Road to the pros
By Robert Mays
Three helmets, stacked on a set of shelves in a small alcove, are almost lost in the clutter of sports memorabilia that decorate the Chesterfield basement. They don’t stand out as prominently as the All-American certificate or the Sports Illustrated clippings. But each is important in understanding how Jeremy Maclin got here, and where exactly here is.
The replica helmet on the bottom of the stack is the most familiar and the most recent – black with a gold “M.” It symbolizes Maclin’s arrival in the consciousness of football fans throughout the country and the surest sign of what is to come.
The helmet on top is the red of Kirkwood High School, and just like the one that Maclin wore when football became more than fun. That’s when football became a future. Football could make you a legend.
The helmet in the middle is the oldest and the only authentic one. White with a red “1” on the side, multicolored streaks of paint record the collisions that were the thrill of a game still in its infancy.
Another set of helmets sits in a case across the basement, a collection of miniature replicas from each of the NFL teams. Thirty-two teams and 32 possible destinations, each helmet the potential next symbol of a football journey more than a decade in the making.
Of the thousands of college football players who harbor what-if dreams of going pro, Maclin is a given to be one of the 250 who will be picked in next weekend’s NFL Draft. The 6-foot, 200-pound wide receiver is expected to be tapped in the first round and offered a contract worth up to $20 million.
For Jeremy Maclin, a young man whose talent, drive and luck carried him from a rough patch of Kirkwood to an elite suburban youth league to Missouri, here is the eve of the 2009 NFL Draft. And for him, the question is no longer if. It’s who. And how much.
Maclin’s arms are covered with scars. Battle wounds, he calls them.
Most are the thin, precise remnants of a helmet screw or cleat. Together, they archive a decade of contact. But on the back of his left hand, one distinguishes itself. Half an inch long, thicker than the rest and raised a bit on his skin, it’s the eldest of the group.
Maclin was 9 when he earned it, playing football with friends in a vacant lot near his home in the Meacham Park neighborhood of Kirkwood. Not long into the game, he noticed blood trickling down his arm. A piece of glass had dug into his hand, a risk that came with the makeshift field that has since become a shopping center.
Much has been said about the other scars left by Maclin’s childhood in Meacham Park. Not ones that can be seen, but ones that could have easily derailed him on the way to here. Even Maclin is quick to point out how often that story has been told, but no account of his journey is complete without it.
Maclin grew up with his mother and two older brothers in a tough part of Kirkwood. Cleo Maclin worked long hours to support her three sons and couldn’t always be home for them. Dr. Jeff Parres, a urologist from nearby Chesterfield, volunteered as a coach for the youth football league where Maclin played. He took to driving Maclin home from practices and got a glimpse of his off-the-field life. One night when Parres dropped Maclin off, he watched the boy climb through a window to get into his dark home.
As the years went on, Parres started bringing Maclin home to Chesterfield. Meals turned to weekend visits, which turned to longer stays, until Maclin moved in with Parres, his wife, Cindy, and their two children after his sophomore year of high school.
Cleo Maclin has said how grateful she is for what the Parreses have done. She and Maclin’s brothers, Andre and Roshon, remain a constant in her son’s life.
But the Parreses became family, too – the one that watched Maclin make the transition from a vacant lot to Faurot Field to here. And while they are excited about his ascension to the pros, they can’t help but wonder what it means to grow up so fast.
“He’s basically walked out of youth, and right into being a man,” Cindy Parres says. “His childhood is being cut short again.”
Before Oklahoma or Nebraska there was University City.
Maclin was one of many talented youngsters on a Kirkwood Junior Football League team that lost just three games during his five seasons in the program. Most games weren’t a struggle. When they were, University City was usually involved.
“We had a bitter, bitter rivalry,” Jeff Parres says. “We essentially played them every year in the state championship.”
While Maclin was always a threat to turn a short gain into a game-breaking run, he shared the spotlight with plenty of stars. What set him apart was his ability to do it all. He played every position. He ran. He threw. He blocked. He tackled. Before Jeremy Maclin was a wide receiver, he was just a football player.
So when the score was tied with less than a minute remaining against University City in Maclin’s final junior league football game, it was no surprise that he was asked to bring home the win.
With the ball on the right hash mark 12 yards from the end zone, Kirkwood set up to attempt the rarest of youth football plays – the field goal.
“I don’t think we ever even practiced kicking field goals,” Jeff Parres says with a laugh.
After the dizzying sequence of snap-and-hold, Maclin stepped toward the ball and booted it toward the uprights. Game over. Kirkwood wins.
Maclin smiles now when asked about the play. Sure, he remembers it. He remembers a lot of the plays from his days in junior football.
