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The journey of Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery | Mike Sielski

From the small town of St. Matthews, S.C., to a make-or-break season with the Eagles, Alshon Jeffery has always done two things: embraced a chance at freedom and remembered where he came from.

Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

ST. MATTHEWS, S.C. — The house that Alshon Jeffery built last year for his mother, Deloris, has five bedrooms, white columns thick as old oaks throughout the living room, an inground pool, and a full blacktop basketball court with Plexiglas backboards.

Deloris had her pick of a couple of plots. She decided that the first one she saw was too close to a trailer park. The mobile homes would have intruded on the view from the backyard. She settled instead on a piece of land in a wooded area 25 miles northwest of here. Both she and Alshon grew up in St. Matthews, and the house is close enough that they can remember where they came from and far enough away that, if they choose to, they can forget.

If Jeffery, 27, had followed the purest, strongest dreams of athletic glory he had as a boy, he likely never would have had the resources to give his mother this gift. Over his first five years in the NFL, all with the Chicago Bears, he caught 304 passes, including 26 touchdowns, and earned more than $23 million.

Based on that curriculum vitae, the Eagles made him their splashiest offseason acquisition, signing him to a one-year contract worth $9.5 million, billing him as an elite wide receiver who would allow Carson Wentz to flourish into an elite quarterback, offering him a chance to achieve a securer and more lucrative financial position. This is not an unfamiliar scenario for him. Those who know Jeffery well here—family members, friends, former coaches—remember him as a two-sport star who preferred basketball but used football as a lever to catapult himself out of this tiny town, and even Jeffery himself couldn't deny where his true love and loyalty lay.

"Hey, man, it's easier to get to the NFL," he said. "Nowadays, I wish I would have stuck with the NBA, with the money they're giving out."

A town where little changes

Jeffery visits St. Matthews when he can, most recently in late July, when he held a football camp at his alma mater, Calhoun County High School, for 500 kids. "When I go down there, man, I just go to my neighborhood," he said in a recent interview at the NovaCare Complex. "Everybody wants to see me. It's a lot different than when I was in high school and college. It's a lot different."

For him, it is. For those who have lived here a while, it isn't. St. Matthews has 2,000 residents, two traffic lights, one Hardee's, and an overwhelming sociocultural sense—from the aging rancher-style houses lining its streets to the stacks of flaking newspapers that filled the office window of The Calhoun Times, which began publishing in 1893—that, over time, little in life changes much.

Calhoun County is nearly 400 square miles, its boundaries resembling a child's drawing of a horse. St. Matthews is less than two, a crumb resting on the animal's ribcage. The high school houses 475 students, and many bus there from as far as 20 miles away. The school building, renovated in 2009, now has the sleek tinted windows of a university science center and rises out of tall grass like a mirage on a prairie. Violent crime in the town, according to FBI data, is well above the national average. More than 30 percent of its residents, according to census records, live below the poverty line. At the Town & Country Restaurant, the modest luncheonette that remains a popular hangout for local teenagers, just as it was when Jeffery was one of them, a hostess asked, "Y'all doing another article on Alshon?" Though a hand-scribbled note on its office door read OUT TO LUNCH BE BACK IN AN HOUR, The Times stopped publishing in February. In St. Matthews, they keep lighting the lights and following the formalities.

Jeffery grew up on Liberty Street, a dusty side road set in the shadow of Calhoun County High's football stadium. His father, Charles, lived in one house on Liberty; his maternal grandmother, Adell Ben, who died earlier this year, lived in another. They could unfold lawn chairs on the street and spend their Friday nights watching football games from an unobstructed sightline. Along the narrow strip of grass next to their grandmother's home, Jeffery and his older brother Charles Ben, himself a football and basketball standout at Calhoun County High, often played a peculiar version of catch. Ben, six years older than Jeffery, would peg the football as hard as he could at him, forcing his younger, smaller brother to catch the ball with his hands to keep the point from pelting his upper body with bruises. The residue of those early receiving drills is obvious today, but they weren't Jeffery's favorite competitive activity.

"When we'd have a family cookout," said Jeffery's cousin Barry Charley, now the principal at Calhoun County High, "the first thing he'd do is grab a basketball."

At age 6, Jeffery went to his first high school basketball game, watching Calhoun County High win a state championship under longtime coach Zam Fredrick, a St. Matthews native who, in 1980-81, led the NCAA in scoring, averaging nearly 29 points a game for the University of South Carolina. "Ever since then," Jeffery said, "I've been into basketball," so much so that, although he had played football throughout middle school, he didn't play his freshman year. Why bother? Fredrick was a local legend who had implemented an attack-dog style of play, full-court pressing from tipoff to buzzer, to turn Calhoun's basketball program into one of the best in South Carolina.

"All I was used to was winning," Jeffery said, and all Fredrick's teams did was win, so there was no sense wasting his time elsewhere. The Saints won another state title in Jeffery's freshman season — the first of four during his career, which included a 101-game winning streak with him in the lineup — and even the quiet kid whose mother called him "Boo" found the scene at every game intoxicating, with ticket lines stretching out the door before home games, with his family taking a bus to road games, with Doris in the stands screaming and chanting louder than anyone because her son was at the center of the joyous storm.

