Editor’s note: This story originally ran in 2017.
We would like to thank the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Ford Field, and Jeff Kimball for his editorial assistance. See a brief history of each team at the end of the story. Photos by Mark Constance.
By Greg Gielczyk
GREEN BAY / DETROIT – It’s been a long time since Anthony Zettel (Ogemaw Heights) and Jeff Janis (Tawas Area) were antagonists in football and basketball in high school, but the competitive fires still burn brightly for each athlete, now that they’ve reached the pinnacle of their sport.
Zettel usually earned the bragging rights in high school football circles as Ogemaw Heights dominated the field of play against Tawas Area.
The two didn’t face each other in college ball. Janis went to Saginaw Valley State University, while Zettel attended Penn State University. But their rivalry was renewed once they both made it to the NFL.
Zettel, the son of Carrie and Terry Zettel, is a defensive end for the Detroit Lions and Janis, the son of Chris and Deb Janis, of Tawas, is a receiver /special teams specialist who plays for the Green Bay Packers. This puts both small town athletes in the same competing division, were the Packers continue to dominate the rivalry.
While Detroit continued its string of futility this year when the Lions lost to the Packers in the final game of the regular season, Janis was part of the team that again, earned the NFC North Division Championship.
It was the Lions’ fourth straight loss (all of them to playoff teams, including the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card game) as they concluded the season with a 9-8 record, blowing a two-game lead in the division. The Lions haven’t won a division title in 23 years, back when Barry Sanders was still in the lineup.
What it was like
“I think that was the first time I’ve ever beat Anthony in anything,” said Janis, who married his wife Alyssa in 2015. “They always beat us in basketball and football. We don’t have a very good track record against Ogemaw so it felt good to get a win against him (Zettel) finally.”
won both of their meetings with the Lions this season, and a 34-31 defeat of rookie quarterback sensation Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys vaulted them into Sunday’s NFC Championship game where they fell to Atlanta.
Each level has meant a new adjustment for the players.
“In high school guys played just for fun. I think that was the biggest thing about high school football,” said Janis. “Everybody’s out there just playing with their friends.
Janis says that he began to entertain hopes of making it to the NFL after he had a successful junior year in college. Scouts came to SVSU practices his senior year to watch him. He hired an agent who told him that there was a good chance he could be drafted. That’s when it hit him that it could happen.
“When you get to college you’re still playing for fun, but it’s a little bit more serious. You’re trying to impress (NFL) scouts and things like that.
It’s like any other job
‘Once you get to the NFL it is your job; it is your life,’ Janis said. ‘You just [need to] take it seriously like anyone else would, like a doctor or anybody that’s a professional. You’ve just go to approach it that way. You just try to prepare the best you can and perform the best you can.”
And, no, the players aren’t affected by the camera hovering over their heads.
“Not when you’re out there playing. I don’t think,” Janis said. “Sometimes when you’re in the huddle, if you have a clear view of it when it’s right over your head. I might look up at it, but when they’re out there actually playing, I don’t ever think about. I don’t remember anything crazy happening with it. I think I’ve seen a punt hit the wire. But that’s it.”
Zettel said he relishes the matchups against the Packers and Janis.
“It was exciting going against Jeff because he’s a great athlete,” Zettel said. “We all knew he was an amazing athlete, and he’s a good guy, too. He’s been a good friend of mine, and we had kind of similar paths to the NFL. I went to a bigger college, but he worked his butt off at Saginaw Valley.
“He gets after it. Just looking across (the field) and seeing him (Janis) out there the first time was exciting. You can’t take anything for granted. You’ve got to enjoy the process. It’s the top of the top. It’s a business.’
Zettel was a First Team All-State selection as a senior at Ogemaw Heights, recording 82 solo tackles, 25 assisted tackles and seven quarterback sacks. He lettered in baseball, basketball and track and field as well, setting the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state record in the shot put with a toss of 61 feet, 8 inches, which broke the school record of 60-9) and won his second straight state championship.
A four-star college recruit and the nation’s No. 6 prep defensive end by Rivals.com, Zettel accepted a scholarship from Penn State in the Big Ten (which has 14 teams now) and starred there for three seasons.
Drafted in the sixth round (202nd overall) by the Detroit Lions in the 2016 NFL Draft, the 6-4, 277 pound Zettel recorded his first career sack against the New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Week 15.
