By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
SAGINAW, Mich. — Just as birds were born to fly and fish were born to swim, Justin Hemm seemingly was born to play quarterback.
And nothing — not even a five-year layoff from playing at the position — was going to stop the Piqua High School graduate from playing a position that may as well be his birthright.
In the spring of 2013, Hemm — who helped lead the Indians to a Division II state championship in 2006 — played what he figured was the final football game of his career, an all-star game for college graduates from Michigan and Ohio at Fawcett Stadium in Canton.
That game was supposed to be a final showcase following a record-setting career at wide receiver at Adrian College, a Division III NCAA program located in Michigan. Once the final whistle blew on the Team Michigan vs. Team Ohio game, Hemm was ready to move on with his life and his goal of becoming a teacher.
Or so he thought.
“It all happened kind of randomly,” said Hemm, who recently came in at quarterback to rally the Saginaw Sting of the Continental Indoor Football League to a 28-25 comeback win over the Marion Blue Racers. “I knew a couple of guys who had signed with the CIFL, and one of my buddies (former Adrian College defensive back Shuan Hladki) said ‘Why not come out and play the last few weeks of the season?’”
And so, on a lark, Hemm signed on with the Sting, who raised their record to 8-0 and clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs with the win over Marion. Hemm made his debut with the Sting several weeks ago — and played his first football game in a year.
“I had been lifting and doing some other things to keep in shape — but I wasn’t in football shape,” Hemm said. “I honestly thought my football career was over. I hadn’t planned on playing anymore, but my buddy just kept bugging me, so I said, ‘Why not?’”
The Sting signed Hemm to play wide receiver, the position he had played for the majority of his career at Adrian. Following his graduation from Piqua — where he set nearly every school passing record while earning All-Ohio honors — Hemm decided to walk on at Ball State University to play for current University of Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
After Hemm’s first year at Ball State, however, Hoke left for San Diego State University. Hemm transferred to Adrian, where he set nearly every school record as a wide receiver. By the time he graduated, Hemm owned the school’s career marks in receiving yards (3,024), receptions (195), receiving touchdowns (26), receptions per game (4.76) and all-purpose yards (3,811).
His senior season, Hemm caught 78 passes for 1,209 yards and 10 touchdowns — all single-season records at Adrian. He was named All-Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Third Team All-North Region.
Despite making a name for himself at wide receiver at Adrian, however, Hemm still got a few chances to show his brilliance under center, as well. His freshman year in 2009, he was pressed into duty at quarterback — and all he did was complete 16 of 18 passes for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 45-20 win over Olivet College.
That would be the last time Hemm would play quarterback competitively — until last weekend, that is.
With Hemm at wide receiver and the Sting trailing the Blue Racers 14-7, Saginaw quarterback A.J. McKenna was forced to leave to the game with a shoulder injury. Hemm stepped in and completed 6 of 9 passes for 78 yards and two total touchdowns to spark the comeback and preserve Saginaw’s perfect season.
“I played the first two or three drives of the game at wide receiver, then our quarterback got hurt,” Hemm said. “He tried to tough it out, but his shoulder was messed up pretty bad. The coach kind of looked at me and asked if I could go in at quarterback. I really hadn’t thrown the ball much since my freshman year at Adrian.”
And so Hemm — with a limited knowledge of the full playbook and an arm that hadn’t been properly worked out in years — stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat.
“As far as the running game, it wasn’t that tough because everything was pretty basic — it was all zone left, zone right and dives,” Hemm said. “In the passing game, it wasn’t that tough because I knew all the routes from playing wide receiver. The biggest difference was I knew all of my routes — but I didn’t know everyone else’s route.”
Down 17-15, Saginaw took the lead on a rushing touchdown by Hemm. Marion scored to take a 25-22 lead, but on the very next play from scrimmage, Hemm hooked up with Daryl Gooden on a touchdown pass to give the Sting the final margin of victory.
“I really enjoyed it,” Hemm said of his return to quarterback. “It was a great time.”
Hemm — who currently has a long-term substitute teaching position with the Adrian public school system — said he plans on finishing out the season with the Sting. Saginaw has a bye week this weekend, a final regular season game on April 26, then enters the CIFL’s two-week playoff. He said he plans on moving back to Ohio once the school year ends and doesn’t have any immediate plans on continuing his football career any further — but isn’t ruling it out, either.
“Shuan had played for (the Sting) last year and ever since last year had been trying to get me to come out for the team, but at first I wasn’t too interested,” Hemm said. “Finally I just said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Since I’m a long-term sub, I pretty much have my weekends free. I do plan on moving back to Ohio, and I can’t see myself playing anymore once I get back — but we’ll see what the situation brings.”
Contact David Fong at (937) 440-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong