Ben Glicksman
Tuesday September 1st, 2015

FORT COLLINS, Colo.—At least for one moment, Rashard Higgins looks out of place: sitting near the front of a fluorescently lit classroom, a headset perched haphazardly atop his thick, flat-top hair. It's a balmy morning in late June, and the Colorado State All-America receiver is interning in the school's office for university advancement, learning how to operate a video-editing software called Camtasia.

A few years ago it would have been tough to envision Higgins in this routine: going to daily weightlifting sessions at 7 a.m.; working a summer internship with a focus on fundraising, editing videos and interacting with admitted students; preparing for a season in which he'll try to cement his status as the top wideout in college football. Yet this has become his new normal, a distant cry from the life he led before taking an official visit to campus in January 2013—which, as it happens, coincided with the first time he traveled on an airplane.

Now the 6' 2", 190-pound junior is a Biletnikoff Award finalist, a game-changer who led the FBS last year in receiving yards (1,750), touchdowns (17) and yards per game (145.8) and a coveted NFL prospect with a nickname ("Hollywood") befitting his rise to stardom. Higgins has developed into the type of player for whom no comparison is too lofty; former Colorado State coach Jim McElwain likens him to Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch, while first-year Rams coach Mike Bobo says his work ethic resembles that of four-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green.

As part of his internship training, Higgins is asked to edit highlights from Colorado State's 31-24 win over Nevada last October. He delivers mock commentary as the video rolls, and a play in which he reels in an acrobatic catch along the sideline flashes on the screen. Higgins's hazel-brown eyes twinkle as a toothy smile spreads across his face. "That young man is on fire," he cracks.

It's the sort of thing uttered by a person who senses exactly where he's going, and who is comfortable knowing his time has come. But for a guy who goes by "Hollywood," Higgins's journey from his hometown of Mesquite, Texas, into the limelight has been far from glamorous.

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Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Hang around Higgins enough and you'll hear some version of the same refrain: He is supremely confident and soft-spoken, simultaneously showy and subdued. He is someone who isn't afraid to boast about his talent—"I want people to believe that, man, whatever I'm doing, I can go to the highest point," he says—but also who, as an underclassmen, demurely approached his senior quarterback after practice to ask for extra reps. As it turns out, this dynamic has always been in place.

Growing up as the youngest of three kids in an area 20 miles east of Dallas, Higgins was reserved. His mom Jeannette Jackson says he was the biggest homebody of all of her children, and that it was easy to forget he was hanging around a given area. "He was such a quiet kid," Jackson says of his timid temperament, "you wouldn't even know he was in the house."

In athletic circles, however, Higgins emerged as a showman. As a first-grader at Ruby Shaw Elementary School, he did cartwheels and backflips in gym class to impress the girls. As a third-grader he played football for the first time, and could throw the ball farther than any of his peers. And in tackling drills he was a menace; though he lacked proper form, with his arms flailing and head down, he charged at kids with the manic tenacity of a dog chasing after a squirrel. "When we used to do hitting drills, ain't nobody wanna do them with Rashard," says Quincy Peyton, Higgins's teammate who would become his best friend. "He used to hit too hard."

In fact, that's how Higgins earned his nickname. His Pee Wee coach told him during a game that if he kept tackling opponents so viciously he would call him "Hollywood." The moniker stuck, and in middle school he got it tattooed toward the top of his right arm. Before leaving for college Higgins got that covered by a rose, and now he has the nickname tattooed from shoulder to shoulder across his back.

As Higgins reached high school success on the field came quickly. He became a full-time receiver and was one of seven sophomores called up to varsity for the 2010 season. Soon after, the Mesquite Skeeters transformed from a laughingstock into a title contender. In '10 they limped to a 1-9 record; in '12, during Higgins's senior year, the Skeeters went 10-0 in the regular season and won the district 12-5A championship.

Yet despite his gaudy statistics (69 catches for 1,136 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2012), Higgins had trouble attracting major-conference scholarship offers. Up until a few weeks before Signing Day he was ready to attend FCS-level Sam Houston State alongside Peyton, a cornerback. Mesquite High coach Robbie Robinson says various assistants inquired about Higgins—Missouri hosted him for a camp, although its coaches were unimpressed by his 4.6-second 40 time—but focused their efforts on targeting other local recruits. "These guys down here just missed," Robinson says. "That's the bottom line. They freakin' missed."

Meanwhile, Higgins's home situation grew increasingly tenuous. His older brother Robert (he goes by his middle name, Rahkeem) had multiple run-ins with the law, and his mom had to spend a month in Parkland Memorial Hospital after fracturing two vertebrae following a freak accident at home. Higgins has always been one to keep his personal concerns to himself, but admits this was a particularly "bad time for us." However, according to Peyton, Higgins maintained the same outward demeanor he always did. "He would never show you something was wrong," Peyton says. "He would never show you he was going through stuff."

