When Jacksonville was awarded a franchise in the NFL I was as excited as anybody as a sports fan. As a journalist, the field was open and the possibilities were endless. A lot of that didn’t work out, and a lot of it did, the one constant being our Monday night show, “The End Zone.” Through the show, I’ve gotten to know the players on an individual basis, especially the five who have acted as the host of the show.
We asked Jeff Lageman to be the original host, literally when we ran into him in the mall. Lageman was determined to improve and be better on the air and worked at it. He had an agenda and followed it. Next was Keenan McCardell who, if Jimmy Smith is considered “smooth” Keenan was “cool.” Keenan protected his teammates, and followed what you might consider a stereotypical NFL player’s lifestyle, at least on the outside. He was immaculately dressed, always with the latest cell phone in his ear (first guy I ever saw with an earpiece), nice enough but kept his business to himself.
When Keenan moved on, we hired Donovin Darius who seemed like a natural choice. Interested in the technical side of broadcasting, Darius also had a great story to tell, raising his brother and sister while he was still in college. He’s a real paradox, as genuine as can be when it comes to his commitment to his team, his game and his family and the biggest phony you’ve ever met in so many other areas.
We moved on to Kyle Brady who was perfect. Out of that professional relationship, Kyle and I have become friends. We share many of the same interests and grew up in towns not far from each other (Kyle in southern PA, me in Baltimore). He and his wife have a young family and he didn’t want to give up his Monday nights, so he opted out. You won’t meet a nicer, better guy.
Our most recent host, Rashean Mathis was a gamble at the beginning. A young player, we didn’t know where his career was going but had a hunch he was going to be a star. Plus, I liked him.
I met Rashean in his second day of training camp. He walked into the interview room with his long dreads, wearing his hat on backwards, sunglasses, long shorts and oversized t-shirt. Right or wrong, that image gives you certain expectations based on your experience with other players in the same situation. But Rashean’s handshake was firm as he looked me in the eye and said, “Good morning, I understand you’ve asked to talk with me, I’m Rashean Mathis.”
“Thanks for taking the time to talk with us,” I replied.
“My pleasure,” Rashean said.
It was the first time I’ve ever had that exchange with a professional athlete.
When we were done, I was talking to our sports photographer, Kevin Talley and said, “That’s the next host of the End Zone.” “No kidding, pretty impressive,” Kevin replied.
Little did we know that Rashean would work hard at becoming the best football player he could be and would be considered a linchpin in the Jaguars success on defense. He can cover. He can, and will tackle, and he wants to win. He’s a great athlete who now says he’s ready to play cornerback. “I was a safety in college so when I came into the league I was just an athlete playing corner. Now I’m a corner back,” Rashean told us this week after his big game against Pittsburgh.
“There are little things, techniques to playing corner that I’ve learned from my teammates and coaches that let me use my athletic ability to make key plays.” That might sound like boasting coming from some other players, but there’s an earnest quality to Rashean that makes it sound like fact. Because it is. But more than his ability on the field and his accomplishments as a player, I’ve been impressed by Rashean’s off-field demeanor. He’s a star, no doubt, with a new, big extended contract. Still his outlook seems the same.
He uses his Mom’s last name as his own, honoring her for raising him as a single parent. He’s close to his mother, his brother and the rest of his family. His pastor comes to the show on Monday nights. He’s friendly with the fans at the show, signing autographs and taking pictures until everybody’s happy. I told him we were going to have to hire a security guard for him if he keeps it up. He just laughed.
There might be hundreds of stories just like Rashean in professional sports that we don’t hear about. Eventually, his story will be a national sensation. Hometown, high school star, ignored by the big schools now making it big as a pro in his own back yard.
Everybody will be proud of him.
I know I already am.