JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- Jared Folks is easy to spot on East Tennessee State's campus.
He's the one toting around a gallon jug of water, sporting a full beard that might have a speck or two of gray (only if you hold the light really close to his face, Folks says jokingly) and answers to everything from "Grandpa" to "Unc" to even the "Bionic Man."
"I hear it all but wouldn't trade any of it, everything it took to get here -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- none of it, because I always wanted to go out on my terms, and that's what I'm doing," the soon-to-be 26-year-old said, his smile as broad as his college football career has been long.
On any campus, the versatile linebacker would be an anomaly.
Some of his youngest teammates at ETSU were in the fifth grade when he first started playing college football at Temple in 2014. He has endured more surgeries than he cares to count, accumulated two degrees and is closing in on a third (his MBA), and as recently as the spring of 2020 was a full-fledged member of the workforce as a credit union's marketing coordinator.
And, yet, here he is, still playing college football and having the time of his life with an ETSU team that's 6-0 and off to its best start since 1969.
"Look what I would have missed," said Folks, whose 9.5 tackles per game leads the Bucs. "I love football and just wasn't ready to give it up. Even when I thought I was done, I wasn't. The itch to get back out there and play never went away."
To the best of the NCAA's knowledge, Folks is not only the first football player but the first college athlete in any sport to have an eighth year of eligibility. That's right -- eight -- as in two presidential terms and two years shy of a decade.
"I talk to my guys at work about Jared, and they will say, 'He's still in school playing football?'" Folks' father, Jonathan, said. "I tell them this is his eighth year, and they say, 'Wow, he is the Tom Brady of college football.'"
So, yes, it's been a while. How long?
Brady had won only three of his seven Super Bowl rings when Folks began his college career. Lane Kiffin was in his first year as an Alabama assistant coach. TikTok had yet to be created, and East Tennessee State wasn't even playing football. The university relaunched its program in 2015 after shutting it down in 2003 for financial reasons.
"We'll be sitting around and talking, and Jarod will tell us stories about Saquon Barkley when he was at Penn State and how hitting his legs were like hitting a tree trunk," said ETSU redshirt senior defensive lineman Olajuwon Pinkelton, one of Folks' closest friends on the team.
"You see some of the guys' faces, and they're like, 'You played against Saquon Barkley?'"
Yep, the same Saquon Barkley who's now in his fourth season in the NFL.
"To go through what Jared has gone through, physically and everything, tells you how much he loves football," ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. "He enjoys football, enjoys playing the game, enjoys being a part of the team and enjoys the value of having teammates and being a teammate and just the camaraderie that goes with it.
"I'm envious of him in a lot of ways, to play college football for that long, because once it's over, it's over."
How Folks got here reads like a Hollywood script.
His journey started in 2014 at Susquehanna Township High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when he signed scholarship papers with Temple. Folks, weighing only about 195 pounds at the time, redshirted his first season with the Owls.
In 2015, he tore his right labrum during the preseason, about two weeks before the first game, and didn't play at all that season.
"Two years, I didn't play a single game, nothing but practice and mat drills," Folks said.
Then in 2016, Folks said then-Temple coach Matt Rhule took away his scholarship because Folks was floundering in the classroom and not taking care of his responsibilities on or off the field.
"Before that preseason camp, he told me if I didn't get my GPA up and make the two-deep that I was going home," Folks recalled.
Folks responded by starting in six games at middle linebacker in 2016 for the Owls and finishing with 32 total tackles. But he injured his left labrum later in the season and had offseason surgery on it. Making matters worse, Rhule left to take the Baylor job and was replaced by Geoff Collins, meaning Folks had to start all over with a new coaching staff and do it with a pair of bum shoulders.
Heading into the 2017 season, Folks was unable to participate in spring practice and played in only one game that season -- Week 4 against South Florida.
"I was on one kickoff return, and that was it," he said.
The best news of 2017 for Folks was that he earned his bachelor's degree in communications, but he said it was obvious the new staff wasn't interested in bringing him back for the 2018 season.
"I was trying to find some place to go because I still wanted to play," said Folks, who looked to transfer down to the FCS level so he could play right away, per the NCAA transfer rules at the time.
That place was East Tennessee State, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Folks admits he'd never even heard of Johnson City until a teammate of his at Temple, quarterback Logan Marchi, transferred to ETSU. The connection was Marcus Satterfield, the assistant coach who recruited Folks to Temple. Satterfield, who played at ETSU, made a brief coaching stop with the Bucs before eventually following Rhule to Baylor.
Satterfield was at ETSU for only a matter of months, but long enough to get Folks to Johnson City.
"I didn't talk to the coaches until the second week of classes," Folks recounted. "I packed up my car and drove down here, parked in the wrong place and found where I was supposed to be."
In 2018, which at the time was classified as his redshirt senior season, Folks emerged as an integral part of the ETSU defense. He finished with six sacks and was named second-team All-Southern Conference.
The NCAA granted Folks a rare sixth season of eligibility in 2019 after ETSU appealed on his behalf. The reasoning was that he had missed two seasons at Temple because of injuries in 2015 and 2017.
But prior to the 2019 season, Folks suffered a painful groin injury, and he didn't play until the last few games of the season. He did manage to get his master's degree in marketing that December, but what Folks thought was a nasty groin pull mushroomed into an excruciating tear of his core muscles.
