(Cover photo courtesy of Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
"Sometimes I feel only I can stop myself."
Welcome To The NFL
Rising To Dominance
A "Freakish" Legacy
Sometimes in life, the brightest stars and purest moments can be borne from the darkest of places. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Jevon Kearse. Born in Fort Myers, Florida, a city nary 20 minutes from where I type these words, during a crime wave following the crack epidemic in the September of 1976, Jevon Kearse faced a life of hardship almost unimaginable.
When he was only a toddler living in the Fort Myers section of Dunbar, a region stricken with poverty at the time, Jevon's grandfather was murdered in front of the family home. Following this, two more cousins died in crime related activities. Jevon grew up amongst the worst in society, and from an early age, he knew how to recognize it, and how best to avoid it.
"I had to grow up fast. I had a lot of obstacles to overcome. It made me a lot stronger, growing up like that."
- Jevon Kearse
Jevon turned to school as an escape, and was an active a classroom enthusiast as any. Jevon and his athletic siblings turned to sports to avoid life at home as well. But as they aged, things changed. Jevon knew he couldn't follow in the footsteps of his older brother JJ, who had fallen in with a rough crowd. Instead, the young Jevon turned his attention to school and football.
As a middle schooler, Jevon was the star of the Lee Middle football team, though he admittedly did not tackle opponents as hard as he could. In contrast to both his schoolmates and his environment, Jevon was described by as a gentle soul.
Before beginning High School, Jevon befriended Cisco Navas, and spent as much time at the Navas residence on the outskirts of Fort Myers as he could; where open space and an escape from the crowds and crime was easy to come by. After becoming increasingly frustrated in his own living conditions, he was eventually invited to live with the Navas family. Jevon made the move with what little he had, and his grades in school shot up accordingly. There Jevon learned the importance of academics, and saw a path that would lead him to the top.
By the first years of highschool, Jevon was already well over six foot tall and already known for his speed, strength, and agility. He packed on the muscle to his frame with everything from protein shakes and rigorous gym routines, but nothing seemed to slow him down a tick. At North Fort Myers high school, Kearse drew crowds of 15,000 along with as many as 20 collegiate scouts at a time to see his games. There he played strong safety and tight end and was also a standout on special teams, with four kicks returned for scores in just his first year at the school.
During his senior year Jevon recorded just shy of 100 tackles, tacking on six interceptions and four blocked punts. He also caught 24 passes on offense. Jevon was recognised as an All-American by USA Today. Beyond this, Jevon had bloomed into a stellar student as well, with a 3.6 GPA and an active membership in the National Honors Society.
With a wingspan of nearly seven feet, Jevon had college recruiters drooling. He was projected as a linebacker or defensive back and after the courtship of dozens of top level schools, Jevon settled on UF, turning down offers from the likes of Notre Dame in the process.
"I almost signed with Notre Dame. That Florida thing almost didn't happen. But I took a visit and then my cousin was going to school there at the time, Johnnie Church. He was kind of like my brother there. The rest of that is just history."
- Jevon Kearse
By his sophomore year of college, Jevon was 6-6 and well over 200 lbs. His teammates dubbed him "The Freak", a name head coach Steve Spurrier was happy to use, for his dominance in practice scrimmages. After red-shirting his first year and watching from the sidelines, it was obvious that Kearse was a lock to start.
"'If No.42 is not on the field on defense, I'm going to snatch him and put him on offense.' I think after he (Gators HC Steve Spurrier) said that, that is when they made me a starter."
- Jevon Kearse
Alongside future NFL stars including Fred Taylor and Mike Peterson, and under the tutelage of defensive guru Bob Stoops, Kearse shined as part of what many consider among the best college teams of all time in 1996. Kearse and the Gators culminated that great season with a title win over arch rival Florida State. in 1996 and 1997 Kearse earned All-SEC honors.
The death of his younger brother, Jermaine, in 1996 (the victim of a drive-by shooting) as well as continued economic hardship pushed Jevon headlong towards the NFL draft. However, this drive was both a blessing and a curse. Agent Tank Black offered to pay Jevon's adopted household's bills with the "understanding" that he would use Black as his agent when he was drafted.
