This story appears in the Feb. 15-22, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Rashan Gary shuffles into his living room in Plainfield, N.J., wearing gray sweatpants, a black "Paramus Catholic Track" jacket and a weary look. He slumps onto a couch whose previous occupants have included Hugh Freeze and Nick Saban and perches a pair of royal-blue Beats by Dre headphones on his temples. Gary was the Under Armour All-America Game's MVP and the Bobby Dodd National Lineman of the Year, and he's the consensus top recruit in the class of 2016, only the third prospect this decade—fellow defensive linemen Jadeveon Clowney and Robert Nkemdiche are the others—to be tabbed No. 1 by all four major recruiting services (Scout, Rivals, ESPN, 247Sports). As such, Gary has more than 30 scholarship offers and the attention of fans and coaches across the country. What's clear this evening is that he's ready for it all to be over. On Jan. 31, three days before National Signing Day, the defensive tackle has yet to figure out where he'll play ball this fall, but he's determined to reach a decision. "Tonight," he says.
Gary has just returned from Clemson, his final visit during a recruitment that has also led him to Michigan, USC and Ole Miss. The latest trip has made his choice even more difficult, and when the sun rises the next day, he has failed to realize his goal. Gary does narrow down his list to two schools, Clemson and Michigan, but he won't pick one, he says, until seconds before walking onto the SportsCenter set in Bristol, Conn., for a signing-day appearance on Feb. 3.
When the moment arrives, Gary slips on a maize-and-blue baseball cap, marking the end of a frenzied, closely dissected saga that spanned five years and captivated people in multiple time zones. It also signaled the arrival of a player who has the potential to tilt the sport's balance of power.
It is not unusual to hear the words freak or beast applied to top-ranked recruits. In Gary's case, those descriptions fit before he played his first high school game. He earned a scholarship offer from Rutgers as an eighth-grader after showing well against older players at one of the Scarlet Knights' camps, and more offers poured in after schools watched him dominate weaker competition at Scotch Plains-Fanwood (N.J.) High. In 2014, as a sophomore, Gary performed well enough to earn an invitation to the nation's most prestigious off-season showcase, The Opening, in Beaverton, Ore. The measurements that were taken there—6' 4" and 287 pounds, with a 4.74 in the 40, a 4.38 shuttle and a 32-inch vertical leap—compared favorably with those recorded by first-round defensive linemen at the NFL scouting combine.
Yet framing Gary's rise as a product of sheer physical prowess would be reductive. His realization, early in his high school career, that bull-rushing every offensive lineman was not a viable strategy sparked his evolution from athletic specimen to meticulous technician. He watched YouTube clips of the Jets' 2015 first-round draft pick, Leonard Williams, while Williams was at USC. ("We have the same body type," Gary says.) He worked with Dewayne Riggins, a New Jersey trainer who did strength and speed work as well as boxing exercises to increase hand speed. Perhaps most critically, Gary was instructed by Peter Kafaf, an apparel-company executive and volunteer trainer with a background in martial arts who helps players develop hand-fighting techniques that can be deployed to defeat offensive linemen. Kafaf frequently cites The Karate Kid, and while he doesn't put Gary to work painting and sanding, he stresses the importance of one of the film's central tenets: Repetition leads to success. "When I first met [Gary], he was a mauler or a brawler," the 53-year-old Kafaf says. "Now he's a predator."
In search of better competition, Gary transferred to parochial powerhouse Paramus Catholic as a junior, but by his senior season opposing coaches on the notoriously tough north Jersey parochial circuit were resorting to extreme measures to stop him. Gary's teammate Drew Singleton, a four-star linebacker in the class of '17, recalls an opponent that used a running back to block one of the Paladins' other defensive tackles so it could assign extra blockers to Gary. "As long as they had Ra locked down, they didn't even care about the [other] interior D-lineman," Singleton says.
In his junior and senior seasons Gary sacked Bergen Catholic quarterback Jarrett Guarantano a total of nine times. A four-star prospect who signed with Tennessee, Guarantano says he was "very upset" to learn he'd have to face Gary a third time in the Under Armour game. Guarantano's strategy against Gary: "Just get the ball out fast." (Gary had three sacks in the game.)