Through it all, Higgins continued to excel on the field. He made seven catches for 152 yards in a win over Mesquite Horn. Three touchdown receptions in a rout of Tyler Lee. Then, just when it seemed Higgins's FBS dreams were set to fade, fate intervened. On the day Higgins and Peyton had planned to commit to Sam Houston State, the school withdrew Peyton's scholarship offer. Higgins—whose bond with Peyton had gotten to the point where he slept over at Peyton's house Friday nights after every high school game—decided that if Peyton was no longer welcome at Sam Houston State, he didn't want to go, either. "I was mad when I got my offer pulled from Sam Houston," says Peyton, who ended up at Division II Arkansas Tech. "But now I see why it all panned out."

This is also where Alvis Whitted came into the mix. Late in the recruiting cycle an assistant from a rival high school in Dallas told the then-first-year Colorado State receivers coach about Higgins, and Whitted visited one of Mesquite's basketball games. He marveled at Higgins's explosiveness, studied his film and made a few in-home visits. He saw potential, sure, but also something else: A kid who was ready to compete on a grander stage. Colorado State extended an offer, and Higgins pledged to the Rams on Jan. 20, 2013.

"I knew he was hungry," Whitted says. "I knew he wanted more for himself. And I knew once he got to a place like this and an environment that could develop him not just from a football standpoint, but also as a young man, I think he'd just take off."

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Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

As first impressions are concerned, Higgins's at Colorado State falls somewhere on the spectrum between rolling up to school in a new convertible and descending an escalator to the tune of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." In his case it was the summer of 2013, when Colorado was green and gorgeous and football season remained somewhere off on the horizon, and the Rams were holding their first team meeting with all of their players on campus.

Then-head coach McElwain, who left Colorado State for Florida last December, went around the room and asked each incoming freshman to introduce himself. All of the newcomers took a turn, rattling off the expected information: name, position and hometown. It was a mindless exercise in repetition. When Higgins stood up, though, he paused a beat before declaring, "My name is Rashard 'Hollywood' Higgins."

"We all just looked around at each other like, 'Did he just call himself 'Hollywood?'" says Garrett Grayson, the former Colorado State quarterback who was taken by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft. Says McElwain: "That was a really defining moment. You talk about first impressions are everlasting. I'd say that one right there was awesome."

Higgins would make his presence known many times over the coming year. Within weeks he was taking practice reps with the first-team offense. By the season opener he was listed as a starter on the depth chart. McElwain wanted Higgins to earn his spot, but also knew the Rams were significantly better with him in the lineup.

Then, in an unusual twist for Higgins, his nerves got the best of him. Colorado State kicked off the 2013 season against Colorado in Denver, and he made six catches for 57 yards in a 41-27 loss. Yet he remembers his debut for another reason: Dropped passes, and lots of them. "First game, on national TV, and I just pooped my pants," Higgins says, laughing. Perhaps there would be some growing pains after all.

Whitted says Higgins had to adjust to the speed of the college game, and McElwain says he showed occasional lapses in concentration that became less frequent as his freshman year progressed. But everything clicked on Sept. 21, when the Rams went to Bryant-Denny Stadium for a game against defending national champion Alabama.

Alabama boasted a stable of future NFL players and rolled to a 31-6 victory. But Higgins held his own, making seven receptions for 71 yards. His high point came with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter and Colorado State facing a third-and-seven. Higgins caught a screen pass, bolted past the first-down marker and barreled through safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix en route to the sideline. It was a play everyone close to Higgins points to as the instant he knew he belonged. "[He realized Alabama's players] are humans," Whitted says. "They put their pants on the same way I put my on. The only difference is maybe they were highly recruited, but, hey, I'm gonna show you that I'm better."

Says Peyton: "[Higgins] called me after the game and said, 'Man, these people ain't what you think, what TV makes them out to be. We're all the same.'"

More than 850 miles from home, in a setting shifting from foreign to familiar, Higgins was thriving. He completed his freshman season with a team-high 837 receiving yards. He began to form a close friendship with offensive lineman Trae Moxley, and visited Moxley's home in Carbondale, Colo., during the bye week that corresponded with Higgins's 19th birthday. (Moxley's mother Kacy DiMarco—whom Higgins now calls "Mama Kacy"—even baked him a strawberry birthday cake. "His biggest thing was the frosting," Moxley says. "So my mom spent friggin' almost an hour doing the frosting or whatever, just so it'd be perfect for him.")

But Higgins's life would soon take another turn. On Jan. 25, 2014, just 35 days after Colorado State upset Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl, Higgins's father, Robert Higgins Jr., died. Robert Jr. spent the final 16 years of his life on dialysis after suffering kidney failure, and his condition caused him to have limited interaction with Rashard during his upbringing. (Jackson's longtime best friend, Cleophus Wilson, helped raise Rashard since he was 16 months old.) Rashard was devastated. "I just felt like giving up," he says. "I was thinking, Why me? Why me?"

Yet he proved resilient. Higgins says he hasn't fully come to terms with his dad's death, and visited his gravesite on Father's Day in June. Like many athletes before him, though, he turned that heartache into fuel to propel him to new heights. "He has some days where he posts things [online] about how he misses his dad and how it's affecting him," Whitted says. "And how the passion of his dad is motivating him even more to do great things not only on the football field, but in every aspect of his life. It's kind of elevated his mindset about life in general. He's doing some amazing things to make his dad proud."

