- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Alshon Jeffery knows a little something about being an overnight sensation. Or at least a four-day sensation.
Strictly a basketball player when he entered Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, S.C., Jeffery showed up at Walt Wilson's varsity football practice on a Monday. One game into the season. And one year into his high school career.
Jeffery already had helped the basketball team to one state championship and was on his way to three more, but he told Wilson he wanted to give football a try.
"He caught a touchdown pass that Friday night and the rest is history," Wilson said. "Three weeks later, he said 'Coach, I like basketball, but I think I'm going to make my money playing football.' "
The Bears rookie receiver flashes a smile at the memory during a break Wednesday at Halas Hall.
"Yeah, that was the turning point," he said of his first touchdown. "I was still getting a feel for it, I still had basketball dreams. But at the same time, I knew football was going to be for me."
And how did he know? Jeffery grinned again.
"Man, I just love making plays," he said.
In the very infancy of his NFL career, that much is already apparent as the 6-foot-3, 216-pounder has caught seven of the eight passes he has been targeted on in the Bears' first two preseason games for 97 yards, and already looks like a go-to guy in the red zone.
While Brandon Marshall good-naturedly cautioned this week, "Let's not induct him into Canton yet," he went on to say, "If he continues to do what he's doing, he will have a chance to be great in this league. I'm really impressed with his game. I'm really impressed with his ability to take in what we're trying to accomplish in the playbook. You can tell he's been really, really coached. I look forward to big things out of him this year."
Earl Bennett took it a step further, saying, "He's going to be one of those guys who's going to take over."
That's especially high praise from a veteran who will likely see his reception numbers cut into by the second-round draft pick out of South Carolina whose sure hands and route-running ability made him the talk of training camp.
Charles Jeffery Jr., the oldest of four boys and seven years Alshon's senior, is not the least bit surprised.
"I tell him all the time, if you don't go out thinking you're the best at your position, you don't need to be out there, no matter what anyone else says," he said. "I don't want him to get on his high horse, but you've got to know you're the best on the field.
"He's confident. He's excited. I'm more excited than him though, seriously."
Charles paved the way for his younger brothers -- Darren, Alshon and Shamier, a redshirt freshman receiver at South Carolina -- the two little ones following him to the high school, roughly two football fields from the family home in a town of about 2,000 residents.
"They used to follow me to the gym all time, and if I didn't let them follow me, they'd still find a way," Charles said. "And then they'd get hurt. Every time it would happen. They'd drop a weight on their foot or fall off the bleachers, it never failed. And then my dad would be mad, 'Why did you let them come?' and I'd say, 'They came on their own.' They loved to go to the gym."
Charles was the family star, a gifted receiver who played against Bears cornerback Tim Jennings in high school.
"He played it all, wide receiver, and he was good, way better than Alshon," Jennings said. "[Alshon] knows that."
But neither Charles or Darren played college football.
"I was pretty good, but I just didn't take advantage of my opportunities," said Charles, whose coach at Calhoun County was Chris Rumph, now the defensive line coach under Nick Saban at Alabama. "I can't blame anybody else for my mistakes."
And it takes nothing away, he said, from the pride he and his family feel for Alshon, the boy their uncle called "High Pockets," because he seemed to grow out of his pants every two weeks.
"It's a dream come true not only for him but for us too," Charles said. "It's all we ever wanted to do. It didn't matter if it was football, basketball or baseball as long as we got to the highest level.
"I can't even explain the way I feel about him making it. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it."
His parents are equally touched.
"We all are," said Charles Jeffery Sr. "I tell Alshon if you want something in life, you can't sit back and see what people did wrong to your brother. I think he got a raw deal [not being recruited out of high school] but that's water under the bridge. It's the way life goes. You learn from your brother. A lot of kids never get a chance."
Jennings gets it and said all athletes from South Carolina have some things in common.
"We're laid-back, just taking in everything, just glad and fortunate to be here because a lot of us are under the radar," he said. "So for us to make it out of there and put our state and our little cities and towns on the map, is a good thing, and we're very humble about it."
Wilson said Alshon has always been humble. But he also believes his career has been "touched by God."
"Before I got here, I'm just going to flat-out say it, teachers were passing him because they just wanted to keep him eligible to play basketball," he said. "But I told him, 'You can't get into college with 70s,' so we had to make a plan and in his junior and senior years, he made the honor roll.