According to Wikipedia, Zettel played inside and outside during a 2014 first-team All-Big Ten season at Penn State and recorded 17 tackles for loss, eight sacks and had three interceptions. He was moved inside in 2015 and his production dipped a bit with 47 tackles, 11 for loss, four sacks and six pass breakups.
“Guys are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter,” Zettel said of the difference at the two different levels from high school. “It’s a broad example, but that’s kind of how it is. I’ve learned how to attack different guys.
“The biggest thing is just learning from the mistakes you made in the past. Just learn stuff that works and doesn’t work, and get a feel for the game. The more I play this game the more I’m learning continuously.
“I just try to keep my ears open, keep an open mind and just learn from the older guys because they’ve been playing a long time and they found something that worked for them. As a rookie, you just want to keep learning and be coachable. You’ll find yourself a lot farther along in life.”
Janis was picked in the seventh round (236th overall) by the Packers in the 2014 NFL Draft and was on a flight to Green Bay the next day. He was the first wider receiver in SVSU history to be drafted.
“I was a little bit shocked (to be drafted by the Packers),” Janis said. “But once they called and asked me if I was ready to be a Packer, obviously, I said yes and I was ready to go to work.
“It’s an awesome place to play football. It’s similar to Michigan, similar area, similar lifestyle. I think I really fit in over here. Just to be able to come to Lambeau Field every day for work, it just has its own little aura around it. All the history behind it. It’s really cool to be a part of.”
Janis finished his college career with 4,305 receiving yards – the second most in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) history. He caught 83 passes for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns his senior year in 2013 and was a First Team AFCA Division 2 All-American. He was invited to play in the 2014 Senior Bowl.
It didn’t take long for Janis to make an impact for the Packers as he caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC divisional playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 16, 2016 – including a 41-yard Hail Mary heave from quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the final play of regulation. He also had a 60-yard reception on fourth and 20 from the Packers’ 4-yard line.
Zettel finished his rookie campaign with 10 tackles, three assists and one sack.
Playing with Aaron Rodgers
Experiencing being in the huddle on offense with Rodgers calling the plays has been an eye-opener for Janis.
“He’s definitely one of the smartest football players I’ve ever come across,” Janis said. “I mean, he just has a complete understanding of not only the offense, but everything that the defense is doing as well. His ability to read defenses and get to certain plays that he knows works against them has been something that I’ve found impressive.’
“Any time you’re in there with him it definitely makes you see the game from a different angle. The more you play with him, the more you are on the same page with him. Just to be on the field with him is just something pretty special.”
Rodgers also has a calm demeanor on the field, Janis says, adding off the field as well. Last year he told Packers’ fans to “R-E-L-A-X” when things looked bleak. This year when the Packers were struggling he said that they were going to “Run the table.”
So far, that’s exactly what they’ve done.
“He doesn’t really ever get too worked up because he knows what we’re capable of,” says Janis. “He knows what he’s capable of doing. Like this year. We were 4-6, and I don’t think you see any (lack of confidence at all because he knew what this offense and team were capable of accomplishing. I think that bit about us running the table gave our whole team a boost of confidence.”
Rodgers also tries to avoid putting his receivers in situations where they could take a big hit and be injured.
“Usually his ball placement is going to be in a spot where you can turn away,” Janis said. “He’s not going to lead you right into a big hit. That’s in the back of your mind, just knowing he’s not going to do that.
“That’s kind of soothing as a receiver. Sometimes that does happen. You just have to focus on making that catch, just like we do in practice, getting north and getting those extra couple of yards even though you know the defender is going to be there trying to rip the ball out. Everybody pretty much knows the down and distance.”
Last August the 6 feet 3 and 219 pound Janis suffered a setback when he fractured at least one of the bones in his right hand during a ball-security drill at the Packers’ training camp, which delayed his work developing chemistry with Rodgers despite possessing the speed and good hands the team was looking for.
Learning every day
Among some of the more challenging matchups for Zettel has been the times he’s gone against Tyrone Smith of the Dallas Cowboys, who many NFL experts believe have the best offensive lines in the league.
“He’s probably the best tackle they’ve had in the last 20 years,” Zettel said. “He’s about the best as they come, so going against him was an eye-opener because I’ve gone against great tackles this year. He’s a different cat.