“Those are good memories, and you don’t want to let them go,” he says. “That’s where you started. That’s where you blossomed.”
Cindy Parres stands at her kitchen counter preparing food for yet another onslaught of hungry young men. The Parres house has been the hangout for years, and this weekend is no different. Maclin is home to attend a fundraiser in honor of late MU football star Damien Nash. Maclin’s best friend and other friends and friends of friends soon find their way here.
“Sometimes I wonder when I put that basement and pool in, what was I thinking?” Cindy Parres jokes.
The group huddles around the kitchen island for chips and munchies while Cindy Parres works the electric griddle. Grilled ham-and-cheese coming up. Maclin is only home for a couple of days, and while his favorite sandwich is a simple one, he insists that Cindy make it for him.
It didn’t used to be this way. When Maclin first met the Parreses more than a decade ago, he was a self-reliant 9-year-old, able to make his own meals and orchestrate his own rides.
But lately, whether it’s lunch time or way past bedtime, he wants Cindy Parres to work the spatula. It could strike some as the entitled demand of a prima donna. Jeff Parres just sees a kid trying to hold on to being a kid.
“It’s not that she makes it any different,” Jeff Parres says. “To me, I see it as a little kid, just looking over his shoulder to make sure mom and dad are still back there.”
It’s one of those moments that people don’t just remember. They remember where they were when it happened. Whether it’s in the school hallways or a local restaurant, Kirkwood High School coach Larry Frost still hears about it.
“If you weren’t at the game, then you really missed something,” Frost says. “And if you were at the game, the question is, “Where were you sitting?””
It was a Friday night in October 2005. More than 5,000 people jammed into Lyons Stadium in Kirkwood, spilling out of the bleachers to line the field, to watch the Pioneers take on undefeated Saint Louis University High School.
On 1st and 10 with the score 21-14 just before halftime, Jeremy Maclin lined up wide to the right. After the snap, quarterback Marcus Harris faked a pitch to the left, fooling the safety into stepping forward. As Harris set to throw, the safety attempted to recover, but it was too late. Maclin streaked past the entire defense and Harris heaved a deep pass in his direction. It looked as if it was overthrown, and a precious scoring opportunity would be wasted. But somehow, Maclin made up just enough ground to warrant an all-out leap. Horizontal to the ground, and with flashbulbs going off around the stadium, Maclin pulled the ball in by his fingertips.
Even today at Kirkwood it’s referred to as “The Catch.” It’s the type of play that turns a name from an engraving on an All-State plaque into an echo of history.
That play is what many associate with Maclin back in Kirkwood, but to Frost it was just another instance of Maclin doing what he did best. Many high school players can wow a crowd every few weeks. By the time Maclin was a senior, he did it every week, and often more than once.
Maclin scored 38 touchdowns in his high school career, and racked up more than 2,200 receiving yards, both Kirkwood records. But plenty of young stars have lit up St. Louis metro football in the box score and the record book. What made Maclin different was that those records weren’t enough.
When Frost started working with Maclin as a freshman, he saw a lot of ability and not a lot of discipline. Maclin made plenty of big plays but would loaf if he wasn’t in the center of the action. The coach gave it to Maclin straight: If he wanted to play football beyond high school, he needed a different attitude.
“I told him that he had to become a better blocker than he was a receiver,” Frost says. “And the whole time you could see that he was taking what you were telling him and processing it on a different level. You could see it in his eyes that he wanted to get better.”
By the time Maclin was done at Kirkwood he had developed into the best blocking receiver Frost had ever coached.
“There’s a lot of guys that are very talented,” Frost says. “But they didn’t have the mental discipline or the toughness. But by Jeremy’s senior year I knew it was there with him. I knew he could get wherever he wanted to go.”
If Jeremy Maclin was going to be introduced to the nation, it couldn’t have been on a more perfect stage. His Tiger debut would be against the University of Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis in front of more than 60,000 people, including both of his families.
And in the third quarter he showed college football fans what those families had seen for the last 10 years. After fielding an Illini punt at the Missouri 34-yard-line, Maclin moved up the right sideline, made a hard cut back to the middle of the field and sprinted 35 more yards to score. That put the Tigers ahead 36-13 en route to a 40-34 victory, the first of an MU season that would go down as one of the school’s greatest ever. An All-American season had begun and a Tigers legend was born.
Maclin would add 31 more touchdowns during his two seasons at MU and play an integral role in vaulting the Tigers into the national spotlight.
What most Tiger fans don’t know is how close it was to never happening at all.
It was July 25, 2006, and Dr. Pat Smith was at home packing for vacation when he got the call. It was MU’s head athletic trainer, Rex Sharp. The news was bad.