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(Rashard Higgins's 1989 Chevrolet Caprice) Courtesy of Kacy DiMarco

Some of those amazing things nearly never happened, a result of the type of incident that Higgins typically prefers to keep quiet. Higgins was home in Dallas during the summer of 2014, cruising around in the white-and-gray 1989 Chevy Caprice he bought off Craiglist, and agreed to drive his friend to visit a girl.

Higgins says he went past his destination in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of the city, so he made a U-turn, parked and flipped off his lights while waiting for his friend to get out. That's when he heard gunfire; someone unloaded on him after, in Higgins's estimation, mistakenly believing he was about to attempt a drive-by shooting. "All I heard was, Pop! Pop! Pop!" he says. "For some reason, I thought my tire was flat. [My friend] was like, no, somebody is shooting at you." Says Brianna Williams, Higgins's girlfriend since high school: "An hour later he called me and was like, 'I'm really scared. Baby, I just got shot at.' Because his car—they shot his tire. It got shot three times and one made his car go flat."

This wasn't the first time Higgins had been reminded about the ugly side of parts of where he grew up; he once had a radio stolen from his vehicle, and his mom has yet to attend any of his Colorado State games out of fear her third-floor apartment will be broken into if she leaves town for too long. (She will see Rashard play live for the first time during the Rams' Sept. 26 game at Texas-San Antonio.) To that end, Higgins has made it clear his primary motivation is to reach the NFL and use his future earnings to buy his mom a house—perhaps one in the model of Moxley's family's, an expansive home with a view of Mount Sopris.

Sure, it's a well-worn narrative: the kid from a low-income background who makes it his mission to carry loved ones to the good life. But Higgins's devotion to that goal, even in the lowest-profile of situations, is rare. "[In practices] he'll flat out say, 'I'm doing it for my momma,' and go to the next drill," Grayson says. "It's pretty funny."

Higgins's sophomore season exceeded anyone's expectations. He made 11 catches for 143 yards in a 37-24 loss at Boise State on Sept. 6. He corralled seven balls for 147 yards in a 49-21 blowout of UC-Davis on Sept. 13. He scored four times in a 42-17 win over Tulsa on Oct. 4, a game that saw him deke a safety so thoroughly and devastatingly that Higgins joked to reporters: "He's still looking [for me]."

Still, the highlight of Higgins's career came on Oct. 18 versus Utah State, in Colorado State's homecoming game. The Rams hadn't beaten the Aggies since 2011, but were tied at 13 with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Grayson took a snap in shotgun at his 32-yard line. He reared back and heaved the ball down the left side of the field. Higgins blazed past two defenders (and cut in front of a third) to make a sliding 46-yard grab. The game-winning kick soared through the uprights a few moments later.

Last November Higgins was named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, presented annually to the top receiver in college football, alongside Alabama junior Amari Cooper and West Virginia senior Kevin White (who were taken with the No. 4 and No. 7 picks, respectively, in the 2015 NFL draft). Higgins traveled with his mom, brother and older sister Erica to Orlando for the Dec. 11 ceremony, and they spent time exploring Disney World before hitting the red carpet. Cooper won the award, but for Higgins the experience was about something else. It was a sign he is on the precipice of reaching a level that once seemed unimaginable. And it was a chance to offer his family a glimpse of what's possible—hell, what's within reach, now that "Hollywood" is finally getting his close-up. "I think the biggest thing was having his mom and his brother and his sister there," Moxley says. "I mean, it's a once-in-a-lifetime—well, it's not really a once-in-a-lifetime thing, 'cause he'll be back."

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(Trae Moxley and Rashard Higgins) Courtesy of Kacy DiMarco

After Higgins completes his video-editing lesson in June he heads to Colorado State's division for student affairs, where he interned for a few weeks in the summer of 2013. He hasn't returned here for a while, and two staffers, Kim Okamoto and Karen Rewinkel, stand up and cheer as he navigates through a row of cubicles. Everyone exchanges hugs, and that's when the stories start: The first Rams football game Okamoto and Rewinkel went to was last year's matchup with UC-Davis, when Higgins pointed to them in the stands after scoring a touchdown. Higgins announced his major (human development and family studies) at a staff retreat last fall, news that was met by a chorus of applause. Higgins only interned here for a brief time, but from the pace at which the women are talking it would be easy to mistake him for a lifer.

The conversation eventually hits a lull, and Higgins is summoned into a storage closet where last year he installed a shelf. Okamoto and Rewinkel urge him to autograph his handiwork; after all, they say, one day he'll be famous.

This reality is improbable, a life far removed from what Higgins must have imagined as a kid growing up in Mesquite. Yet like many trajectories involving Hollywood, it's only fitting: the overlooked prospect starring at an untraditional school; the rising star showcasing a personality both introspective and infectious; the breakout player preparing to face more questions than ever in 2015 (Can he thrive under new coach Bobo? Will he be able to jell with a first-year starting quarterback?) but giving every indication to date of being able to answer them in the way he desires.

Higgins finishes signing the shelf, glances around the office and grins. He came a long way to deliver last year's blockbuster. His encore could be even better.

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