Lafayette. Phillipsburg has the ball at its 20, down 21-17 to Easton, 2:03 to play, two timeouts. Stagaard and the offense take the field.
Stagaard’s teammates answered that question without the slightest bit of hesitation.
“We’re scoring,” said senior two-way lineman Matt Cherry.
“I wouldn’t want any other quarterback (in that situation),” said senior center Chris Gurneak.
Stagaard said he’s done “all right” as a leader.
“I want guys under me to try and be able focus more,” he said. “As a leader, you become someone who people look up to. I am still their teammate but they can look up to me.”
"No ego at all"
And they do, in no small part because Stagaard is so down-to-earth.
“Jack knows he has the most important job on the offense,” Gurneak said. “But he doesn’t act like he is more important than us.”
Cherry said Stagaard’s leadership makes the whole team stronger.
“Jack takes command in the huddle, and the more he has commanding in the huddle means the less the coaches have to do,” Cherry said. “The coaches can only do so much.”
Duffy is happy for the help.
“Jack has no ego at all, he’s has happy to hand off 30 or 40 rimes and just take what the defense gives you,” Duffy said. “He doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards or be a prolific runner, though he can do all that. He has all the skill sets but now he has people wanting to follow him. He’s quick to give other people credit and that makes people gravitate towards him. A football team needs to have a strong leader who everybody feels good about and will follow. That’s Jack.”
An early reader
Price, who has coached Stagaard since 7th-grade youth football in Lopatcong Township, said the technical side of quarterback came quickly to Stagaard.
“In seventh grade, even the he was reading coverages that early on,” Price said. “And he never took a sack, he always got rid of the ball.”
Even if Stagaard erred, he moved on.
“You have to have a short memory as a quarterback,” Price said. “Jack learns from mistakes, but he never lets it bother him on the next play and he bounces right back.” Price has watched Stagaard get better and better in the pocket.
“He has an uncanny ability, I compare it to Aaron Rodgers, to drop pick and pick a receiver; he sees the field very well,” Price said. “Then he uses mechanics and arm strength to get the ball down the field.” Stagaard said he wants to play up-tempo.
“I always have been more of a quick read and throw kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t want to wait, I like getting the ball out quickly. I like putting all the athletes I have to throw to in space, and I like to know where the ball is going before the play starts. I’ll make my pre-reads and then an after-snap read to see how it looks.”
On his feet
And if it looks bad, or just a yard is needed, Stagaard will use his legs. He won’t be confused with Cam Newton as a runner, but, as he showed against Union, he’s not bad.
“I can always scramble if I have to, and we practice sneaks a lot,” he said. “I love running the ball. I used to play safety and I loved lowering the boom on people. I like getting hit.”
Between that kind of attitude and Stagaard’s preparation, skills, ability and leadership, he has earned something precious.
“Jack has proved himself to us over the past two years,” Cherry said. “We know we can rely on him.”
Lightening the mood
They also know they can rely on Stagaard to lighten up the mood a little; he admits he can be a “goofball” at times. Stagaard likes to laugh, often has a big smile on his face, and, while serious about the sport, is gregarious and fun-loving.
“He’ll say or do things to lighten us up, to have some fun,” Cherry said.
Duffy said Stagaard reminds him of another recent Stateliner standout in the way he handles pressure.
“Jack is a little goofy off the field,” Duffy said. “He doesn’t get riled up (indeed, Gurneak, who has played with Stagaard since flag football, said, “Jack was calm from a young age.”) and sometimes he seems so, nonchalant isn’t the word, but kind of, about things that you wonder if he gets it, but then you know he does Robert Melise was like that. It’s a way of handling pressure when you know everyone is looking at you.”
“As far as being a leader, I am most proud of that I have led the team to where we are right now,” Stagaard said.
Which is just a few wins away from being a exciting, memorable and remarkable season for Phillipsburg football and its quarterback and leader, Jack Stagaard.
Brad Wilson may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradwsports. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.