Jaelen Strong, son of ex-Drexel star, finds success at Arizona St.

Ex-West Catholic star Jaelen Strong scores. He's the son of John Rankin,who was a Drexel hoops standout.
Ex-West Catholic star Jaelen Strong scores. He's the son of John Rankin,who was a Drexel hoops standout. (AP)
Posted: October 20, 2013

A receiver got loose behind the secondary, a pass found him as he reached the end zone.

Text messages started flying around Philadelphia.

"You watching the Notre Dame game?"

The receiver, the touchdown-scorer that night, wasn't with the Irish. He was with the other guys, Arizona State.

And he was John Rankin's kid.

So a retired Philadelphia police officer, Rankin's old partner, high-fived his television and started dancing his own version of an end-zone celebration - "I started to get my little shuffle on."

A college basketball coach in South Jersey, one of Rankin's old coaches, said to himself, "Who can I text this late at night?"

Different generations of West Catholic guys grabbed their phones. YOU WATCHING THIS?

The cause of it all, Jaelen Strong, in his first year at Arizona State after a stopover at a California junior college, wasted no time in becoming a college football star.

Google the West Catholic High graduate's name and "NFL Draft." You'll see draftniks already are drooling over this 6-foot-4, 205-pounder, barely over a month into his Division I career.

The reason why so many older folks around Philadelphia are paying attention? Usually it's because of Strong's father.

Before leukemia took John Rankin away from his then 9-year-old son, Rankin had left an imprint throughout the city. At Drexel, where he remains the No. 2 all-time leading basketball scorer (2,111 points). In the Philadelphia Police Department, where he rose to detective. At West Catholic, mention Rankin and you might hear some '80s-era graduate waxing poetic about Rankin dueling Roman's Dallas Comegys in the Catholic League semifinals.

"Everything he did, everything he stood for, he was such a champion," said his former partner with the Philadelphia police, Shawn Wilson. "He meant so much to so many people, from celebrities to even criminals that we locked up on the street, that we had to arrest."

Guys he locked up?

"He was just the kind of guy, you just loved him," Wilson said. "He just cared about people. He was very outgoing. He was always the glue that held things together."

"It's just as hard now as it was when I was 9," Strong said over the phone last week. "It's something I had to live with. I still ask the question," Strong said of his father's death. "I ask God why?"

Strong kind of understood where his father stood in the community.

"I can tell . . . by the way people treat me and tell me how great a man he was," Strong said. "I could tell, even though I was young. He would talk to 10 or 20 people every time we went out."

Growing up in "the uptown section of Mount Airy," Strong played some basketball, too, but football and track quickly became his sports. He was dominant enough at West Catholic that he received a lot of defensive attention and had to learn how to deal with it and not get frustrated. His coaches invented what they called a Frustration Drill. Two defenders on Strong, doing whatever they could, pushing him and pulling him. No penalties called.

"If I lost my cool, he would sit me out a quarter," Strong said.

And that happened?

"It never happened," Strong said. "I wanted to play so bad."

Not eligible for Division I, Strong went to Pierce College in Los Angeles, sat out a year, then quickly showed himself as a big-time prospect, catching 67 passes, 15 for touchdowns.

His biggest challenge: Already committed to Arizona State, Strong had to complete 11 classes over the spring and summer or he would lose a season of Division-I eligibility.

"Taking classes at Pierce, taking online classes - I didn't have time for much else," Strong said. "I would work out if I could in between. I lost hours and hours of sleep."

He got it done, and has been a revelation, to the point plenty of East Coast and West Coast schools have to be wondering how they missed him. Going into Saturday night's game against Washington, Strong had four TD catches in his first six games, and has been at his best against the better teams.

He caught 12 passes for 168 yards and a score against Stanford, and averaged 17.3 yards a catch in an upset of Wisconsin. He's been over 100 yards receiving against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, and Notre Dame, (and had over 100 in last weekend's rout of Colorado, despite just three catches).

"I just knew I had to come in and work hard," Strong said over the phone. "I knew it wouldn't be easy, but that anything would be possible."

For Strong, Wilson, his father's former partner, is simply "Uncle Shawn," and Shawn's son, who plays football at Dickinson, is "Cousin Shawn."

"Always in my life," Strong said. "I was always at their house."

Shawn Wilson forged deep ties to John Rankin way back, before they shared a squad car.

"I initially met John in the Sonny Hill [League]; I was probably in the ninth grade," Wilson said.

Rankin went on to be a force at both West Catholic and Drexel.

"John scored [more than] 2,000 points at Drexel and I don't know if he made a basket from further than 12 feet out other than foul shots," said Rowan University coach Joe Cassidy, an assistant at Drexel in Rankin's time. "He was the consummate low-post scorer. He had the big butt. He was only 6-6 - he knew how to use his body, he had the little left hand hook, the little fade. People thought, 'We can guard that guy' . . . and he scored 2,100 points."

Wilson and Rankin became friends years later, when both took jobs as corrections officers at Graterford Prison.

"We worked in restrictive housing units, the Hole," Wilson said, remembering their time guarding the baddest guys in the prison system. "We both desired to do more in law enforcement. We both took the exam on the same day for the Philadelphia Police Department, in the same classroom at Central High School. Then they joined Class 298 of the Police Academy together - "Our first assignment as partners was on the tactical response team. We were transferred to District 19."

"For the volume of applicants . . . to end up together, we often looked at it like it was a gift. We ended up serving together from 1992 until I left in 1996 to go to a specialized unit. He went on and was promoted to detective."

The friendship already was cemented.

"We owned a barbershop together in West Philadelphia," Wilson said. "He was my son's godfather."

The first time the boys played football together, Wilson said, was probably at a picnic at Belmont Plateau when they were preschool age. Rankin would be QB. Wilson can still picture those scenes, and how on the last day of Rankin's life, Wilson promised to look out for his son.

"Watching him transition to what he's become, not just a ballplayer, his mannerisms," Wilson said of Strong. "To see him today, and talk to him, sometimes it really chokes me up, he's just so much of his father. I'm talking about things he definitely didn't have an idea about . . . It's almost like John is really living through Jaelen - his voice, his mannerisms, little things he says, his laugh. He has a chuckle that John had and only John had."

Wilson said he high-fived his TV and started his little shuffle when Strong scored against Notre Dame, but wasn't surprised by what he saw on the screen. No celebration.

"He was never like the average kid," said Wilson, who retired from the police department as a sergeant in 2011. "You see some who are whiners. He was very, very calm, very laid back and cool, even when he does something on the football field."

There are plenty of people in Philadelphia who have become excited, Strong realizes. He mentioned his mother and grandfather and uncle, how tight-knit they are. And there are more people paying attention than Strong realized, because of his father. Growing up, Jaelen was constantly asked, why isn't basketball his sport?

Now they all watch him play and the question is answered.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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