Community Sports

Former Gig Harbor star Jarzynka dies on Olympic Peninsula fishing trip

Posted on March 8th, 2023 By:

Joe Jarzynka, who starred on the football field for Gig Harbor High School and the University of Washington, died while fishing on the Sol Duc River near Forks on Sunday, March 5.

According to multiple reports, Jarzynka was found unresponsive on the banks of the Sol Duc. Searchers found his one-man pontoon boat wedged in a log jam about a mile upstream.

Jarzynka, 45, is survived by his wife and high school sweetheart, Jen Jarzynka, and two young children; his parents, Dave and Sue Jarzynka; an older sister, Julie, and a younger brother, Tommy.

Star for the Tides

Though just 5-foot-7, Jarzynka was larger than life. He beat the odds to become perhaps the greatest football player to ever play for the Tides and one of the most popular Huskies of his era.

Jarzynka was a jack of all trades for the Huskies from 1996 to 1999, playing as a wide receiver, fullback, kick returner, punt returner and even place kicker. The versatile athlete walked on at UW after a remarkable high school career in which he was MVP of the Pierce County League and second-team all-state in 1995.

Sam Baurichter, Jarzynka’s quarterback at Gig Harbor High, was overwhelmed after hearing the news.

Joe Jarzynka in his UW uniform.

“My immediate thoughts went to his younger brother Tommy, who I also played with,” Baurichter said. “He looked up to Joe and loved his brother so much, this will be so hard on him. Their family was so tight and bonded, they would take days off from high school just to go on family trips together. Joe was about his family and he knew how much they loved him. He always loved Jen, they were a great couple. I am so saddened … everybody loved Joe.”

On the field, Baurichter recalls Jarzynka as a superior athlete who played with passion and could not be tackled by just one defender.

“Talking about making your QB look good. I would throw him a 5-yard hitch route and he would run it 85 yards for a touchdown,” he said. “Nobody could get a solid hit on him, he was too shifty, too quick, too talented. He worked hard and gave respect to everybody, plus he was just so much fun to be around.”

Memorable Fish Bowl

Baurichter remembered the 1994 Fish Bowl win against Peninsula, in which Jarzynka took the opening kickof 80 yards for a touchdown and then, as a defensive back, knocked a Seahawk wide receiver out of the game on the very next play.

“He figured out Peninsulas audibles and came up to lay out a receiver,” Baurichter said. “What a way to start a game, with a T.D. and that hit. After that game we must have watched that hit on tape 50 times. He was the king of Gig Harbor and everybody knew it.”

Joe Jarzynka from a University of Washington team program

Raonall Smith, a former NFL linebacker who played against Jarzynka at Peninsula and at WSU, remembers that Fish Bowl loss clearly.

“He had the uncanny ability to consistently provide a instant spark for the Tides, with his penchant for creating big plays,” Smith said. “He was the tone setter for their squad, when those Friday night lights turned on and he stepped over the white line, he was there to put on a show.”

A high school legend

Steve Gervais was Jarzynka’s high school coach in 1993 and ’94. During a long high school coaching career, Gervais amassed 244 wins, 15 league championships and six state titles.

“His belief and confidence in himself was extremely high for someone who had always been told he was ‘small,’ ” Gervais said of Jarzynka. “When it came to Friday night lights, there was never anyone who could rise to the occasion more than Joe. He was a gamer and it was performance time at the highest level. His toughness and humor with his teammates made him well-liked and respected, like the Pied Piper, he helped them to believe in not only himself but in themselves, to achieve more.”

Baurichter remembers Jarzynka sprinting from football practice to soccer games. He was a talent in both footballs.

“He would just sprint out onto the soccer field and start playing without even subbing in. Then he would dominate the game. He would immediately slide tackle guys, take the ball and then go score,” Baurichter said. “He had so much desire. We would all go watch him, he was really something to see. Joe was a person that lived life to the fullest, everything he did was 110 percent, all out, full send.”