"I was afraid to sneeze because I knew how much it would hurt," Folks said.
Pinkelton said he remembers seeing Folks on the ground after making a tackle late that season and needing help to simply get back up on his feet.
"He was on the field because of the sheer force of will," Folks' mother, Jamie, said.
The specific nature of Folks' injury was difficult to diagnose, and Folks went to see a specialist in Philadelphia, Dr. Alexander E. Poor, who had treated several professional athletes experiencing hernia, pelvic and core muscle issues.
"The way it was explained to us was to picture a baseball and then picture all of the stitching being torn and the skin of that baseball being peeled back," Jonathan Folks said. "We couldn't believe he was still playing."
Folks said the entire 2019 season was a dark time for him. His teammates and coaches, in particular defensive coordinator Billy Taylor and retired defensive line coach Daryl Daye, were there to lift him up through the ordeal.
"Really, that's when I found worth outside of football," Folks said. "I'm hurt and thinking at that time, like a lot of players, that I was supposed to be going to the [NFL]. I realized that things are never as bad as they seem. Yeah, I wasn't playing, but I was getting a second degree, something a lot of people never get a chance to get."
Folks spent his New Year's Eve in 2019 undergoing yet another surgery and went back home to Harrisburg with his parents to rehab and start a life outside of football.
Folks already knew the meaning of hard work and sacrifice just from watching his parents. His father has been in the construction business for 34 years. His mom home-schools his four younger siblings, whom Jonathan and Jamie adopted from Jonathan's half-sister. Folks also has an older brother, Jonathan III.
With a master's degree in marketing, Folks landed a job by February 2020 at M3T Corp., a security supplier in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He then moved on to New Cumberland Federal Credit Union, where he was creating online content, making graphics and organizing community days virtually because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Meanwhile, he was starting to feel better physically thanks to the rehab, and his groin was no longer bothering him. And because Folks had missed most of a third season because of injuries, he was granted a seventh season of eligibility by the NCAA.
"I remember thinking, 'I'm not going to need that,'" Folks said when he was initially informed by ETSU that an appeal for a seventh season had been successful.
But then he started hearing from teammates that spring urging him to come back, and the 9-to-5 lifestyle simply couldn't replace the competitive fire of playing football.
"Pop, I've gotta do this. I don't feel like I'm finished. I gotta go back," Folks told his dad that May.
Admittedly, his parents were shocked, even scared, at the thought of their son returning to the football field after putting his body through so much wear and tear.
"I had been ready for him several times to walk away," Jamie said. "It was really hard to watch the pain he'd been in and see him go through those surgeries, and then you hear the things that happen to men's bodies who play football. It literally struck fear in my heart. So, yes, I would have been OK with him being done after the first four years. But it's his life and his passion, and we were going to support him."
So once again, Folks was on his way back to college, trading in his suit and tie for a helmet and pads. The FCS schools elected not to play a fall season in 2020 because of COVID-19 and pushed the season back to the spring of 2021.
"That was a blessing for me because I was nowhere near ready to play. I wasn't in shape," Folks explained.
He devoted himself completely to getting back into the best shape of his life and playing again at a high level. He was stretching more, sleeping more, drinking more water and eating better.
"Praying more, too," Folks said. "It was a total change. I even had my own workout plan from our strength coach."
And when the spring season rolled around earlier this year, he didn't miss a beat and led the Bucs with 50 total tackles in six games and was named the Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
"Holy hell, he's still playing," marveled Satterfield, now the offensive coordinator at South Carolina. "It's not like he's at Notre Dame, either, where he's getting all the perks and benefits of being at a Power 5 school. You're at ETSU and you get on a bus and ride eight hours to The Citadel to play a game. So he ain't doing it for anything other than the love of the game, which is really cool."
The NCAA ruled that the 2020 season didn't count against the eligibility of any athletes because of COVID-19, which allowed Folks to come back for the 2021 season. Hence the eighth season. He considered taking a graduate assistant's job in the ETSU sports information department and not playing football this fall, especially with such a quick turnaround from the spring season.
"I went home and took my time, worked in the yard with Pop and hung out with my brothers and sisters," Folks said. "I had to, just to refresh."
But in the end, he couldn't pry himself away from the sport he's been playing since he was 5 years old. He was sidelined for the first two games this season with a pectoral muscle injury but has been front and center in ETSU's historic start to the 2021 season and No. 10 national ranking in the FCS coaches poll.
"When the team needs something, anything, you can go to him and he's going to fix it, on the field or off the field," redshirt sophomore linebacker Donovan Manuel said. "You can't find that kind of leadership just anywhere."
Folks jokes that he does his best these days to stay away from MRI machines and that about the only injury he hasn't had is a concussion.
"My mom always said I had a thick skull," he quipped.
But as he doggedly pushes forward, Folks is preparing for life off the field, although not necessarily life without football. He wants to coach and hopes to be a graduate assistant on the ETSU staff next season. There are times that Folks sits back and ponders the fact that he's closer to 30 than he is 20 and has never really had a sustained job.
"But then again, I don't really have any debt, so it might balance out," he said. "This experience has been something I couldn't get anywhere else. I want to have the same effect on somebody else's life that all these coaches had on my life.
"That's why I want to coach."
His résumé has been eight long (and resolute) years in the making.