While Black was a hot name at the time at the head of his own brand new sports agency, he would later be known for his court cases. Black was convicted of improperly funneling cash to college players, and became implicated in a money laundering case, a Ponzi investment scheme, and allegations by the Securities and Exchange Commission that he was involved in a stock swindle.
Kearse and alike Florida teammates Ike Hilliard and Fred Taylor, fell victim to Black's schemes. As one of two dozen players affected, the total losses amounted to $13.5 million dollars when all was said and done.
By the time the 1998 season rolled around, Kearse was widely seen as the best linebacker in college football. He was the centerpiece of a truly dominating defense. Despite the limits of a now-depleted offense, Kearse performed as well as ever, and earned All-SEC honors for the third consecutive year, as well as numerous All-America teams and a finalist for the NCAA Defensive Player Of The Year. By the spring of 1999, Kearse had declared for the NFL draft.
Welcome To The NFL
In the subsequent combine, Kearse recorded the second fastest 10 yard dash in the history of the event, losing out to fellow Ft. Myers athlete and NFL legend, Dion Sanders. While most pegged him as the draft's most athletic player, Jevon's play at multiple spots was a prime factor that led many to think he would slip come draft day. The Tennessee Titans were thankful for this array of questioning, since it allowed them to nab him when he fell to the 16th slot, after multiple attempts by GM Floyd Reese to trade up for him failed. In the end, the Titans got the player they wanted all along anyway.
On Jevon's first day at the Titans facility, he was in line for measurement and weight testing. At the end of the "Vertical Leap" line, Kearse asked then DB Coach, Jerry Gray, if he could move on to the next station if he could jump and touch the ceiling. Seeing the 12 foot ceiling above him, Gray agreed. Kearse responded by soaring up and brushing the tile with his fingers.
Coming off an 8-8 year, Kearse was injected onto a roster built around workmanlike figures; Steve McNair, Eddie George, Bruce Matthews, and Frank Wycheck on offense, and safeties Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson on defense.
Kearse began the season with a bang, dominating unsuspecting offensive lineman. This included strong performances against the rival Jags where he recorded three sacks, Bengals, 49ers, and Browns.
Kearse was allowed to "freelance" with greater frequency as the season went on. The Titans coaching staff were unleashing him upon the league, and Offensive Coordinators had no idea where he was coming from next. Kearse ended the regular season having won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month every single month but one, and easily bagged Defensive Rookie Of The Year accolades.
"I just thrive on trying to be the strongest, the fastest, the quickest player on the field all the time."
- Jevon Kearse
Kearse was the driving force behind the team's success, especially as the season wore on. Tennessee's sole loss in the season's last month of the regular season (to the Baltimore Ravens) was even a standout performance for what NFL viewers everywhere were already adopting as "The Freak". Kearse capped the regular season with a stunning performance against the Steelers in which he bagged a "Quadruple Crown"; a sack, strip, fumble recovery, and touchdown, that put the game beyond doubt. It marked his tenth forced fumble of the season, and took his rookie season sack total to 14.5, smashing the rookie record.
"I'm a selfish football player. Each time the ball is snapped, I tell myself that I want to make that tackle, make that big play."
- Jevon Kearse
After relegating to the top spot in the AFC Central to the Jacksonville Jaguars (whom the Titans had swept that season), the team was matched up against the Buffalo Bills in the game that became known as the Music City Miracle. The biggest elements overshadowed on that day by the miraculous final play, were Eddie George's efforts to wear down the Buffalo defense, and Kearse's safety on Bills QB Rob Johnson.
Following the game, the Titans bullied the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in physical match-up that ended in a 19-16 win. This set up a third meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars that season, a team none had beaten the entire year save for the Titans in their two divisional bouts. Despite the lack of secrets between the two clubs, the Titans broke the game wide open with a safety caused indirectly by Kearse, and an ensuing free-kick returned for a score by Wide Receiver Derrick Mason. They ended the game with a 33-14 win.
The Titans then faced the Rams in the Super Bowl, a match-up that saw the St. Louis offensive line try to double Kearse on almost every single play. Their plan failed. Kearse was lively in the match-up, wrapping up Running Back Marshall Faulk and pressuring QB Kurt Warner early and often.