“The Cowboys are a veteran ‘O’ line that has a really good tailback (Ohio State rookie Ezekiel Elliott). They do well together. It’s all technique. Everybody is athletic, big and strong. So, it’s just who has the best technique and who is willing to have the best motor, hand placement and technique on the tackles.”
Reaching the NFL was always a goal for Zettel, but he says he had to beat a lot of odds to make it.
“I think I’m at where I’m at because I took the small steps,” Zettel said. “Every day I tried to get better … It was just what I wanted to do that day to get better, and if you do that everything else kind of takes care of itself.
“Every day I’m blessed to wake up and be a Detroit Lion. You have to work hard and come with an open mindset. This is my job. Instead of going to class, I’m taking care of my body, going getting stretched and getting treatments. Just keeping up on your body is the biggest thing.
“After my sophomore year (at Penn State) I kind of realized I had a chance, and I had a really good season my junior year. Then I knew. The Big Ten is a great conference, and you’re going against guys that are going in the NFL. At a small school, sometimes you don’t see that level of competition, so it definitely helps to have that competition level.”
Janis said you have to be versatile and willing to be used in different roles.
“Coming in with a lot of experienced guys in front of me, I knew I was going to have to play special teams (just to) make the team and have an impact,” Janis said. “So, that’s what I took as my role the first couple of years.
“If that’s where my role is going to be, and that’s where I’m going to help my team then I’m all for it. I kind of take that in stride and do the best that I can on special teams. You study film to see how defenders are going to play, but you never know until you get into a game.”
The Packers are making their second trip to the conference title game in the last three years, and the fourth one in coach Mike McCarthy’s 11 seasons. Overall, the Packers are 32-21 in 53 post-season games.
You must always be prepared
“What’s stood out to me is that everyone is good and they’re always trying to get someone better, so you’ve got to bring it every day. There’s no days you can take off. Like in college, you know you’re going to be there four or five years.
“Some guys know that and they won’t maximize their potential. But, in the NFL it really forces you to maximize your potential because somebody else will be coming for your job.”
The Lions are high on Zettel, although he’ a little undersized to be playing defensive tackle which was his position at Penn State. They’re more interested in him being a defensive end, and are thrilled with his progress so far.
Former Ogemaw Height Coach Andrew Pratley had to take a couple of minutes to gather his thoughts when asked what kind of player and person Anthony Zettel was when he played for Ogemaw Heights.
Zettel is now a member of the Detroit Lions, and starting to make inroads toward a permanent starting position on defense where he was a standout as both a prep and college player with the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten.
“He was a great kid coming through the program,” Pratley finally said. “He had a lot of goals, and so from that standpoint he was easy to coach because he was always trying to get better. He had a great work ethic and drive to be great.”
Pratley said in addition to joking around with his teammates, Zettel would often crack the coaching staff up with the crazy things he would say. Many times it relieved the tension, especially when things weren’t going to well.
“He was a comedian, or at least attempted to be one,” Pratley said. “He always had something to say and most of the time it made you laugh, whether it was laughing at him or laughing with him.
“Definitely a personality you wouldn’t forget.”
Zettel primarily played offensive tackle and defensive end at West Branch, although he saw some minutes at linebacker and running back at times.
“When he got on the field there was a motor and an energy,” Pratley said. “He just had a high level of play and was going to … always bring it on every play no matter what the score. It’s what you’d like to see from all your kids.
“He was strong and fast in high school, but the higher you go the more technique and studying film has to take over. I think he saw that at every level it gets harder and harder, but the great thing about it is he continues to work his tail off and he has that great motor that doesn’t stop. I think that’s led him to be successful and have the opportunities that he has now.”
That versatility appealed to the Lions as well.
Being able to use him at any position up and down the line has been a major plus, too.
‘Watch him,’ Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin told the Detroit media. ‘He gets after it now. He plays football the way you like it. I mean, there’ not a step he takes on the field that he’ not looking to hit somebody, and that’ important.
‘So, he hits, he plays physical, he’ got a great motor, and he’ made some really good plays for us in the past few weeks. I’m pleased with his development and how he’ trending and, like I said, the longer he gets an opportunity and he takes advantage of it then the more he’ll play.’
Janis has been in the playoffs each of his two seasons with the team.
“That’s something pretty special,” Janis said. “Even a guy like Jared Cook, who’s been in the league for eight, nine years now this is his first time going to the playoffs. I consider myself a little bit spoiled. I don’t know what it’s like to not be in the playoffs.
