For a long time, Mike Jasper was best known for being a really big man. Now, he's recognized for the big moves he's making on football coaching circuit.
Five years after being selected by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Jasper was back at his college alma mater, Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee. After two years as an assistant coach, Jasper was named head coach of the Wildcats' National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics football program on Jan. 24.
Jasper was drafted with the 245th pick of the 2011 draft, a bit of a surprise to even him. He was the first player ever drafted out of Bethel and remains the last NAIA player to get drafted into the NFL.
Jasper was always a long shot. But at an athletic 6-foot-4, 394 pounds, it was a shot worth taking for then-Bills general manager Buddy Nix.
"We would’ve signed him as a free agent," Nix said at the time, "so we just drafted him and didn’t have to go after him, and we’re going to see if he can play."
While Jasper didn't stick in the NFL — he was out of the league by 2014, never having played a regular season game despite spending time with Buffalo, Tennessee, the New York Giants and Carolina — his time in Western New York left a mark.
A large part of Jasper's heart lies with North Tonawanda. He married NT native Allison Hojnowski, whom he met during his time with the Bills. He also got his coaching start as a volunteer with the Lumberjacks under Tony Truilizio in 2013.
Allison's father, Dave Hojnowski, was the Bills' equipment manager for 38 years.
"It was an awesome experience," Jasper said of his time working with the Lumberjacks. "... I enjoyed being in (the Western New York) community as much as I could."
That's how he met Allison. Though Jasper never broke through with the Bills, he was extremely active in the community. Allison was a manager of community relations for the team, and they got to know each other while attending community events.
The WNY connections also helped Jasper land his first paid coaching job. During his time in the area, he built a relationship with Charlie Comerford, who at the time was athletic director and head football coach the Bishop Timon. Jasper served as an assistant to Comerford in 2014.
The year with the Tigers convinced Jasper to pursue coaching as a career. He turned to his former coach, Chris Elliott, in search of a graduate assistant position at Bethel. Instead, a full-time assistant coaching position opened, and Jasper was hired ahead of the 2016 season.
Three seasons later, Jasper was tabbed to lead the Wildcats after 2018 head coach Brent Dearmon was hired by Les Miles at Kansas.
"In this profession, not a lot of coaches get that opportunity," Jasper said. "I'm blessed and look forward to it. I have a phenomenal staff. ... The administration is 100 percent behind me. I'm comfortable and eager to get to the season because I feel like I can't fail."
He also hasn't forgotten his WNY ties. The Wildcats finished 10-1 last season, earning a No. 3 ranking before falling in the first round of the NAIA FCS playoffs. They were led by quarterback Sam Castronova, a Williamsville South and Erie Community College product Jasper recruited. Castronova was named 2018 Mid-South Conference Player of the Year.
During Jasper's time at Bethel, Danny Price (Timon), Joe Harrison III (Timon) and Jack Pope (Rochester/University of Miami) have also played for the Wildcats.
"I try to take care of some Western New York kids when I can," Jasper said. "... Western New York football doesn't get the attention it deserves. There's no spring ball, and it's not southern football, but there's a lot of hard-nosed kids in Western New York that can play really good football."
Follow sports editor Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler.