Eagles' pick Jarrett emerges from a basketball hotbed

Jaiquawn Jarrett (left) takes on his brother, David Morse, at a neighborhood playground.
Jaiquawn Jarrett (left) takes on his brother, David Morse, at a neighborhood playground. (JEFF McLANE / Staff)
Posted: May 26, 2011

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - It was 5 a.m. when 14-year-old Jaiquawn Jarrett got out of bed.

He had an hour and 50 minutes to make freshman science class at Fort Hamilton High, his school, located 14 miles from his Bedford-Stuyvesant home, two buses and a train away.

Jarrett, now the Eagles' second-round pick out of Temple, didn't mind the commute, except maybe during the winter. So, for four years, Jarrett made this trek, because Fort Hamilton is a better academic institution than his neighborhood school and a "football school" instead of one of the many "basketball schools" that fill this New York City borough.

So at 5:40 a.m., Jarrett departed for the 38 bus. It transported him downtown to Dekalb Avenue, where he caught the R train. The train dropped him off at 86th Street, where he either took the 16 bus or walked the three remaining long blocks.

"Never did I think, 'Why am I doing this?' " Jarrett says now.

There was no time for introspection. Jarrett was not a daydreamer. He was a doer.

"I was always occupied," Jarrett said, describing his hour-long transit. "I was either listening to music or I was playing the PSP. My mind never wandered."

Even if it had, it is doubtful Jarrett could have imagined the Eagles selecting him in the second round of the NFL draft last month. Four years earlier, the Owls safety nearly went without a college scholarship after a stellar career at Fort Hamilton. Now he's penciled in as the Eagles' starting strong safety, the presumable heir to the beloved Brian Dawkins.

Two weeks after the draft, Jarrett's mother, Audrey Young, hosted a celebration. Almost everyone who had an impact on her son's life was there - family, friends, neighbors, coaches and teachers - essentially the village that helped to raise and nurture him.

"And, at some point in the party, I see him turn to someone and say, 'They should make a movie out of this,' " said Vince Laino, Jarrett's high school coach. "And it was said in a tone like this: 'Don't make a movie about me. Make a movie about how this is all happening to a person like me and we're all enjoying this.' "

Jarrett, 21, may have had plenty of guidance along the way. And there were pitfalls. But as his stepfather, Jeff Legree, said: "I didn't take those buses with you. I didn't go to class for you. I didn't practice for you."

If Jarrett got his drive and determination from anywhere, it was from his mother. A corrections officer at Rikers Island for the last 21 years, Young, 46, would often bring home lessons from the prison for Jarrett and his three siblings - David, 28, Lincoln, 24, and Kailah, 17.

"Jaiquawn is the younger version of his mother," Legree said. "As a parent, you know that kid that makes you proud all the time? That's Jaiquawn. He consistently makes her proud."

The same can be said for his hometown.

"People don't realize the impact that he's made on Brooklyn," Legree said. "He's the buzz right now."

The demon inside

Bedford-Stuyvesant - "Bed-Stuy" to the locals - is to Brooklyn what Harlem is to Manhattan. It is the cultural center for the borough's black population. The neighborhood has also seen its share of unrest over the years, although gentrification has slightly altered the dynamic.

"I know a lot of people on the outside, when they're looking in, they only see what they read from the newspaper or see on TV about the violence that goes on here," said Jarrett, currently splitting time between Bed-Stuy and Philadelphia. "But when you live in this neighborhood, you rarely see the violence."

Director Spike Lee set his 1989 film Do The Right Thing in his native Bed-Stuy. Jarrett's older brother, David Moss, said the film aptly depicts the neighborhood during the summer, even to this day.

Jarrett and his family live on Greene Avenue, two blocks from where Do The Right Thing was shot. His maternal grandmother, Cora Young, lives a few doors down on Greene. His aunt, Valerie, lives near his grandmother. An uncle lives several blocks down, near St. James Place.

Audrey Young lived with her mother when Jarrett was born. She and her children relocated to public housing around the corner on Quincy Street for several years until she bought the house on Greene - specifically, the bottom two floors of the four-story building - 13 years ago.

"This block here is like one of those old-fashioned blocks like in the '40s and '50s," Legree said. "Everybody knew each other, and if you did something, the lady up the block told your mother and she spanked you. Then, you got the church on the block . . . and it's one of the big political churches in the neighborhood."

Antioch Baptist Church is directly across from the elder Young's home. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached there.

Jarrett's childhood was typical in many ways for a Bed-Stuy child, consisting of family, basketball and church. He was also without a present father. His parents split when he was young, and his biological father, Lincoln Jarrett, was often absent. Jaiquawn Jarrett said they have recently reconnected.

"He wasn't around here then," Jarrett said. "What kept me in line was my mother. . . . She works on Rikers Island, so she's got that mentality that 'You ain't going to mess with me.' Just to work on Rikers, you got to be tough. Enough said."

Jarrett, as feared a hitter as there was in the Mid-American Conference, said that he also gets his toughness from his neighborhood. On a recent day, he, Moss and their younger sister walked to a nearby park to shoot hoops. Along the way, nearly everyone who crossed Jarrett's path greeted the native son.

"Just growing up in Bed-Stuy, you got to have a mentality that you ain't going to let anybody punk you," Jarrett said. "You don't want to be considered soft. You don't want to be violent, but you don't want to be seen as a coward."

Jarrett said he never had to defend himself. Of course, there were plenty of scraps with his big brothers. "He's cool, but if you mess with him he's got a little demon inside of him," Moss said.

When Jarrett was 10, he was chasing his brother Lincoln, and his arm went through a glass pane on a French door. He sliced opened his arm and a piece of skin was dangling from the cut. It required 110 stitches, and the cut is now a prominent arrow-shaped scar.

"It didn't really bleed much," Jarrett said.

He said this as if he had a paper cut. Jarrett brings that same nonchalance to football. In an age when post-tackle posturing is the norm, he simply offers a hand and a slap on the back after one of his patented big hits.

"I'll help him up, but that's my way of being funny," Jarrett said. "Like when I make a big hit on somebody I pick him up, let him know, Yeah, let me help you up with that one. It's showing great sportsmanship, but that's my way of getting satisfaction."

Jarrett has never been considered dirty, but his all-time favorite player - Raiders safety Jack Tatum - was considered one of the NFL's dirtiest.

"He's a throwback," Legree said of Jarrett. "Remember those old NFL films when everybody had a jacket and tie on before the game, but the games were so nasty? That's Jaiquawn. He's a gentleman off the field but Jack Tatum - 'the Assassin' - on it."

'Who was that?'

Legree remembers when he first met Jarrett. He was scouting talent for his youth football program, Mo' Better Jaguars, when he went to an after-school program at Jarrett's middle school.

"Jaiquawn was the only kid there with his school uniform still on - a button-up shirt and dress slacks," said Legree, who would marry Jarrett's mother in 2007. "Everybody else had jeans on - you know, the urban thing. Jaiquawn looked like he was working in an office, and the other kids looked like they were going to school."

Jarrett had already become known in football circles. Only two years earlier, at age 11, he first took up the game. Up until then it was strictly basketball. Moss' father coached the Lynvet Broncos and thought Jarrett should try out.

The first time he wore pads, he decked one of the coaches' sons.

"They were looking, like, 'Who was that?' " Jarrett said. "And they were shocked to see that a first-timer knocked the coach's son's head off - and he was supposed to be the star."

Jarrett was hooked.

"When he had a good game, he would come home and not take his uniform off," Moss said. "He had his cleats on and everything. . . . And you would be, like, 'Yo, take your stuff off. Go take a shower.' And he would be like, 'Nah, I'm good.' "

Jarrett played running back and middle linebacker for both the Broncos and Jaguars. When it came time to choose a high school, Fort Hamilton was an obvious choice. A number of Mo' Better players had gone there before, and Jarrett didn't want to attend his neighborhood school, Boys and Girls High.

"It's known as a basketball school," Jarrett said of Boys and Girls, which produced such hoops luminaries as Connie Hawkins and Lenny Wilkens. "A lot of kids that went there always seemed like they didn't go to class."

Fort Hamilton, which overlooks the Narrows and Lower New York Bay on the south side of Brooklyn, is considered one of the better academic public high schools in New York. Laino started the football program in 1990 and needed only a few years to turn it into a power.

By 2002, Fort Hamilton won its first city crown. Two years later, Jarrett arrived. By the end of his freshman season, he was promoted to varsity. In the spring before his sophomore season, he was moved from linebacker to safety, the Tigers' most important defensive position.

Jarrett was a two-way starter - he also played H-back - for three years, and captained Fort Hamilton's 2005 and 2006 city championship teams. His former coaches and teachers spoke glowingly about their former star pupil to a recent visitor. He always did the right thing, they said.