"But when it came down to his last test to get into South Carolina [he originally committed to USC], he missed taking the ACT and had to get a 770 on his SAT. And the kid made a 770. Not 771, but 770. I knew right there that God had his hand on him. Then he went through his college career and when it's time to get drafted, he falls and I'm thinking 'Oh man.' But guess what? He's at the perfect place."
Jeffery's much-documented fall in draft status has largely been attributed to his weight (he played at 232 pounds in his final year at South Carolina) and questions about his work ethic. His drop in production from 1,517 yards in 2010 to 762 yards in 2011 he said could largely be due to the Gamecocks focusing more on the running game after quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team after five games.
When Jeffery showed up at the NFL combine at 216 pounds, teams wondered if he was fast enough or strong enough and if the weight would go right back on. To make matters worse, Jeffery then refused to run the 40.
"To tell the truth, I really think the NFL blackballed him a little bit," Wilson said. "The NFL is a big dude and they said, 'Who are you to decide you're not going to do anything at our combine?' He went and he smiled, but he didn't run and he didn't participate in any drills and then he told them he wasn't hurt. He felt that when he performed, he wanted to be at his best. I didn't agree, I tried to persuade him not to do that but he said, 'Coach, when I run, I want to run 4.5 [which he did at South Carolina's pro day a month later].' I said OK. Everything happens the way it's supposed to happen."
Alshon's father sees an advantage in the way it turned out.
"The good thing about it is he loves competition," said Charles Sr. "The more the competition, the better he gets. And all those receivers picked ahead of him, that's a big motivation. All I said was wherever he gets to, I hope it's a good team with a good quarterback that needs a good receiver to help them win a championship. Going to the Bears, that's a blessing."
Steve Spurrier Jr., Jeffery's receivers coach at South Carolina, also advised him against skipping the 40 and didn't see the same chip on his shoulder that Alshon's father saw.
"If he felt that way, he should've played college football at 220 pounds," Spurrier said with a laugh. "I told him, 'This will be your NFL weight,' but it's hard, you don't have as much control on this level. You can't fine them for every pound.
"[Jeffery] just enjoys playing the game and wants to be the best. When he was being recruited by Tennessee, [then-head coach] Lane Kiffin said if he goes to South Carolina, he's going to be pumping gas for a living. I told Alshon when we played Tennessee, 'I hope that makes you mad,' but he never had an emotional reaction. Game days to him were like a Tuesday, just another day. He never had highs and lows, he was just very staid."
And yet, Spurrier said he does not believe that will be a hindrance to Jeffery as he develops into an NFL receiver.
"He has a deep, inner motivation," he said. "You just don't get it in his expressions. But if you're around him long enough, you can see he's motivated to succeed, and I think he'll do fine."
All Bears general manager Phil Emery cared about was that Jeffery "had the best hands in the draft," an evaluation with which offensive coordinator Mike Tice later concurred, raving upon his first impressions at the Bears' rookie camp in June, that Jeffery plucking catches over cornerbacks' heads was like "picking peanuts."
"I used to call that stealing," Wilson said. "I used to tell his quarterback [David Sims, now a junior running back at Georgia Tech], 'Now listen, you got to go to your money. What's the use of having money if you don't spend it?' Coach Tice is going to find out Alshon is going to make him a brain genius."
"As many guys as I've been around, and I had [Seattle Seahawks receiver] Sidney Rice and a lot of guys at Florida, Alshon's ability to find the ball, adjust his body in the air and come down with it, is as good as anyone I've ever seen," Spurrier said. "And because he was big, people couldn't get around him and honestly, I liked that about him."
As for Jeffery, he may never be anyone's go-to quote, but that doesn't mean he lacks something to say.
"I'm always quiet," he said. "I like watching and observing, seeing how things go. I want to go out and just play. But with the draft and everything, what was going to happen was going to happen. It ain't where you start, it's where you finish is how I look at it."
He is well aware that he carries the hopes and dreams of St. Matthews, otherwise famous for being the birthplace of two-time Tony winner and two-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis, who lived there for only a few months after she was born.
"It feels," said Jeffery, "like I'm representing the whole town. Everyone is hoping I do good."
No one more than Wilson.
"Alshon's last homecoming game here, the team we were playing scored on a long pass with 14 seconds left in the first half," he recalled. "We were still up, but you could just feel the momentum had left us.
"Alshon came to me and said 'Coach let me return the kickoff.' I said 'Son, you're not even on the return team.' Then I figured, hell, we can't do no worse. And 99 yards later ... I looked like a genius."
Bears rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery is ready for impact.