Janis has been to the playoffs each year he’s been in the league.
“I’m definitely grateful to be here in Green Bay, and it’s definitely a blessing to be on a team that makes the playoffs as often as we do. We’re expected to make the playoffs. We know it’s a challenge, but, that’s why we’re here. We’re here to win World Championships and not here just to make the playoffs. We know we have to make the playoffs to get to the Super Bowl. It’s just one of those things we just keep working at and keep grinding.”
Pratley is proud of how far Zettel has come, but says when they talk there’s always the realization that there’s always room for improvement.
“Each step was a nice reward,” Pratley said. “There’s always the goal ahead. He’s not satisfied with where he’s at. We’re very proud of where he’s at, but looking forward to where he can be.”
Regardless of the position they play, both young men, with roots right here in Northeast Michigan, are living in the moment. And along the way have converted many people into Lions or Packers fans.
Detroit Lions History
The Detroit Lions are a professional American football team based in Detroit. The Lions compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league’s National Football Conference (NFC) North division. The team plays its home games at Ford Field in Downtown Detroit.
Originally based in Portsmouth, Ohio and called the Portsmouth Spartans, the team formally joined the NFL on July 12, 1930 and began play in the 1930 season. Despite success within the NFL, they could not survive in Portsmouth, then the NFL’s smallest city. The team was purchased and relocated to Detroit for the 1934 season.
The Lions have won four NFL championships, tied for 9th overall in total championships amongst all 32 NFL franchises; however, their last was in 1957, which gives the club the second-longest NFL championship drought behind the Arizona Cardinals. They are one of four current teams, the only pre-NFL–AFL merger team, and the only NFC team to have not yet played in the Super Bowl.
The Lions were originally formed at the Spartans in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, drawing players from defunct independent professional and semi-pro teams in the Ohio-Kentucky-West Virginia tri-state area. They immediately made an impact by twice defeating the Ironton Tanks, a nearby independent professional team who had regularly played NFL member teams since the early 1920s with considerable success. Portsmouth residents agreed to fund the construction of Universal Stadium, a venue comparable to those in neighboring communities along the Ohio River, prompting the NFL to offer league membership in 1930. Portsmouth became the NFL’s second smallest city, ahead of only Green Bay. During the team’s first year in the league it compiled a record of 5–6–3 in league contests.
Early highlights as the Portsmouth Spartans include the “iron man” game against Green Bay in 1932. In that game, Spartan coach Potsy Clark refused to make even a single substitution against the defending NFL champion Packers. Portsmouth won 19–0 and used only 11. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Green Bay Packers history
The Green Bay Packers are a professional American football team based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers compete in the National Football League (NFL) as a member club of the league’s National Football Conference (NFC) North division. They are also the third-oldest franchise in the NFL, organized and starting play in 1919. It is the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team based in the United States. Home games are played at Lambeau Field.
The Packers are the last vestige of “small town teams” common in the NFL during the 1920s and 1930s. Founded in 1919 by Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun, the franchise traces its lineage to other semi-professional teams in Green Bay dating back to 1896. Between 1919 and 1920, the Packers competed against other semi-pro clubs from around Wisconsin and the Midwest. They joined the American Professional Football Association (APFA), the forerunner of today’s NFL, in 1921. Although Green Bay is by far the smallest professional sports market in North America, its local fan and media base extends 120 miles south into Milwaukee, where it played selected home games between 1933 and 1994.
The Packers have won 13 league championships, the most in NFL history, with nine NFL titles before the Super Bowl era and four Super Bowl victories. They won the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968 and were the only NFL team to defeat the American Football League (AFL) prior to the AFL–NFL merger. The Vince Lombardi Trophy is named after the Packers head coach of the same name, who guided them to their first two Super Bowls. Their two further Super Bowl wins came in 1997 and 2011.
The Packers are long-standing adversaries of the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, and Detroit Lions, who together comprise the NFL’s NFC North division. The Bears–Packers rivalry is one of the oldest in NFL history, dating back to 1921. (Courtesy of Wikipedia).
– Print copies of Voice of the AuSable, which contains the original story and additional photos, is available on newsstands in West Branch, Rose City, Tawas and Oscoda, as well as other communities across Northeast Michigan.