"He was never a needy kid," said Ruben Sanchez, Jarrett's position coach at Fort Hamilton. "He always had a goal on where he was going to go. . . . He always knew what was right and what was wrong. He had great moral values."

Despite having solid grades and being named the borough's defensive player of the year as a senior, Jarrett was barely recruited. Fort Hamilton had other Division I talents, but he slipped through the cracks for a variety of reasons, most notable of which was geography.

"We're a basketball town and football usually takes a backseat," said Laino, who retired last year. "And Jaiquawn is the perfect example. What he went through with his career symbolizes what happens in New York City all the time."

Especially Brooklyn. When you think of this borough and the great athletes it has produced, you think of Michael Jordan, Billy Cunningham, Carmelo Anthony, and Stephon Marbury, to name a few. Even a football school such as Fort Hamilton was best known for producing Bernard and Albert King.

And then Jarrett was clocked in about 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a combine, and the schools that even bothered to come into New York stopped sniffing. Some suggested prep school. He earned a scholarship to Suffield Academy Prep School in Connecticut but never stopped hoping for an offer from a college.

"I don't think anybody wouldn't get down," Laino said. "But he did the right thing. He was in the weight room every day busting his butt. I remember this clearly. After everybody else left, he's the last one to leave the gym. He'd come in the office every single day: 'Hey, Coach, what's up? Anything happening? Anyone call?' "

Finally, someone did call. Temple brought him down for a visit with the plan of delaying his enrollment until the second semester. But during his visit, a Temple player had flunked out, and a scholarship became available.

The Owls offered on the spot - May 23 - but it initially took a little convincing to get him to accept.

"Jaiquawn still kind of wanted to go to Suffield Academy instead of going to Temple. That's crazy, right?" Legree said. "We're, like, 'Jaiquawn, no, this is a four-year scholarship to a D-I school. You got to take this.' "

Waiting to begin

Of course, he took it. And for four seasons he used the recruiting slight as motivation.

"I had a chip on my shoulder," Jarrett said. "I had something to prove when I got out there every day."

By the sixth game of his freshman season, he was starting at safety. Jarrett owned that spot for the remaining 43 games of his career, along the way becoming one of Temple's most accomplished defensive products.

He became an inspiration to Brooklyn's younger set of football players, Jarrett's former coaches said. They use his rags-to-riches story to motivate their players and to get the borough's young players involved in team sports.

Fort Hamilton safety Brandon Reddish, bound for Syracuse, is following in Jarrett's footsteps. When he would slack off, though, Sanchez would text Jarrett to call Reddish to get on his back.

"Jai's his idol, and this is a kid that's in college that takes time to take care of people around him," Sanchez said. "How's that?"

Jarrett has yet to cash in. The NFL lockout has recent draft picks in limbo, having not signed contracts. Jarrett said he's getting by on the kindness of friends and family and a stipend from his agent as he trains, but he did not rule out getting a job if the work stoppage cuts into the season.

He has a degree in criminal justice and always dreamed of becoming a corrections officer like his mother. Audrey Young has four years left at Rikers Island before she qualifies for a pension and said she had no plans of quitting even though her son has offered to support her once he signs his contract.

Jarrett said he wants to buy his mother a Chevy Tahoe. He still doesn't own a car. He takes the Chinatown bus from Philly to Manhattan and then the A train back to Bed-Stuy almost every weekend. He said he hasn't thought about his first post-contract purchase.

"I'll probably buy some Pradas," he said, pointing at his shoes.

On the second night of the draft, Jarrett's family gathered at his home. Only the second and third rounds would be held that evening, and Jarrett was, at best, expected to go somewhere in the third round.

Nervous, he went upstairs to his sister's bedroom to watch the draft alone. The second round was proceeding, and Jarrett was flipping back and forth between Bad Boys II and the draft when the Eagles were on the clock.

His phone rang and it was a 215-area code number. "Oh, no, this is my dream coming true," Jarrett said aloud.

After he talked with the Eagles, Jarrett went downstairs to celebrate with his family.

"And he was crying just a little bit," Young said. "He wasn't crying crying. But you could see the tears."

Jarrett smiled at his mother's slip.

"Tears of joy," he said.


Watch video of Jaiquawn Jarrett at www.philly.com/jarrett


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or @Jeff_McLane on Twitter.

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