“It’s obvious that we’ve got at least an ACL,” Sharp said. “You should probably come down here.”
Smith, MU football’s team doctor for more than 20 years, made his way to Faurot Field to find a freshman wide receiver named Jeremy Maclin propped on a table in the locker room.
Maclin had gone up for a pass during a workout and got tangled with junior safety William Moore before landing awkwardly on his right knee. When Maclin got up, he had trouble walking, so Moore helped carry him into the small locker room inside the tunnel.
What many recall as a simple ACL tear was actually much worse. Maclin had also torn his posterolateral corner, a combination of two other ligaments, one behind the knee and one on the outside that help stabilize the ACL. When Smith tried to straighten the leg it went into excessive hyperextension, bending so far past straight that Smith says it “looked like a banana.” Smith does about 150 knee surgeries a year and says few are as serious as Maclin’s seemed.
“With the amount of ligament damage he had, I had doubts that he would ever play again,” Smith says.
Viewing the MRI the next day, Smith noticed how close the damage was to Maclin’s peroneal nerve, a nerve in the knee that controls movement in the foot, which, when damaged, would end any career no matter how well the ligaments were reconstructed.
“He was only a couple millimeters from stretching that nerve out,” Smith says. “And if you do that, you aren’t going to be running.”
Cindy Parres drove to Columbia for the MRI. Both she and Maclin left in tears. Maclin had never missed a game, let alone a whole season. He was without football and two hours from home. He told teammate Sean Weatherspoon that he considered quitting and going back to St. Louis.
“I had such high expectations for myself, and to do that to my knee … it was just devastating,” Maclin says.
Maclin debated with himself: Should he go home to family, or endure surgery and rehab? Eventually there was an education to consider and a love that wasn’t worth walking away from.
“I like the game more than that,” Maclin says.
In the weeks leading up to the start of what should have been his first season at MU, Maclin rehabbed as many as 12 hours a day under the guidance of Sharp and his staff. The muscles around his knee would spasm as trainers attempted to restore full range of motion. Sharp says that work was probably as painful as the original injury. Weatherspoon remembers walking into the training office during an early muscle stimulation workout to see Maclin in tears.
But just as Maclin stepped up to Frost’s lecture back in Kirkwood, he stepped up to rehab. Sharp wanted him running by November; Maclin did it in October. Trainers and coaches figured he might be full strength by postseason workouts; Maclin could’ve played in that year’s Sun Bowl if he hadn’t already been declared ineligible for the season.
He began asking Sharp to let him run. He wanted to test himself. He wanted a 40-yard dash. And in January, during team testing, he got one:
In his first timed run with no knee brace, just six months after tearing three ligaments in his knee, Maclin ripped off a 4.38 second 40-yard dash – elite speed by any measure.
Seven months later Sharp and Smith stood on the sideline as Maclin ran back a punt against Illinois, cutting with the same right leg they thought might cripple his career.
“Just a couple of millimeters,” Smith says. “Sometimes, things have a way of working out.”
Besides the occasional smile, one that could put anyone at ease, there isn’t much getting in.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his Columbia townhouse, it’s evident that he doesn’t see the need to look back. He’s already been there. He’s already done that. He knows how to use it all when he has to, and that’s enough. What else could you want to know? Beyond the occasional appeal to the past for perspective, Jeremy Maclin is very much in the moment. And that’s why the press conference was so important.
Ask him about the choice to leave MU after two seasons, and how hard it was. Look at my press conference, he responds. And he’s right. It’s all anyone needs. It’s where an entire community got a look into the heart of the young man who was so instrumental in altering a program and its history.
When he announced his decision, in front of the media, family and friends, the tears came. While the idea of home has been a fluid one, it’s never lacked importance. This is a kid with the state of Missouri and a St. Louis Cardinals logo tattooed on his arm. The same kid who knew halfway through his recruiting visit flight to UCLA that he couldn’t be a Bruin; it was too far from home.
If this was ever about his college football legacy, it wasn’t about that for long. Yes, he was concerned about not being eligible for Memorial Stadium’s Ring of Honor because he wouldn’t graduate. And yes, he wants to be remembered as one of the greatest Tigers of all-time.
But the real pain was in leaving what MU had become. It was more than a springboard to the NFL. It was family. It was home. To go forward means he has to leave behind everything that got him here.
Conner Brooks is 12, and on this night’s trip to the Columbia Mall he’s sporting one of his most coveted items from last year’s Christmas list.
Conner told his dad that he wanted an MU football jersey. But it couldn’t be any old number. He wanted the jersey of his favorite Tiger. He wanted a Jeremy Maclin jersey.
Why Jeremy Maclin?
“Because he’s the best receiver in college football,” Conner says.