If Gary's ascent to top-recruit status at times seemed like a straight through line, the manner in which he handled his recruitment was just as direct. Gary neither released emoji-dotted lists of top schools on social media—only to alter them months later—nor issued a verbal commitment, then backed out. He nonchalantly parried questions from recruiting reporters and mastered the delicate art of giving nonanswers. To wit: During an on-camera sit-down with ESPNU in late December, Gary was asked whether he had a so-called leader. "If I had one, I'd be committed right now," Gary said. In an age where morsels of information from elite prospects spark multipage message-board debates, Gary consistently avoided drama.
The only source of controversy involving Gary centered on alleged recruiting at a different level. Gary and his mother, Jennifer Coney, were accused of having impermissible contact with people connected to Paramus Catholic before he transferred. But a state appeals committee unanimously cleared the school, Gary and his mother. In Ann Arbor, Gary will be reunited with Chris Partridge, his coach at Paramus Catholic. Partridge took a recruiting position at Michigan last January, and he was promoted to linebackers and special teams coach a month before the Wolverines signed six players from New Jersey, including two five-stars and two four-stars, according to Scout.
Alex Menendez via AP
Top-ranked prospects cannot elude the spotlight, but it beamed brighter, and for a longer period of time, on Gary than perhaps any other recruit in recent memory. The expansion of recruiting media—including team-specific websites, local and regional newspapers, and national outlets like SI—have put a greater demand on players, even as coaches try to woo prospects earlier in their high school careers. All these factors conspired to tug Gary every which way until he revealed his decision. It didn't help that Gary had long been linked to Michigan, a college football blueblood with an intensely passionate fan base, or that he didn't officially eliminate schools earlier on.
In late December, a little more than a month before signing day, Gary said he was still considering nine schools, none of which were Ohio State. In response, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland published an article headlined, "Gary and Ohio State: Why now is the time for Buckeyes fans to let go of the five-star DT."
While Gary is naturally composed in public, he did receive some instruction on life skills from Claudia Ruffin, who doubled as his speed coach. Ruffin, the president and founder of a consulting and training business in Scotch Plains, N.J., encouraged Gary to use athletics as a "window of opportunity" through which to develop into a more "in-depth individual."
Coney, who is divorced from Gary's father and remarried to Frank Shepherd, raised Gary and his older sister, Nafeesa. Coney became the most prominent figure in Gary's recruitment. Pull up a story from a recruiting service about him, and you're as likely to find quotes from Coney as her son. She boasts that she could sell her contact list because of how many coaches' names it contains. Gary describes Coney as "my everything," and has had "Jennifer" tattooed in a thin, black cursive font on his left forearm. During a recent conversation at his home, he looked up and asked her, "You're not sitting down with me?" Says Paramus Catholic president James P. Vail, "I knew that if he ever were to cause any problems at the school—which he never did—all I'd have to say is, 'Don't make me call your mother.'"
Michigan signee Michael Dwumfour, a three-star defensive lineman from Depaul Catholic in Wayne, N.J., and one of Gary's closest friends, says Gary is "just a big teddy bear, somebody you want to be around."
The most-coveted National Letter of Intent of 2016 was transmitted through the main office at Paramus Catholic, from a gray-and-black Brother fax machine next to a row of multicolored binders. After a limo ride back from his appearance in Bristol, Gary participated in a signing-day ceremony in the school's auditorium that featured a FaceTime call with Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh, who was stationed in the Michigan auditorium that hosted the program's signing-day extravaganza and included VIPs Derek Jeter (a fan), Tom Brady (an alum) and Jim Leyland (former Tigers manager). Harbaugh's first full class with the Wolverines ranks sixth in the country, a 29-spot jump from last year, according to Scout, and Gary is its shining star.
Michigan has recruited at an elite level before: As recently as 2012, the Wolverines finished fourth in the country, and they landed the nation's No. 3 prospect, fellow Paramus Catholic athlete Jabrill Peppers, in '14. But this class represents Harbaugh's biggest step yet in transforming a roster that won only five games under Brady Hoke in '14 and is aiming to take down rival Ohio State as the Big Ten's premier program. (The Buckeyes had the nation's No. 2 class.) Gary was also a coup for the conference: His signing marked the first time since 2010 that the nation's top prospect rebuffed the SEC.
Gary lingered after the call to oblige photo requests. He turned his Wolverines cap backwards and did the Dab on stage with his teammates. "A lot of stress off my family," Gary said, "and my back."