Who dat tryin' to beat CC High?

Who dat?

Who dat?

"They had that town on fire," she said.

To the Saints, Fredrick said, Jeffery was a more valuable version of the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green, so versatile that he could fill whatever role the team needed him to fill. "He was one of the few guys I've coached or I've seen, for that matter, who could dominate a game, be all over the place, and you look at the stats and would only have five points — but was clearly the best player on the floor," Fredrick said. "In my mind, he would have been an NBA player, probably would have been a point guard, with his vision, man, and the way he handled the ball.

"Then, all of a sudden, football…"

He returned to the sport on a whim, really, in his sophomore year, when a friend asked him to come out for the team. Jeffery suited up for the Saints' second game, caught a touchdown pass, skipped the third game, returned for the fourth, and never left. He had tired of the traveling on the AAU circuit, and once he stopped playing AAU altogether after his junior year, once the passing leagues and weightlifting sessions with his football teammates became a more pleasing way to spend his summer, the fevered courtship from Division I basketball coaches began to cool. Besides, at 6-foot-3, Jeffery was an inviting target as a wide receiver, with inherent physical advantages over most defensive backs, but at higher levels of basketball, his height would likely be a liability.

One day during Jeffery's junior year, Walt Wilson, then Calhoun County High's football coach, told him, Everybody in the NBA is 6-9, and you ain't 6-9. Fredrick couldn't disagree, and his concerns about Jeffery's injuring himself vanished once he saw the fluidity with which he moved on the field, his preternatural ability to avoid contact and catch passes that were thrown at him. "Not to him," Fredrick said. "At him." His junior season, Jeffery caught 14 touchdown passes. His senior season, he caught another 14.

"It was almost as if football chose him," Fredrick said.

The big-time college coaches had found him by the start of his senior year: Pete Carroll at the University of Southern California, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Lane Kiffin at Tennessee. Ross Smith, who was Jeffery's social-studies teacher and wide receivers coach in the fall of 2008, started noticing that Jeffery's friend Javin Jamison often got a succession of text messages during class. The texts were from recruiters, asking what other coaches had spoken to Jeffery, and Jamison was acting like Jeffery's agent, fielding the inquiries so the superstar wouldn't have to. Kiffin went to dinner on Liberty Street, and Deloris took care to prepare a huge meal — fried chicken, brown rice, green beans, macaroni — because she thought, and half-hoped, that Alshon would choose Tennessee, though he was learning toward Southern Cal.

"He said, 'Mom, that's my dream school,'" Deloris said. "But then, when it was time for him to go, I don't think he really wanted to go there. I was shocked he picked South Carolina."

So was Kiffin, who infamously had told Jeffery that he would end up "pumping gas" for the rest of his life if he chose South Carolina—its Columbia campus just 40 miles north of St. Matthews — over Tennessee. But Knoxville was far enough away for Jeffery to feel uncomfortable, and Los Angeles might as well have been on the dark side of the moon. Still, Kiffin's cutting remark served as a helpful warning to Jeffery: that he could hold on to home only so long, that no matter where he went to college, he had an opportunity to advance beyond the confines, tangible and intangible, of his environment.

"He needed that," Charley, the Calhoun County High principal, said, "because he always had potential. In my opinion, that opened him up to say, 'Hey, I have a chance here.' I appreciate Lane Kiffin for letting him know that."

Pride and freedom

After a Federal Express envelope arrived at the Bears' headquarters last year, containing a letter telling Jeffery that he had violated the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs and would be suspended for four games, he immediately texted all his family members and friends to apologize for embarrassing them. "To this day, I don't know what happened," he said. "But this is my family. You had all these people asking questions."

None of them was inclined to doubt him, anyway. The pride in him here is palpable. Zam Fredrick arrived at Calhoun County High one day last month wearing a gray "Football 2017 CAMP Alshon Jeffery" T-shirt. In a filing cabinet in his classroom, Smith has stashed a 2011 Sports Illustrated cover that Jeffery autographed for him. (After one game, Smith told Jeffery, "You're going to make me famous" and asked him for the sweat-saturated do-rag that he was wearing. Jeffery gave it to him. Smith did not stash that in the cabinet.) Charley beamed as he opened the doors to the Calhoun County High gymnasium, unveiling a row of red-and-black state-championship banners affixed high on a white wall.

The house that Jeffery built last year for his mother has a chest in the dining room. Deloris keeps the top of it covered in Alshon memorabilia: a game ball from a big win at South Carolina; photos from games in high school and college and the NFL; the heavy, crannied trophy, shaped like a football helmet, that he received when he was named all-state in 2008. "He never bragged about what he did," she said. "He just did it. That's him."

She has worked on factory assembly lines and, after Alshon graduated, in the Calhoun County High cafeteria. She works now at a nearby Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs location, just because she enjoys it. She knows she can thank her son for that measure of freedom, and they and everyone else in St. Matthews understand and appreciate what is at stake for him this season with the Eagles: a greater measure of it for himself.

"He likes Philly, and he's going to like it," Charley said. "But it's a business deal. You've got to look at life after football. But in my heart, if things go well this year, he'll establish himself in Philly. He's a committed person. You will get 110 percent. You will not get anything less from Alshon. I promise you that."