Ten years ago he dropped out of high school. Now—after four schools, one son and countless jobs—Jean Sifrin is taking the final steps of the longest journey to the 2015 NFL draft
NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Jean Sifrin is standing in an elementary school parking lot, looking uncomfortable. He has spent the last six hours zig-zagging through the blighted neighborhoods of Miami-Dade, reflecting on the twisting path that has brought him to the doorstep of the National Football League.
An inquisitive teenager riding by on a bicycle notices the 6-5, 245-pound man clad in an all-black sweatsuit. “Hey, who are you?” the kid asks. “You’re some famous athlete right?”
Sifrin averts his eyes. The teenager is confused. “Are you in the NFL or something?” he presses. “You look like you are.” Sifrin says something inaudible, shoves his hands in his pockets and begins to walk away.
Later, he explains the awkward encounter.
“I don’t want to be noticed. I don’t want people to think I’m going around town thinking I’m all famous and successful—because I’m not. I’m not there yet. It’s weird being back here.”
Sifrin looks like he’s ready for the NFL. He’s a hulking specimen, a tight end with a classic power forward build and oven-mitt sized hands. In his first Division I game, last September, he made an Odell Beckham-esque end zone grab against Colorado, a play that made the SportsCenter highlight loop. “He’s just so raw, and there’s not much tape to grade,” said one NFC scout. “But he probably has the highest athletic ceiling that I’ve seen.”
Six weeks ago, Sifrin arrived at the scouting combine, TE 16. He ran the 40 in 4.84 seconds, leapt 33 inches in the vertical jump and 114 in the broad jump. His arms measured 33 3/8 inches long, his spread hands 11 inches from thumb to pinkie. At his pro day he unofficially shaved his 40 time to 4.75 and bench-pressed 225 pounds 15 times. He played one season of Division I football, his 42 catches, 642 yards and six touchdowns ranking among FBS’s top 10 tight ends in each category. But there is one number that affects his prospect status more than any other: Jean Sifrin is 27 years old.
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 3. His family is uprooting and moving to the U.S.
Living in her native Bahamas, Jacqueline Sifrin was dating a man when she became pregnant. The man didn’t want to be a part of the baby’s life. Jacqueline would give birth to the boy and raise him on her own. She named him Jean.
Now she was bringing her three children (two from a previous relationship) to Miami to start anew. So began Jean’s nomadic childhood.
Jean moved eight times—all within Miami—and attended seven schools. Sometimes Jacqueline moved for work. A hotel maid, she worked her way up the Marriott chain, from the Fairfield Inn to Residence Inn to a Courtyard. Other times, circumstance intervened. “My older brother and sister were smart kids,” Sifrin says. “But they had an attitude. They got kicked out of school a couple times, so we had to move.”
Sifrin got his first job at age 15, washing cars in Carol City; he’d take home $4 for every sedan he scrubbed. He wanted to play sports but couldn’t commit to school-sponsored teams because he kept relocating, and Jacqueline couldn’t afford the $300 registration for local leagues. Finally he settled at Miami Norland High. He tried out for football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and badminton. He made every team, but poor grades kept him ineligible.
Sifrin wasn’t unintelligent, just unmotivated. He’d skip class but stay on school grounds to shoot hoops at the gym. He hung out with a stagnant crew. They smoked a little pot and played a lot of video games. School wasn’t working, and he realized he could make more money at his jobs if he skipped altogether. He was 17 when he dropped out. He earned his GED a few months later.
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 18. He just met a girl.
She had pretty brown eyes and laughed at his jokes. They were co-workers at a party rental company. (Among his half dozen jobs, this was his favorite. One time, he assembled a moonwalk at Shaquille O’Neal’s Star Island mansion.) Sifrin thought he was in love. The girl became pregnant.
He wanted to be the father he never had, so for nine months he saved up money. He answered an online ad—$600 a week! easy money! start right away!—and went door-to-door selling sets of stainless steel knives, picture frames and Disney children’s books. A smooth talker with an infectious smile, Sifrin almost always made his quota. (The ad failed to mention that no matter how good a salesman you are, sometimes it’s just impossible to sell picture frames, so he kept a weekend job, too.)
The hours were taxing, and pickup basketball was Sifrin’s only release. When a friend suggested he try out for Edward Waters Junior College in Jacksonville he drove up and was eventually offered a roster spot. Jean’s pregnant girlfriend balked at the five-hour distance. If he wasn’t enrolled as a full-time student, he wouldn’t lose eligibility. He took two classes, but did not join the team.
