Jason Sylva waited longer than he wanted before stepping onto a football field for the first time. His father and three uncles all had played at the collegiate level.
“It was never a question that I’d play football,’’ said Sylva.
But initially, Ed Sylva had other plans for his son, and they did not include playing football until he reached the seventh grade.
“It made me so mad,’’ Sylva recalled. “But he knew what he was doing. He told me I’d have a long enough career, so I didn’t have to worry about playing in the fifth grade. The first day I got on the field, I loved it.’’
Ed Sylva had practical reasons for his decision. “I thought soccer would do more for his cardiovascular conditioning and his coordination,’’ he said. “I didn’t see the bonus of him playing football that young. He wanted to be on the field, but I wouldn’t bend. That was one thing I was adamant about. It seems to have worked out.’’
It certainly has.
After starring at Tabor Academy in Marion the past three seasons, the 19-year-old Sylva is headed to the University of Connecticut. He will sign his commitment letter on Feb. 1.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Sylva was recruited to play linebacker, although he hopes to see occasional playing time as a running back in goal-line situations. “I could play either position, but I love linebacker, and I don’t think my defensive coordinator wants to let the offense have me,’’ he said.
The Huskies’ defensive coordinator, former UMass coach Don Brown, knows the family history. He was a college teammate of Sylva’s uncle, Bob, at Norwich (he is prohibited from commenting about recruits until they officially sign).
Sylva first caught the attention of recruiters two years ago at a showcase for underclassmen from New England.
Named overall MVP of the camp, he immediately received interest from some high-profile Division 1-A programs, including Notre Dame, Alabama, Utah, Rutgers, UCLA, Penn State, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and Virginia.
The recruiting process intensified last year, when he was selected MVP at the National Underclassmen 5-Star Showcase that featured the top 100 players on the East Coast.
The attention was not always welcome. “People don’t understand how stressful the whole recruiting process is,’’ he said. “I’d have 40 letters in my mailbox every day. It’s a long process, and everybody wants you to come visit. I would do three interviews a night around my homework. There’d be lots of phone calls, lots of mail.’’
He was leaning toward BC and Syracuse, but he decided to commit early to UConn after visiting the Storrs campus. “It was a great fit,’’ said Sylva, who attended Plymouth South for two years, playing football and basketball, before repeating his sophomore year at Tabor. “The facilities were better than anywhere else I visited.’’
At Tabor, Sylva was a three-time all-Colonial League performer and runner-up for New England Prep Player of the Year last fall. In six games (he missed two with back spasms), he rushed for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. On defense, playing outside linebacker and free safety, he was credited with 72 tackles (22 for losses), 10 sacks, and four interceptions. “He’s more athletic than you would think,’’ said coach Bill Hrasky.
“We double-covered receivers over the top, and from the backside linebacker spot he’d fill the deep safety. Quarterbacks would throw back across the field and he’d be there to pick it off. Most guys 245 pounds can’t make that play.’’
Currently clocked at 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, Sylva is working on his speed. “I think (UConn) would like him to be a little quicker,’’ Hrasky said, “but he’s going to play middle linebacker, so they’re looking for tackle-to-tackle, so to speak. He reads real well and has great instincts. He’s not a heavy collision guy, but guys end up on the ground. He doesn’t miss much.’’
With credits earned from repeating his sophomore year, Sylva had hoped to graduate early from Tabor and enroll at UConn tomorrow. Instead, he will complete his final semester of high school back where he started, at Plymouth South.
“I’ll actually have a chance to compete for a starting job as a freshman,’’ he said. “I know (football) is going to be a grind. Because I’m local, I’ve been out there a lot, so I’ve gotten to know the team. I know it’s going to be a big adjustment. The speed of the game is at another level. It’s a big step up.’’