NFL draft prospect Jaelen Strong's path to Arizona State stardom and his internal struggle coming to terms with his father's death.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sitting by the pool in his apartment complex just a few miles outside Arizona State’s campus, Jaelen Strong appears relaxed. It could be because he recently woke up from a nap. Or it’s possible that’s just his general demeanor. The hazy Arizona backdrop certainly adds to the serene feeling.
The Sun Devils are a couple of days away from a nationally televised showdown with Notre Dame on Nov. 8, a game they’ll go on to win 55-31. Strong, who is well on his way to his second straight 1,000-plus-yard receiving season, will make five catches for 58 yards with a touchdown. Blessed with an uncommon blend of size and speed, the Arizona State wideout is coveted by NFL scouts who believe he hasn’t come close to reaching his full potential.
Decked out in a black shirt and shorts both sporting the school’s trademark pitchfork logo, Strong can seem quiet to those who don’t know him well. Yet it’s what’s underneath his physically imposing 6-foot-3, 215-pound exterior that truly helped him get to this point.
Long before Strong would star with the Sun Devils, making countless acrobatic plays that require liberal use of the DVR, the redshirt junior from Philadelphia got his first tattoo. It features a pair of praying hands on the right side of his chest and the words “In Memory Of John Rankin” in script on the left side.
As he has collected tattoos -- he has almost 30 now -- Strong has assembled a group of mementos that represent his past, his present and what he desires out of his future. But it’s that first ink that fuels him, serving as a reminder of the man he plays for as he eyes the fulfillment of his childhood dream to reach the NFL.
Strong’s father, John Rankin, was a basketball legend at West Catholic High in Philadelphia. He towered over defenders at a nimble 6-8 and parlayed a stellar prep career into a scholarship at Drexel, where he scored 2,111 career points, including a single-game program record 44 against Rider in 1988. He was a member of the team that upset David Robinson and Navy in ’87 and was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame in 2004.
When Jaelen returns to Philadelphia, locals approach him and mention the time Drexel defeated the great David Robinson. “I still go home and people ask me about my dad,” Strong said. “It’s a legacy he’ll forever have in Philadelphia.”
After his playing days were over, Rankin became a detective with the Philadelphia police and could often be found around the community. A plaque featuring his photo still hangs in the hallway at West Catholic.
In 2002, however, Rankin was diagnosed with leukemia. Jaelen regularly visited his dad in the hospital and always assumed he would be all right.
“At that age he couldn’t understand,” Jaelen’s mother, Alexis Strong, said. “When John went into remission, Jaelen thought [his] dad was OK. When he went back in, I think Jaelen realized how serious it was. John physically changed. He was weak. At the time, we thought Jaelen really handled it well because he rarely cried. I think he thought he had to be strong. When it really got bad, when we realized John wasn’t going to make it, Jaelen took on this shell like he was OK.”
Rankin died on April 4, 2003. He was 36 at the time. Jaelen was just 9.
“It was like a blow to almost the whole city of Philadelphia,” Rankin’s friend Shawn Wilson said in a documentary that Strong and director Dev Kamera released in August 2013. “John was just that type of guy. He was very charismatic, very likable, lovable. Once he got sick, that really threw all of us off.”
The death affected Jaelen more than anyone realized. Alexis believes he didn’t process it for years, and those close to him thought he handled it well because he didn’t outwardly show pain. He avoided talking about his feelings and they began to boil over, affecting his schoolwork and his relationships with others.
It was only later when Jaelen lashed out that Alexis, who never married Jaelen’s father but remained close friends with him after they broke up in 1995, decided to do something. She pushed Jaelen to begin counseling when he was a junior at West Catholic.
“That’s where Jaelen’s behavior really went south,” Alexis said. “That’s when we realized he never handled the loss of his dad. It was a lot of grief that built up and turned into anger. They were very close. Looking back he didn’t handle it when [John] was ill and passed away, but then we had to address it in high school.”
During his freshman and sophomore years at West Catholic, Strong required a lot of growing up. He was young for his grade and acted it. “I had a real bad temper,” he said. “The smallest thing [could] make me upset and take my focus away.”
He didn’t take classes as seriously as he should have, landing frequent visits to detention and ultimately a stint in summer school. Come his junior and senior years, when his play started to draw raves, he wasn’t academically eligible to compete at the Division I level.
His talent, though, was undeniable. Strong’s numbers weren’t astounding -- he had just 41 catches in his junior and senior seasons combined -- but that was partially a byproduct of West Catholic’s run-heavy offense and tendency to play with a lead. During Strong’s senior year, West Catholic beat South Fayette (Pa.) High 50-14 for the Class AA state title.
“Over sophomore year going into junior year he started understanding that he can’t do anything about the past,” said Brian Fluck, Strong’s coach at West Catholic. “He can only do something about the future.”
Strong then went the junior college route. His friend Gerald Bowman, now a safety at USC, attended Pierce (Calif.) College, and Strong decided the school would help his future prospects. After grayshirting a year to get his schoolwork in order, he showed the explosive ability that fans have come to expect. He made 67 catches for 1,263 yards with 15 touchdowns in 2012, putting Division I programs on notice.