On one of the game's defining plays, a hurried throw by Kurt Warner with Jevon Kearse bearing down on him (a throw that went for a long Isaac Bruce TD), Kearse thought his teammates were sure to nab the interception instead. Despite the team ending up on the wrong side when the final buzzer sounded, Kearse had become a nationally recognized icon.
Rising To Dominance
The Titans posted a league best 13-3 in the following year, and Kearse racked up another 10.5 sacks despite a nagging hip injury. This two-season sack number of 25 gave him the second best total in history at the time. Kearse finished the year a close runner up for Defensive Player Of The Year, an award that ended up going to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
In 2001, the Titans traded for defensive end Kevin Carter in a switch with the Rams in exchange for a 2001 1st round draft pick. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz penciled in Carter on Kearse's slot on the left side, and moved Jevon to the right side of the line. This in turn forced offensive coordinators to double one or both ends of the line, opening the opportunity up for other players.
"I feel like I've got a chance to make a play no matter where it is. It's all about my mode of thinking, just never being satisfied."
- Jevon Kearse
Just as in his latter college days at Florida though, Kearse was forced to showcase his skills on defense in tandem with a lackluster offense. Both Eddie George and Steve McNair were banged up, and the other offensive skill players were unable to pick up the slack. Along with other stars like CB Samari Rolle and Kevin Carter, Kearse continued to dominate, even through knocks of his own, to the tune of 11 sacks. The team finished the 2001 season with a mediocre 7-9 record.
The following season was a roller coaster. The team started out in 2002 looking like the team of old. With George and McNair back to health, they were poised for a return to the top. However, Kearse suffered a broken foot in the season opener against the Philadephia Eagles and the Titans reeled following his loss, losing the next four games. However, with the rising talent of young Keith Bulluck and continued stellar play from Samari Rolle allowed the Titans to regain form. They ran the table on their way to an 11-5 record, including a notable win over the rival Ravens. Kearse played in the final three games with screws now in his foot, adding important wins over the likes of New England, Jacksonville, and the league's newest expansion team in the Houston Texans.
After a playoff win against the Steelers, the Titans fell to the AFC Champion Raiders, and were denied a return to the big game.
After offseason surgery in 2003, Kearse was ready to rock and roll again. He recorded 10 sacks during the season to go with 4 forced fumbles, despite fighting through double teams in almost every bout. The rise of Keith Bulluck, Peter Sirmon, and Tank Williams, alongside Kearse's efforts led the team to a 12-4 record. The team added a fitting finish to their season with a playoff win over Baltimore, before falling to the Patriots the next week.
A "Freakish" Legacy
Unable to agree on a deal with the Titans, Kearse took his talents to the open market, to the dismay of Tennessee fans everywhere. He inked a massive deal with the Eagles not long afterward.
After four years in Philadephia, a voyage that took Kearse through both success and failure, he agreed to become part of the Titans organization again in 2008. Kearse played all 16 games for the team that season, and played into the 2009 year as well, his 11th in the league.
It is important to remember Jevon Kearse, and the incredible talent he brought to the Titans during his career. His technique as a tackler, his immense wingspan, and his unfathomable first step confounded offensive linemen wherever he lined up year after year. Beyond being one of the game's most dedicated athletes and gifted players, he was also one of the league's nicest off the field. In a league featuring the epitome of the nation's athletic crop, a man known affectionately league-over as "The Freak" demands both attention and admiration. His relentless drive and hustle to the ball confounded players and fans alike who saw him play.
"I feel like I've helped create a new standard of hustle for defensive linemen."
- Jevon Kearse
The guy who recorded 51 career sacks and helped elevate the Titans to the top of the league is a guy worth paying homage to, a guy who demands our respect. It's individuals like Jevon Kearse who, despite thier circumstance, rose to the occasion, and made the right choices. It's men like him who made the Tennessee Titans into the team we all know and love today; a franchise who holds high the attributes of workmanship, leadership, and a passionate drive to succeed. It's those things and more than characterize Jevon Kearse as a person and as a player, and the primary reason he stands today among the greatest to ever play the game.
The Pantheon So Far...