The man standing behind the coffee bar is not your typical barista.
Yes, he’s unshaven, and his long, unkempt hair is tucked beneath a wool beanie. But take a closer look. There’s a thickness to his chest and a flash of intensity in his eyes that you don’t get from tamping coffee beans and steaming milk.
First he pulls two espresso shots into a white mug, making sure the surface is a creamy brown. Then he grabs the metal pitcher containing frothy milk and gently but forcefully taps it on the counter to remove excess bubbles.
Now it’s time to pour, which he does with precision and care. As the white steamed milk meets the reddish brown espresso, foam separates from liquid and rises to the surface of the mug. A pattern emerges in the form of a tulip.
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Looking down at his latest coffee creation, Zack Follett grins and shakes his head.
“I used to spend my Sundays covering kickoffs,” he says. “Now I spend my Mondays pouring artisan lattes.”
The 27-year-old is the owner of Kuppa Joy, a coffee house in Old Town Clovis he opened in December 2012 after an injury-forced retirement from pro football.
Quite a career change, to be certain.
Just don’t assume the transition from NFL linebacker/special teams demon to purveyor of organic, fair trade coffee represents the greatest transformation of Follett’s life.
Not even close.
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Why Follett — while attending college in Berkeley — purchased that $10 print of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” from Ross Dress For Less he honestly can’t say.
“It was just a good-luck charm,” he says. “I had no idea what it meant.”
The print hung on his apartment wall as decoration. Until one night when it came to mean so much more.
But first, let’s backtrack. Go back to Follett’s days at Clovis High, where he had just one thing on his mind: football.
Make that two things.
“If it didn’t involve football or girls,” he says, “I wasn’t interested.”
By all accounts, Follett was successful at both. At Clovis, the Tri-River Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 was known as “Zack Attack.” At Cal, where he played from 2005-08, he glossed himself “The Pain Train.”
Both fit his aggressive, reckless, shot-from-a-cannon style.
“I had an anger and a rage to me,” Follett says. “The football field was a place where I could let all that go, and it was cheered and admired.”
Football was his consuming passion. He watched games on TV, memorized stats, collected cards. Besides partying and girls, there was little interest in anything else. Especially religion.
Dewayne Coleman remembers.
Coleman and Follett met as sophomores. By senior year, they became friends. They hung out, played video games and created art in Follett’s garage. Which helped bridge the primary difference between them: Dewayne was deeply religious, and Zack had no time for that stuff.
Many times during their high school years, Coleman would encourage Follett to attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings.
Follett would sometimes go, mostly out of respect to his friend. He rarely stayed long. The football star showed up, gobbled a few slices of free pizza and bolted.
“If I tried to talk to him about God, he would look me in the eye and say, ‘D, football is my life. That’s all I care about,’ ” recalls Coleman, now a youth and young adult minister at The Word Community Church in Fresno.
“I could never have that conversation with him.”
It would be a few years before Follett was ready for that conversation. And it didn’t happen with Coleman, at least not at first.
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The evening of March 8, 2008, began just like any other night. It happened to be during spring football before Follett’s senior season at Cal.
Zack and his cousin, Adam, along with two young ladies, piled into Follett’s black Hummer H2 and headed across the Bay Bridge for an evening of wining and dining in San Francisco.
Things did not go as planned because the two men ended up alone in Follett’s Berkeley apartment. They sulked for a while before Zack invited his cousin into his computer room to watch a funny video and lighten the mood.
That’s when Adam, a Christian, spotted “The Last Supper” hanging on the wall. He was surprised to see it — and a little angry — knowing Zack wasn’t the slightest bit religious.
“He said, ‘Do you want to know about this picture?’ ” Follett recalls. “I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘Oh, no. More Jesus talk.’ ”
Adam started talking. And talking. He spoke for 2½ hours about God, creation and Satan. He spoke about Jesus, the apostles and the Eucharist.
Only this time, Follett listened.
“A light bulb went on in my head,” he says. “All those people I’d made fun off for loving Jesus, finally I understood.
“The Holy Spirit was talking through my cousin that night.”
Coleman remembers being awakened by his ringing phone. It was almost 3 a.m. He was living in Sacramento and attending theological college. He and Follett had stayed in touch through social media but didn’t see each other.
Coleman recognized Follett’s voice; just not the words coming from his mouth.
“To be honest,” Coleman says, “I thought he was drunk.”
The next morning, Coleman saw a missed call from Follett. He called back, and Zack repeated the same things he’d said in the middle of the night.
“I never had a hint it was coming,” Coleman says. “I’d never heard the words ‘Jesus Christ’ come out of his mouth unless it was swearing or used as a derogatory word. That night changed everything.”
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Follett’s awakening came swift and sudden. It seemed like each time he had a question, the Bible provided an answer.
Heading into his senior year at Cal, Follett was more enthused about football than ever. He felt like God had given him a new energy, adding to the considerable zeal he always brought to the field.
Follett was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection as a junior with 12½ tackles for loss and 6½ sacks. And when the Bears switched to a 3-4 defense, it was like the new scheme was designed for him.
As a senior, Follett led the nation with 23 tackles for loss to go with 10½ sacks and five forced fumbles. Heading into the draft combine, his bio on NFL.com contained phrases like “plays with reckless abandon on every snap,” “forcefully takes on blocks with impressive pop” and “looks to intimidate his opponent.”