Even better than Texas Tech superstar Michael Crabtree?
“Yea. Even better than Michael Crabtree.”
Jeff Parres says it was strange the first time he saw No. 9 MU jerseys around. Football superstardom was never something he and Cindy envisioned for Maclin. As much as Maclin hesitates to look back, the Parreses hesitated to look forward. He was always good wherever he was playing, but it never went too far beyond that. To them, Jeremy was just a kid. And by most measures he still is.
Four years ago he was 16 and a terrible driver. They used to take him into empty parking lots to practice, but when Maclin was behind the wheel everybody was uneasy. And whenever Maclin is home and the weather permits, he’s the one lobbying for a game of Wiffle Ball in the backyard.
Now he’s idolized by kids throughout St. Louis and the rest of the state.
Cindy Parres can’t imagine the pressure or the lifestyle. And who really could? Maclin isn’t old enough to have a seat at a bar, but plenty of people already have him on a throne.
Maclin’s brothers, Andre and Roshon, talk about the circus that a routine trip to the mall has become. Even scouting a new pair of shoes, one of Maclin’s few indulgences, comes with baggage now. And why? This is their little brother. They’ve watched him play this game forever.
But ask Maclin, and it’s easy to see that his transition has begun. He says that he knows what the territory brings. He says that it’s fun being a role model. There’s no reason to fight it. Even more, there’s good reason to embrace it.
Coming from where he does, and overcoming what he has, Maclin hopes that kids look up to him. He’ll tell you that he’s someone that’s done it the right way while so many others haven’t.
“I’ve seen too many people where I’m from that were great athletes fail because they didn’t have a good head on their shoulders,” Maclin says.
Suddenly, death-defying parking lot rides and Wiffle Ball home runs sound further away. He sounds like a professional football player.
Walking on a treadmill before his daily workout, Maclin shifts his gaze to one of the 10 televisions that line the balcony of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. It’s tuned to the NFL Network, and news of Michael Crabtree’s decision to have surgery on his injured foot flashes across the screen.
Thousands of people saw the same bulletin. But to few does it matter more than to Maclin. Crabtree and Maclin are ranked 1 and 2 as wide receivers eligible for the draft. Both the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the Nos. 7 and 8 picks, are the in the market for a wide receiver. If Maclin slides in front of Crabtree by just one spot, it could mean millions. Last season the difference between the two spots was roughly $10 million spread over five years.
When a player declares for the draft, the next three months become one long marketing campaign. A player’s every move, football related or not, is scrutinized and evaluated. Former Alabama tackle Andre Smith was once thought to be the possible first overall pick, a selection that could have come with more than $30 million in guaranteed money. But after Smith left the NFL Scouting Combine unannounced, questions arose about his maturity; now he will be lucky to go in the draft’s top 10. Even Maclin had doubts fly his way after he fell during a drill at the combine and ran a 40-yard dash that was slightly slower than he had hoped.
Fortunes hang in the balance with every action, and that uncertainty creates the need for a strong team of advisers.
For two days after Maclin announced that he was quitting MU to go pro, agents filed in and out of the Parres’ home. Each promised the world. Or at least the biggest mega-million dollar contract out there.
“Everybody comes in telling you what they can do for you,” Maclin says. “It’s definitely hard. You have to go deeper than what people say. It’s hard. It’s long. I’ll tell you right now, I’m glad the process is out of the way.”
In the past few weeks Maclin has gone through the final stages of evaluation by making trips to work out for individual NFL teams. A lot of players try to put on a performance. Not Jeremy Maclin. He doesn’t see a need to be anything but himself.
“A lot of people try to put on a show, or act like or be something that they’re not,” Maclin says. “I think (teams) have been doing this long enough where they can read into that. You might as well be yourself. I think if you be yourself and do the things that you’ve been doing your whole life, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Every year the NFL asks some of the top prospects to be present for the draft announcements in New York. But before the invitations were sent, Maclin decided that he wasn’t going. He’ll be home in Chesterfield with members of both his families.
Above anything else he could say or do, the choice shows who Jeremy Maclin still is in spite of what he’ll soon become. He’s someone who, just a few years ago, watched his junior football tapes again and again, trying to relive the carefree memories of the game he loves. He’s someone who still talks with pride about his high school football days and with lingering frustration about losing one round short of the state championship game two straight seasons.
For now, Maclin is still more Lyons Stadium than Texas Stadium. More Meacham Park than Candlestick Park. It’s not that he’s not ready for the big time — he’s handled fame better than people twice his age. It’s that the places he’s been are just as important as the place he’ll end up.
That’s why when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium next Saturday to announce each first round selection, Maclin will be back in that basement with the helmets of his past, waiting to learn the one of his future.