By Craig Sachson
The play was called double shallow, and it wasn’t meant for him. He was basically a decoy. His job was to get out of the way, and hopefully draw a defender with him.
Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.
Sometimes your dream of playing for one of the top Florida universities doesn’t happen because 5-9 wide receivers aren’t the most heavily recruited. Sometimes your chance to start on the greatest offense in Ivy League history ends via injury. Sometimes a global pandemic forces you to miss an entire fall of playing the sport you love.
And sometimes the opposing team picks the right defense.
Jacob Birmelin had felt the sting of disappointment before, but he never let it stop him. He kept pushing, kept working, kept believing that his day would come.
It came on Oct. 23, 2021. On that day, Birmelin made arguably the greatest catch by any Princeton football player in the 21st century.
• • •
Birmelin didn’t mess around in recess during elementary school. Kickball? Races? He was there to win. His favorite sport was football, and his favorite team was the in-state Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He did what it took to watch them play, even if it meant poking holes in his pillows so he could sneak a few more minutes of Monday Night Football when his parents had told him to go to sleep.
He crafted a nice plan of playing football for one of the big in-state universities, and then heading to the NFL. Birmelin had impressive enough stats — he was an all-state selection and was named Palm Beach County Offensive Player of the Year — but the offers never came.
“The coaches never said it was because I was too small, but I knew that was it,” he said. “I knew I was undersized, so every time I was in the weight room, I wanted to be the strongest guy in there. I wanted to show that my size didn’t matter. It fueled me.”
Arthur and Lexie Birmelin made sure their son got every opportunity to pursue the sport at the the next level, so they took him on their own personal college tour before his senior year to see as many schools as possible. Princeton was supposed to be a one-day stop, but he stayed for an extra day of camp because it felt different than the other destinations. He connected with the coaches, and the idea of both playing for and attending Princeton University suddenly motivated him in every aspect of his senior year.
“Once I finished that trip, Princeton was my goal,” he said. “I was motivated the rest of my academic year. I knew I had to keep my grades, and I had tunnel vision on getting it done.”
Birmelin didn’t struggle with the books at Palm Beach Gardens High School.
The book he struggled with most was the first one he got at Princeton — the playbook.
• • •
Birmelin was lost in the offense as a freshman, but he grew in two important ways. He developed physically, and he built a chemistry with classmate and quarterback Cole Smith, who was also waiting for his turn to play.
Birmelin may not have had a full grasp on the offense heading into 2018, but his talent was undeniable. He was in line to start with the likes of Jesper Horsted and Steve Carlson, but an ankle injury during a Week 4 win over Lehigh opened the door for teammate Tiger Bech to grab the job. He would get back on the field eventually, but his role was limited during the program’s first perfect season since 2018.
“I knew these guys, like Jesper [Horsted], Steve [Carlson], John [Lovett], were living legends, so I made sure I appreciated it,” Birmelin said. “Being on the sideline wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I embraced my role. My times wasn’t now, and I had to accept that.”
Birmelin ended up with seven catches and a ring from that season, but even more importantly, he figured out what a championship culture felt like.
“There was a constant pressure we put on ourselves,” he remembers. “We knew what we were working for, and we had to perform to the best of our abilities in every lift, every meeting, every practice.”
He carried that mentality into his junior season, and he also brought a clear and complete understanding of the playbook and his role as the slot receiver. That combination set up a memorable first season as a starter, when he would catch 60 passes for 767 yards and three touchdowns on his way to All-Ivy League honors.
When the COVID pandemic shut down the 2020 season, Birmelin allowed himself a moment to mourn, and then got back to focusing on improvement. He followed his classmates to Texas, then Tennessee, so he could train with his teammates and prepare for a senior season he always believed would happen.
It happened, and it produced a moment that will long outlast Birmelin’s own time in Orange and Black.
• • •
Before that fifth-overtime pass left Smith’s hands, Birmelin was already having another standout season.
“Birmelin drives the energy of our offense,” head coach Bob Surace said. “Every practice he is flying around the field. He truly is one of our all-time wide receivers on the field, and he is a leader off of it.”
He was the Ivy League’s top receiver through five games, including an 11-catch, 175-yard effort against Brown, but he stamped his place in program history when the Crimson came to Powers Field on Oct. 23 in a battle of unbeatens. Sixty minutes wouldn’t be enough, nor would the first four overtime sessions.
Princeton was on offense first in the fifth OT, and Birmelin cleared his area for a quick cross to tight end Carson Bobo. The Crimson pressured the pocket and played zone in Bobo’s intended area, and Smith was left to find new options. He looked for the guy he’s been throwing to since the fall of 2017, the guy he threw to countless times over the pandemic, the guy he knew would find a way to catch the ball.
“I got to the corner, and Cole put the ball in the perfect spot,” Birmelin said. “It was the only place I could get it. I was in the right place at the right time.”
That’s an incredibly humble account of the play. Smith did put it in the only area he could, but nobody watching it live thought Birmelin would get it. Harvard back Khalid Thomas was in the perfect position to pick it off; in fact, you barely noticed Birmelin as the play unfolded.
Then the young man who college coaches ignored jumped over Thomas and snatched the ball out of his hands. In that moment, you noticed Birmelin. A thrilled crowd of alumni and supporters rushed Powers Field moments later after Harvard’s final pass was incomplete, though Birmelin doesn’t remember too much of that moment.
“I totally blacked out after that play,” he said. “The only thing I remember is running to Mark Fossati on our sideline and telling him to keep the ball.”
That ball, which still sits in a drawer in his bedroom, provided the decisive points in an 18-16 thriller that none who saw it will ever forget. It’s not the first game-winning catch by a Princeton slot receiver against Harvard in the last 10 years — it’s not even the second — but none of those, or any other Princeton catch in recent memory, combined the degree of difficulty with the impact as that one. It also defined what makes this team so special, and why it’s on the brink of another championship season.
“We want it more than anyone,” Birmelin said. “We don’t believe we deserve anything. We have to work for everything.”
That work continued last week, when Princeton shook off the disappointment of its first loss of the season by rallying past Yale on Senior Day at Princeton Stadium. Birmelin caught the go-ahead touchdown just before halftime, and the Tigers played the second half like the team they always believed they would be this season, relentless and dominant.
“That was a tremendous feeling,” Birmelin said. “I remember John Lovett talking to the team earlier this season and telling us we can’t blink in moments like that. The coaches, the players, we needed to make it happen. We played fast and played hard.”
Birmelin’s touchdown came on a play his coaches remembered from a particularly heated preseason battle between the offense and defense. Same play call, same area, same throw, same result … once again, his tireless preparation paid off when it mattered most.
There is a bright future in store for Birmelin, a politics major considering several career options in the financial world. He has enjoyed several internships in different areas, including wealth management and commercial real estate, and is excited for a future he can’t fully envision yet.
That’s OK, because he never envisioned the Princeton career that has unfolded thus far, and one he hopes to punctuate with one more championship this Saturday. And certainly, it wasn’t a career that a host of doubters would have envisioned either.
But Birmelin made it happen, and in doing so, gave Princeton fans a moment they’ll never forget.