“It would’ve been real tough to hide Jaelen from the rest of the world with the numbers that he put up,” said Efrain Martinez, his coach at Pierce. “To be honest I thought he was the best junior college player in America in that season he played for us. He was that incredible.”
On Oct. 19 of that year, Pierce played Santa Barbara City College. Pierce had the ball at its 45-yard line on the final play of the first half. Santa Barbara’s defensive backs set back in prevent, about 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. Strong ran past everyone, leapt at the goal line and snatched the ball for a touchdown. In the same game, Martinez says, Strong took a screen pass 70 yards for a score.
Arizona State was one of the first to catch on, and Sun Devils recruiting coordinator Chip Long made a trip to Los Angeles in May 2012. Long noted how Strong was out making every play, and since the Sun Devils had a major need at receiver, they made it a priority to sign the budding star. Long, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and head coach Todd Graham devised an academic plan for Strong, who was still catching up with online classes. They also began to connect with his family.
“I can remember I got married two years ago, and I’m at my rehearsal dinner, and his mom calls me to tell us he passed his history test,” Long said. “I’m going crazy. I’m on my honeymoon communicating back and forth with mom and him, telling him to keep working. It got so involved it was every day, 10 times a day.”
Strong received interest from many brand-name programs, including Tennessee, Texas Tech, Miami, Nebraska and Ole Miss. Still, when it came time to make a decision, Strong was loyal to the Sun Devils. He committed on Christmas 2012.
Strong made an impact from the moment he stepped foot on Arizona State’s campus. He surpassed 100 yards receiving in five of his first six games as a starter, including a dazzling 136-yard, one-touchdown outing in a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 5, 2013. He finished his sophomore season -- and first on the Sun Devils -- with 75 catches for 1,062 yards with 10 scores and entered ’14 as the focal point of a potent offense.
This year brought more of the same, as Strong wowed onlookers with one big play after another. Arizona State’s high point came in the early November win over Notre Dame, a result that moved the team’s record to 8-1 and temporarily kept its College Football Playoff hopes intact.
Strong made one of those plays he is quickly becoming known for: The Sun Devils had possession on the opposing 13-yard line with 3:25 left in the first quarter and a chance to take the lead in a 3-3 game. That’s when quarterback Taylor Kelly called his favorite target’s number. Strong came under on a switch route, got a step on his man and jumped before reaching back, grabbing the football with one hand and improbably twisting his body to stay inbounds in one motion. It didn’t look possible. But in slow motion every action appeared deliberate, and there was no doubt the catch would be ruled a touchdown.
“His ability to get the 50-50 balls and catch the ball in traffic is probably his biggest strength,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I was sitting right there when he caught that ball in the corner of the end zone [against Notre Dame]. It was coming in hot. I didn’t think there was much of a chance he’d make that catch. When he put his hands up and plucked that ball away, that was pretty impressive. There aren’t many guys that would’ve made that catch at the college level.”
Plays like that have Strong projected as a late first-round or early second-round pick in next spring’s draft, in the tier just below Alabama’s Amari Cooper along with West Virginia’s Kevin White, Michigan’s Devin Funchess and Louisville’s DeVante Parker. Strong says he wants to play like Brandon Marshall at the next level, but McShay compares him to another Chicago Bears receiver, Alshon Jeffery, for his size and ability to consistently get the ball at its highest point.
Strong announced Monday evening that he would forgo his senior season to enter the 2015 NFL draft. The Sun Bowl will be his final game in an Arizona State uniform. Regardless of what colors he dons next, however, he’s sure to make return visits to Philadelphia with his head held high.
The same attributes that once made Rankin so beloved in Philadelphia now shine through in Strong. Arizona State quarterback Kelly is quick to point out that Jaelen has a special relationship with his mother -- who made it out to a few games this fall, including the Notre Dame game -- and is just as willing to take pictures with young fans as he is to crack jokes in the locker room when the team needs it.
“Off the field he’s a special dude,” Kelly said. “He’s a giver. That kid is going to do whatever he’d like to do. Whether it’s own a business or play 10 years in the NFL, that kid is going to be an unbelievable human being.”
No matter where Jaelen ends up, his father’s impact will always be present.
“He taught me a lot of things he didn’t even know he taught me,” Strong said. “When he was sick with cancer he remained positive throughout all the trials and tribulations. He was strong. He smiled no matter what, and he never let me know he was in pain even though I knew he was. That was the biggest thing he taught me. There are little things I complain about, but I’m very blessed. That right there, he was fighting for his life and still smiling, going about his day like nothing was wrong, like he was cancer-free.”
Strong recently got his newest tattoo, and shows it off with pride. This one is on his lower leg, and it features a portrait of his dad’s face. Soon it will be hidden under NFL socks on fall Sunday afternoons. But Rankin’s picture -- and influence -- will never be far from Jaelen’s mind.