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A day after his grandpa’s funeral, JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s pivotal catch against the Saints was ‘about family’

Arcega-Whiteside's first catch of the season was a big one for the team, for his family, and for him.

Eagles receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19) signals first down in celebration after making a catch that helped stave off a late comeback from the New Orleans Saints in last Sunday's win.
Eagles receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19) signals first down in celebration after making a catch that helped stave off a late comeback from the New Orleans Saints in last Sunday's win.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The day before the Eagles-Saints game, JJ Arcega-Whiteside took a team-sanctioned trip to South Carolina.

His grandfather, Walter Means, had died at 89 years old a week earlier, and last Saturday was a chance for him to mourn the loss of one of the most important people in his life with his family.

“If somebody were to ask me who were the most influential people that got to you to where you are today, I would say my grandpa was No. 1 by far,” Arcega-Whiteside told The Inquirer. “He passed away. It was sad, but thankfully the staff that we have here and the players we have here, they helped me through it.”

Means’ funeral was planned with Arcega-Whiteside’s schedule in mind, but by the way the Eagles’ third-year receiver describes his grandpa, that would be the way he’d want it. A member of the New York Black Yankees — a Negro league affiliate — Means was a patriarchal figure in a family built around sports, but was also a devout Eagles fan the last few years.

“He never missed one of my games,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “ ... It was funny, like half the time of the funeral was about him and his life, and the other half was about the Eagles. It’s just one of those moments where you realize how sports can really affect people. We don’t really think about it, we show up every day to play football and go home.

“This sport can go out to a lot of people more than we know it,” he added. “If you’re out there and you don’t have the motivation to play for yourself, there’s plenty of motivation to play for others.”

With the Eagles granting Arcega-Whiteside permission to be with his family, the plan was in place: They would mourn Means’ death on Saturday and, as a family, watch his grandson’s team take on the Saints the next day.

In the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ 40-29 win, Arcega-Whiteside made it worth their while with his first catch of the season. The 23-yard reception helped the team stymie a Saints comeback and offered a brief moment of solace for his family fresh off the funeral.

“Obviously it was about more than just football at that time,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “It was about family. You go through these things, obviously your whole family is sad. I was just glad that I made that play and I know that it made my family happy back at home.”

The play was meaningful for more than just Arcega-Whiteside’s loved ones, though. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni gave the receiver an unprompted shout-out during his postgame news conference, crediting the play for staving off a catastrophic comeback.

“He’s had a tough week,” Sirianni said. “And for him to go out and make the type of play that he made right there, I love JJ. I think he embodies the toughness of this city and this football team. ... We always vote for play of the game. That for sure, I guess, I got the trump card because I’m the head coach, that will be the play of the game.”

The notion that Arcega-Whiteside embodies the toughness of the city could be considered instructive to how he’s reinvented himself this year.

In his first two seasons after being drafted 53rd overall in 2019, Arcega-Whiteside was widely considered a disappointment as he struggled to make an impact as a receiver. The former Stanford Cardinal was lauded as a contested-catch artist with favorable advanced metrics going into the draft, but he had just 14 catches in his first two years.

“You come in and you want to be the star right off the bat,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “A lot of times it doesn’t play out like that. Obviously in my case, that was the deal. It’s a hard pill to swallow, because all of my life, I’ve been the guy on every team I’ve been on. I come here and it’s like, ‘You’re not the guy.’ ”

» READ MORE: JJ Arcega-Whiteside went back to college to find the key to kick-start his struggling Eagles career

During the summer, Arcega-Whiteside declared that he’d refocused on “being great at the things that require no talent,” and he made the roster mostly as a special-teams contributor and a blocking receiver.

He said he was at peace during cut-down day, even with it unclear whether he’d make the 53-man roster for the first time in his career.

“I just told myself, ‘Just go as fast as you can and go as hard as you can. Just see what happens,’ ” he said. “I knew by the day the cuts were made that I did everything I could. ... I was going to be satisfied with whatever decision was made because I knew that I did everything I could.”

Arcega-Whiteside has had a handful of bright moments on special teams this season. He’s played 49.49% of the special-teams snaps, which is tied for eighth-most on the team.

Eagles special teams coordinator Michael Clay called Arcega-Whiteside’s special-teams play a “pleasant surprise” earlier this week and noted the 24-year-old has spent time working with defensive players to improve his backpedaling and tackling techniques.

“Sirianni really emphasized defining the role and he’s really taken on this role,” Clay said. “The fruits of his labor paid off. That big 23-yard catch right there kind of gave us that extra boost to finish the deal against New Orleans.”

Going into the season, Arcega-Whiteside said Sirianni challenged him to be the best in the league, not only as a special-teamer, though, but also as a blocking receiver.

Arcega-Whiteside has played 11% of the team’s offensive snaps and has been used almost exclusively as a blocker on screens or running plays.

Sirianni apparently eased up on the challenges going into the Saints game as Arcega-Whiteside dealt with the loss of Means.

“He texted me all day [Saturday] and asked me daily how everything was going,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “As a head coach, you don’t really expect that often. Usually if you’re talking to the head coach, it’s just about football. For that whole week, it was just about how I’m doing, how my family’s doing. Those are the types of people that you go out on Sundays and give everything for.”

By Sunday Arcega-Whiteside was ready to go back to talking about the game.

“I told [Sirianni], ‘Anything you need to me to do, I don’t care. I’ll do it.’ To help this team win, there’s no job too big or too small,” he said. “I guess that’s what he was hinting toward when he said the embodiment of a Philadelphia player or a person. You don’t complain. Whatever job you’re given, you’re going to go out there and do it and give your best and not complain about it. I told him that’s what I was going to do.”

After the 23-yarder against New Orleans, Arcega-Whiteside pounded his chest and pointed to the sky.

The concessions his family had made to give him the chance to attend his grandpa’s funeral had led to a bright moment not just for him, but for the family watching from his grandpa’s hometown.

“They were just happy that after the funeral they were able to all go back and watch the game,” he said. “Not only that, but also to come out there and watch me make a play.”