- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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SEATTLE -- There’s no part of football that Washington wide receiver Jaydon Mickens doesn’t love.
The grind of practice? Love it.
The weightlifting when you can’t feel your legs? Love it.
The 5 a.m. wake ups? Love it.
OK, what about the ice baths? Ohhhhh.
“The ice baths? I don’t know about that one,” Mickens said. “That might be one niche in my happiness. Actually, no. When you get out, it’s the happiest moment ever because you’re feeling so good to get out.”
Mickens has been an optimist since he started playing football. Even when he was an offensive lineman (it only lasted two days) or a running back all through Pop Warner, or making the move to wide receiver in high school, he always believed it was for the best.
And through all those changes and years, he always had one goal in mind: There would be no one on the field who would have more fun than he would.
“The stadium changes, the venue changes but it’s the same sport -- like Pop Warner,” Mickens said. “It’s all fun.”
On his Pop Warner team in California, the Inglewood Seminoles, it was easy to always have fun. Everyone always played and he was close on and off the field with coach Jamar Applewhite.
Inglewood was never the safest place, and through the years there was plenty that Mickens saw and heard about that wasn’t fun. But football? Football was always fun.
Applewhite would use Mickens as his speedometer for the Seminoles. Anytime he put Mickens on the field, players would speed up their games to keep up with him. They’d also increase their energy to keep up with Mickens, and Applewhite saw guys enjoy the game more when they played with Mickens.
Every spring they’d attend USC’s spring game together, and Mickens would tell Applewhite how someday he’d play for the Trojans.
“Just wait,” Mickens would tell his coach. “I’ll be out there.”
They’d leave and Mickens and his teammates would go back to Applewhite’s house, where they’d play video games. Mickens would tell Applewhite, his Pop Warner teammates, a stranger -- really anyone who would listen -- how someday he’d be in that football video game.
“Just wait,” Mickens would say. “No. 4 will be out there.”
But those were all goals for down the road. Happiness on the field, on the other hand, was the one that was constant throughout his entire career. He never had to wait to have fun playing the sport he loved.
“He has always loved it, been fanatical about it,” Applewhite said. “He loves playing football. That’s all he ever talked about.”
Eventually, USC came calling, but Mickens had readjusted what he wanted in a college and committed to Washington. And yes, that video game dream happened, too. Applewhite will never forget the phone call he received last spring when Mickens called screaming that he was playing “UW No. 4” in "NCAA Football 14."
As a freshman, Mickens appeared in all 13 games but only averaged 1.5 catches per game.
He could feel that it was taking him a bit longer to catch up to the size of Division I football and at 5-foot-11, he wasn’t the biggest guy out there. There were established receivers in front of him on the depth chart. But he was a former track guy, and he had that speed to get him his looks every now and then. But he wanted to be consistent. Playing was fun, but contributing was even better.
In his second year under Steve Sarkisian, he really started to develop. He started 12 games and had his biggest game of the season against Boise State. He tore apart Chris Petersen’s Broncos secondary with nine catches for 109 yards.
In his third year with the Huskies, he had plans to really come into his own. But then Sarkisian left for Mickens’ former dream school and a new guy -- the guy he had his best game against -- came in and completely changed the Washington program.
The coaching staff was new. The program was different. Players questioned whether they wanted to buy in to what Petersen was selling. Some considered transferring, others didn’t.
But Mickens wanted to look at this as optimistically as possible. So he considered it to be professional training. This experience, like so many others, would help him if he makes it to the NFL. Coaches move around on a coaching carousel there, and if he couldn’t handle it now, how would he be able to handle it then?
And he listened to Petersen preach about discipline, accountability and integrity. He thought if he bought into those ideals, maybe football could be even more fun because there’d be more of a purpose.
And he went through his first spring with Petersen, coming into his own without any kind of a hitch despite the coaching turnover. Mickens became a guy for Petersen like he was for Applewhite -- a constant, positive force on the field.
“Guys like that are fun to coach,” Petersen said. “Jaydon is at the top of the list with that type of energy and spark and spunk and all that good stuff. Football practice is hard, and it can be grinding and boring and those types of things, so you need those personalities to bring some freshness and some fun to practice.”
It has been all fun for Mickens and Petersen.
And that’s when it strikes him, when he’s thinking about Petersen and his previous stop, Boise State.
“Getting hit -- that’s not something I like, especially getting hit when you’re not looking,” Mickens said. “My freshman year against Boise State I got my head knocked off. That was a ‘Welcome!’ to college football and I was very much so welcomed. I did not appreciate it that day.”
So getting hit then? That’s not fun?
“Maybe," Mickens paused. "Maybe."