Jean was 19 when he became a father. Jabari was born, and Jean sought stability. At the sales job, he’d sometimes walk home with as little as $30 a day.
A recruiting agency landed him a job at a Publix super market warehouse. The work was strenuous—he suffered two herniated disks that required epidural steroid injections—but the pay was excellent. Efficiency was the key, with compensation depending on workload. If you filled your order, you could pick up another. “Say your order is 600 minutes of work,” Sifrin explains. “If you do it at 100 percent, you can work 10 hours at $15.15 an hour and pick up another order. But a lot of guys would do it at 80 percent, and take 12 or 13 hours to fill the order.”
Sifrin found something of a mentor, coincidentally also named Jean. He was short and stocky, a running back at Miami North Beach back in the day. This Jean was the most efficient man in the warehouse, filling tickets so fast he pulled in $30 an hour.
Soon Sifrin was averaging $25 an hour. But after 12-hour shifts, sometimes six days a week, he wondered if he was doing enough. He wondered if his son was destined to follow his same path. Am I better than this? Who am I looking out for? His girlfriend began taking college classes. They drifted apart and eventually broke up.
“I was heartbroken, and felt like I was at a crossroads,” he says. “I told myself, the next opportunity I get, I’m taking it. No matter what it is.”
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 21. A friend asks if he can fill in on a flag football team.
It was a pay-to-play type deal; registration was $350 for the season. They put Sifrin at wide receiver. They practiced once a week, running nothing more complicated than slants.
Pete Monzon showed up at a tournament. He was an assistant coach at ASA Junior College in Brooklyn, there to see a cornerback, but couldn’t keep his eyes off of Sifrin.
“Have you ever played college ball?” Monzon asked.
“No sir,” Sifrin said.
“Would you like to?”
And so Sifrin left Jabari with his mother and traveled outside state lines for the first time. He had a partial scholarship to play basketball and football. It was the first time Sifrin had a regimented schedule: 5 a.m. training sessions, 7 a.m. breakfasts, mandatory study halls. It was the first time he ever watched football on tape, and also the first time he ever lifted weights. “What can you bench?” a strength coach asked. “Uhh...” Sifrin responded.
Turns out, after training, 325.
But it was also the first time in a while that Sifrin hung out with guys his age, and once again he found himself in trouble. According to Sifrin, one day he returned from class to a dorm room that reeked of marijuana. An RA had already alerted campus police, and blame fell on Sifrin. He was called in to the dean’s office for an immediate hearing. Sifrin says he pleaded for them to administer a drug test, and the school refused. ASA kicked him off the team. (ASA athletic department spokesperson Tim Slakas officially declined to comment, adding “the incident was so long ago, and many of the people involved are not here anymore… [the incident was] something minor, and not a huge deal.”)
Sifrin sold his iPad and used the money to fly home and regroup in Miami. Dream deferred. Again.
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 23. He is moving into a 750-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in Torrance, Calif. His roommates will be seven football players, three snakes and a bearded dragon lizard.
It would have been six roommates, but a seventh was invited. It was a no-brainer: He was rarely home, and he had a car. Sifrin enrolled at El Camino College with no scholarship or financial aid, leading to this motley arrangement. After getting kicked out of ASA, he had two options. One was Monroe College in the Bronx, which had just started a football program. Sifrin knew that playing for a green program, his exposure would be limited. So he took the second option, the well-established California school.
There were difficulties transferring credits. He sat out a year before he finally got on the field. It was worth the wait. Sifrin picked up the playbook quickly (it was problem-solving, like calculating the most efficient ways to fill orders at the Publix warehouse). His size created mismatches. He had 18 catches for 328 yards and five touchdowns, almost all of that production coming in the season’s first five games. (Because of injuries, El Camino was on its third-string quarterback by midseason, and most opponents were double-teaming Sifrin.)
He went on an unofficial visit to USC and verbally committed to Oklahoma. Then trouble found Sifrin again. Or, to be more exact, Sifrin found trouble. “This one was on me,” he says. In his English literature class, Sifrin had a friend edit an essay on Shakespeare. The friend turned out to be a generous editor, and when the paper was returned it was branded with red letters: plagiarized. Sifrin failed the class by 20 points on a 1,000-point scale and would not be immediately eligible to play for the Sooners in the fall. OU rescinded its offer, USC and Kansas cooled off recruiting.