At UW, Jarzynka made the transition from non-scholarship player to being named first-team All-Pac-10 as an all-purpose player in 1998.

Joe Jarzynka

A couple years earlier, then-UW coach Jim Lambright had become impressed with Jarzynka’s kick return skills in practice.

Lambright inserted Jarzynka into a game as a punt returner and he signaled for a quick fair catch. As a walk-on at that point, Jarzynka played it safe, not wanting to make a mistake. It would be one of his last fair catches and a turning point in his career.

No fair catches

Jarzynka would later say of the play: “It was well blocked and I had a lot of green in front of me to run. As I got back to the sideline, Lambo let me have it.”

In the film session the next day, Laimbright continued to remind Jarzynka of the space he had to run in. “He had one of those laser pointers and when he got to the point where I fair caught the ball he stopped the video,” Jarzynka said. “ ‘Yellow Brick Road!’ Lambright yelled, ‘Yellow Brick Road!’ ”

Jarzynka decided he wouldn’t make a fair catch again. He felt free to take chances, knowing he had to be fearless if he wanted to stay on the field. He developed a national reputation as the returner who refused to take a fair catch.

Joe Jarzynka making a return against San Diego State University.

Building the legend

Sometimes, defenders who had 40 yards to build up momentum blasted him. But most of the time he would juke and sprint past defenders, leaving them to helplessly chase him and his long flowing hair. He ripped off returns of 50 yards against San Diego State; 43 yards against his father’s alma mater, Notre Dame; and 38 yards against UCLA. His Husky teammates appreciated his courage and so did a growing fan base.

Lambright’s staff awarded Jarzynka with a scholarship as a third-year sophomore. His role kept expanding.

Following a poor showing from Husky kickers, coaches asked him to kick. The former soccer star made 19 of 21 PATs and six of eight field goals, including a clutch 44-yarder to help defeat the Cougars in the Apple Cup.

In 1998, he earned Pac-10 special teams player of the week honors for piling up 166 punt return yards in a win against California, breaking a 49-year-old Husky record in the process. He had a 91-yard touchdown in that game on a electrifying run-back that beat the Bears. Jarzynka celebrated wildly by climbing and then rattling the fence behind the east end zone of Husky stadium to send the fans into hysterics as the sirens roared.

National profile

Jarzynka continued to face the fire by not taking fair catches the rest of his career. He earned respect from national broadcasters like Keith Jackson and Brent Musberger, who raved about the kid from Gig Harbor  who had no fear.

“It’s impossible to describe the buzz that ran through the stadium when he dropped back to return a punt,” said radio host Mike Gastineau, author of a book titled “Fear No Man” about Washington’s 1991 national championship season. “He wasn’t going to fair catch. He knew it. You knew it. The opposing team knew it. And he almost always pulled it off.”

Post football

Teammates and coaches voted him the team MVP in 1998. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper  named him as a finalist for its athlete of the year award.

Joe graduated from Washington with a degree in psychology in 1999. He would go on to work for several companies in the commercial real estate and building/development fields.

He also became a player/coach for the reserve team of the Tacoma Stars, a professional soccer team.

“Everyone in the Tacoma Stars family and soccer community knew and loved Joe,” Stars owner Lane Smith said. “At the beginning of the Stars (Major Arena Soccer League) professional team, Joe played and gave it his all. An incredible athlete, he was a fixture for the Reserves team and a relentless competitor, plus he helped on the coaching staff as well. He was always positive with a smile on his face, a great local real estate agent and someone you always wanted to be around.”

Joe was also a devoted father who spent countless hours coaching and watching his children at their numerous games and activities. Adam Becker, a coach for the Stars said: “He was an amazing friend, the life of the party, and most of all the best father and husband to Jen, Madi, and Fisher.”

Friends have established a Go Fund Me campaign to help Jarzynka’s family.