But at the end, there’s this: “Tackled with his head down too often in 2007, leading to some missed tackles and, more important, putting his spinal cord at risk.”
Follett missed nearly three games of his junior season with a neck stinger. Concerns over the injury probably were the reason he slid into the seventh round, where the 6-foot-1, 236-pounder was drafted 235th overall by the Detroit Lions.
It didn’t take long for Follett to establish himself as a special-teams ace, especially on kickoff returns. One hit on Rams return man Danny Amendola was particularly fierce. He appeared in 10 games as a rookie, recording 10 tackles.
Follett quickly became a fan favorite in Detroit, both for his style of play and colorful personality. When his father, Bob, died suddenly and unexpectedly, his faith only deepened. In year 2, Follett cracked the starting lineup for two games until his season abruptly ended after a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul on Oct. 17, 2010.
Laying motionless on the turf, Follett appeared to grimace as he was strapped to a backboard and taken off the field on a motorized cart. Giants fans gave him a standing ovation.
No one knew it at the time, but those were the last football cheers for Follett that he would hear. Unable to recover from his injuries, he retired the following August during the start of training camp.
Two days before the announcement, Follett sent his then-girlfriend the following text message:
“Playing football no longer makes me happy. Preaching Christ is what brings me joy. Praying God reveals his plan for my life.”
That revelation didn’t come in Detroit. Nor did it come in Clovis. It came in England, of all places, where Follett traveled in January 2012 to speak at churches and schools and also serve as a studio host for Sky TV’s coverage of the NFL playoffs.
Follett remembers sitting at a coffee shop in Marlow, a town of 14,000 in southern England, sipping cappuccino, when the epiphany hit him like a bolt of lightning.
He had his Bible with him, of course, and was reading the following passage from Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”
“As I took a sip of that cappuccino, I thought, ‘This is a cup of joy,’ ” he says. “The Holy Spirit connected with me at that moment.”
The voice inside Follett’s head told him the next step: Move back home, back to Clovis, and open a coffee shop.
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Follett started out not knowing much about coffee but was eager to learn. He attended a weeklong coffee school in Portland and toured that city’s coffee establishments, along with those in San Francisco.
But would an independent, locally owned coffee shop work in corporate chain-obsessed Fresno/Clovis, where (with few exceptions) Starbucks is the only option? Even Mom had her doubts.
“I didn’t think Zack knew what he was getting himself into,” Naomi Follett says.
Follett kept plowing forward. It took a while to find the perfect location on Clovis Avenue, an old building with a brick interior that used to house a flower shop. To remodel and open the doors he used his own savings without borrowing a dime.
Today Kuppa Joy (a take on his “cup of joy” epiphany) employs 12 people, including a full-time manager. A CPA handles the bookkeeping, leaving Follett to do what he does best.
“It allows me to be the visionary and make sure we’re staying sharp on customer service,” he says during a typically crowded morning in the shop.
“I’m not a mathematician; I’m an aesthetics guy. My strength is being friends, making good coffee and bringing people in the door.”
All the decorative touches, from the naturally finished wooden tables and benches to the ornate throne representing King Jesus to the behind-the-counter wallpaper made from coffee bags, are Follett’s.
The setting is warm and inviting. It’s place to sip fine coffee drinks and socialize — or tap tap tap on the computer keyboard.
“Coffee is the medium people use for connecting and conversation,” he says. “I love everything it represents.”
The only evidence that an ex-football player owns the place are five helmets sitting on a high shelf. They are in fact Follett’s actual helmets from Cedarwood Elementary, Clark Intermediate, Clovis High, Cal and the Lions.
“My whole life I’ve been Zack Follett the football player,” he says. “I’m definitely proud of my past, but there needs to be much more.”
There is no escaping some aspects of that past. Every day Follett wakes up with pain and tightness in his neck, shoulders and upper chest. Sometimes just getting out of bed is difficult. Three of his cervical vertebrae are out of alignment, and he has delayed neck surgery and therapy. (He and the Lions are in dispute over workers compensation claims.)
But there is also joy. Follett speaks regularly at school assemblies and local churches and enjoys hiking and camping in the Sierra.
There’s joy in his heart, too. During the shop’s first month, Follett couldn’t take his eyes off a pretty young woman sitting at a corner table. He brought her a chocolate square, introduced himself and gave a 10-minute testimonial.
Chelsea Wathen soon became Follett’s girlfriend. They have been together nearly two years.
“This is the only non-football relationship I’ve ever been in,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to treat a woman.”
Longtime friends like Coleman are astounded at the transformation.
“Honestly, it’s like two different Zacks,” Coleman says. “It’s like a whole different operating system in his mind.”
Unlike many coffee houses, Kuppa Joy does not roast its own beans. Instead, Follett purchases coffee from well-known roasters such as Victrola, Verve and Stumptown. This adds flexibility but also expense.
“If you’re the type who gets mad at paying an extra 50 cents per cup, this isn’t your place,” he says.
Despite that hurdle, business has been brisk enough for Follett to consider opening another location. He nearly pulled the trigger on a northwest Fresno spot a couple of months ago before deciding the arrangement didn’t feel right.
“Next time I get a whiff of something,” he says, “I’m going to go full speed.”
It would seem not everything has changed.