A recently hired coach from a nascent Division I program swooped in. Mark Whipple, a long-time NFL assistant, assembled his staff in January; they were far behind on recruiting. They knew Sifrin wouldn’t be eligible immediately, or possibly ever, but they were willing to take the risk. Sifrin happily accepted an offer from the University of Massachusetts, moving to his fourth state in four years.
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 25. He arrives in Amherst, Mass. to join the UMass Minutemen.
His teammates called him “Uncle.” Well, they weren’t exactly teammates yet—Sifrin wasn’t officially on the team. Because of the El Camino English class, he needed three credits to become eligible. He paid $1,700 out of pocket to take a summer English course, earning a B+. Then there was another snafu: He owed $6,000 to El Camino, and they were holding his transcripts. Sifrin called his father in the Bahamas for help. He had maintained a needle-on-a-thread relationship with the man, visiting him a few times over the years at his mother’s insistence. His father was married with his own family, and Jean never felt comfortable in their home. His father said he would not help. This is the last time Jean talked to him.
Sifrin finally procured a promissory note from an employee in the El Camino athletic department who helped him schedule classes. “During that process, I had a realization,” Sifrin says. “I was done making excuses, done getting into trouble. I have been given so many second chances, I don’t know if I will get another.”
While he sorted out his issues, NCAA regulations prohibited Sifrin from being a part of the team. He had his own insurance, so he could work out in the weight room but not under team supervision. He could not sit in on meetings or even look at a playbook.
He was cleared to play a day after the season-opener. Game day, against Colorado at Gillette Stadium, would mark Sifrin’s second day in pads.
Coaches knew they couldn’t give him the whole playbook, so they gave him a crash course with a package that included about 10 plays. “They were all pretty simple, and specific situations,” says Spencer Whipple, the tight ends coach. “One-on-one scenarios with defenders, things where we could put him in a position to do well.”
One such route, late in the second quarter in the red zone, didn’t quite go as planned. Sifrin’s timing was off, and he ran into the end zone a bit too soon, finding himself bracketed by two defenders. A pass-rusher closing in, quarterback Blake Frohnapfel’s forced the throw. The Colorado defender positioned behind Sifrin had the best shot at it. Sifrin’s instincts kicked in. He leaped and reached up with his right hand. Fully extended like an outfielder taking away a home run, he corralled the ball on his fingertips before clutching it with two hands as he crashed to the turf. It was the second touchdown of his Division I debut. A star was born.
Throughout the season, coaches focused on fundamentals. For example, Sifrin is so big that when he ran routes overmatched defenders would clutch, grab and generally hang on for dear life. Coaches taught Sifrin some hand-fighting techniques, improving his ability to break away from defenders as the ball came.
As the fall wore on, he heard rumblings of the NFL’s interest. He would not be using his final season of collegiate eligibility.
* * *
Jean Sifrin is 27.
At the combine, Sifrin had formal interviews with five teams: the Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals, Bears and Steelers. He said his chats were different from the ones most players report back with: few off-putting questions or psychological exams. For the most part he spent each session telling his story—as much as he could explain in 15 minutes.
It’s considered a particularly weak class for tight ends. He could sneak into the first 100 picks. Or he could go undrafted.
“The biggest question with prospects is longevity of a career—how long do you think he can play effectively?” says Texans general manager Rick Smith. “So yes, age is a factor. How big? That depends.”
Sifrin has spent the pre-draft process working out at the Pete Bommarito Training Facility in North Miami, where Rob Gronkowski regularly trains. Sifrin met with the Patriots during the pre-draft process. Perhaps he could maximize his potential by spending a year or two working behind Gronkowski, who over five NFL seasons has established himself as football’s premier tight end. Then again, there would be a certain amount of absurdity in that arrangement: Gronk would be two years younger than his apprentice.
Most NFL players born in 1987 are on their second contracts. Sifrin is reminded of this as he drives through North Miami looking for the headquarters of the party rental company as he re-traces his journey for The MMQB. He pulls up to an empty warehouse. “I guess it’s not here anymore,” he says. “Man, everything in this neighborhood changes. I’m getting old.”
“You’re not old, daddy,” says Jabari, sitting in the backseat.
“Whatever you say,” Jean replies.
Sifrin wants to bring Jabari with him to any NFL city he lands in. He’ll enroll him in a private school so he doesn’t grow up with the same distractions. He also wants Jabari to play a team sport.
Jean looks into the rear-view mirror. He catches his son’s eye and flashes a smile. If an NFL career is going to happen, it has to happen now. Because Jean Sifrin is 27, and Jabari Sifrin is 8.
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