WHEN THE Custis brothers were younger, they would clear out their living room furniture to make just enough room for a makeshift football field or basketball court.

From those humble beginnings has come three Division I football careers.

At 17 years old, Ss. Neumann-Goretti senior wide receiver Jamal Custis is the little brother in age only.

"Yeah, I'm the youngest," he said, then adding with a wide smile, "actually the tallest, too."

Custis will take his 6-6, 215-pound frame to Syracuse next year where his blend of size, speed and leaping ability could make him a nightmare for Atlantic Coast Conference coaches.

But before the scholarship offers, accolades and thoughts of the Carrier Dome, Custis earned bruises, shed tears and became ultra competitive after his brothers roughed him up in the family's South Philly living room.

"They used to tell me to stop crying and stop running to my mom," he said. "So, in the long run, it started to help me. Playing with them since they were older and stronger than me made me tougher."

Sharif Custis, 19, is a 6-3, 215-pound tight end at UMass. Kadeem Custis, 22, was a 6-4, 300-pound backup defensive end at Temple before being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Both were All-Catholic players for the Saints.

"We were never really supposed to be in the house playing, but it was always competitive," Jamal said. "We would break things . . . and we used to get in trouble, but it was always fun."

And a competitor was born. Jamal is also a talented forward on the Saints' basketball team, but his friends know him as an equal opportunity challenge accepter and trash talker.

"I'll actually play any sport we're up to that day," said Jamal, sitting in a stairwell inside Neumann-Goretti. "I don't just play basketball and football. If we want to race and things like that, then that's what I'm doing."

Oh, and don't forget about video games. You know who the best on the team is, right?

"Me," he said with a smile. "I'm the best at everything."

More laughter followed because the comment was aimed at the ears of a passing teammate, who turned, chuckled, and returned the volley.

But don't be fooled by the friendly banter between teammates; Custis says he is all about team first and all about winning.

After nine touchdowns and 628 receiving yards in a breakout junior year, Custis has drawn mostly double teams this season resulting in four touchdowns and 16 catches with three regular-season games remaining.

It's a reality head coach Charles "CJ" Szydlik told Jamal to expect.

"Maybe I'm not going to have all the stats I had last year, but at the end of the day my goal is for my team to win," Jamal said. "My coach told me sometimes I'm a decoy.

"[Opponents] are worrying about me now so I can open it up for teammates to make plays. So a lot of games we might run the ball a lot and I might not get a lot of catches, but at the end of the day winning is all that matters."

Senior running back Sihmare Morgan (seven) and sophomore back Khalil Roane have benefited and combined for 12 touchdowns on the ground this year after the Saints had 15 all of last season. Custis still manage a school-record 185 receiving yards against Chester this season.

This week, the Saints (4-2, 2-0 Catholic League AA) travel to rival West Catholic (6-1, 3-0) with first place on the line.

The Burrs, the CL Class AA defending champs, thumped the Saints, 42-0, last season, which still doesn't sit well with Jamal.

A 34-33 loss to Conwell-Egan denied WC a revenge meeting with the Burrs in the AA finals.

"There's a rivalry there between us and West Catholic and we feel like we need this game," Custis said. "It will tell us who's the best in the league right now."

Coveting the top spot isn't without its challenges, though.

Expectations were high for Custis after a stellar junior campaign, and he felt the weight.

"Living up to a name," he said. "That was becoming stressful a little bit."

Family helped him cope, and his competitive nature did the rest. He also credited his AAU basketball coach, Charles Martin, who brought guidance.

Jamal spent the summer playing basketball, but also readied his body for football. His older brothers warned him of the physical toll college football can take on one's body so he cut potato chips and soda from his diet and began eating healthier. He said he's already seeing results.

His brothers may have nurtured his competitive desire, but there's one special person who has steadied his life. His father, Lawrence, died at age 43, from the complications associated with bone cancer when Jamal was just 4.

"So my mom has really been the father figure in my life and I respect her for that," he said. "She had to raise three boys by herself. So she's a strong woman."

Mom, Jeanette Miller, directs the credit to her sons.

"I'm very proud of them because without having a father they excelled beyond anything I could have imagined," she said over the phone. "So they defied the odds. Most kids without a father look to the streets to become a man. And I think their coaches helped them become men."

"Jamal wants something out of life," she continued. "If he keeps running into the right people, positive people, he's going to come out on top."