His father, Winston, had been a defensive-minded player at NAIA Union University, and he remembers getting on his son about not playing tough enough defense. Then in a JV game against Westview High Jarvis was matched up against a tough post player and on one possession blocked his opponent's shot once, twice and then a third time.
"Well, the kid does play defense," exclaimed Winston, then an assistant coach at the school.
It was a eureka moment for the father, who had seen Jarvis, 6-foot-6 at the time, block shots before but hadn't seen such sustained defensive effort from his middle son. It was an important year for Jarvis, as his game grew more consistent. By the end of the season he was starting for the varsity, as the Tomcats won their first of three straight Region 7-AA titles. That was also the year Varnado received the nickname "Swat," the creation of Haywood's announcer, the late Wayne Smith, for Jarvis' increasingly prolific block totals -- as many as 17 in a game as a senior, when he averaged 7.1 per game.
Since then, Swat has stretched to 6-9 with a 7-4 wingspan. He's filled out from a spindly 180 pounds to a more substantial 215. And he's blocked so many shots -- 509 to date in his four-year career at Mississippi State -- that a banner has been raised behind the visitor's bench at the Hump announcing, "Welcome to Swat's Block Party," and the school's athletic department is ordering 10,000 fly swatters to distribute to fans when that total ticks closer to 535, the NCAA record set by former Louisiana-Monroe player Wojciech Mydra in 2002.
"For a young man to come out of high school, [where] he wasn't really recruited big time and weighed 180 pounds," says Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury, "and to have the opportunity to do something that no college basketball player in the history of the game has ever done -- the Wilt Chamberlains, the Jabbars, the Bill Russells, the Shaqs and all of them -- is an amazing story."
After leading the country in blocks as a sophomore and junior, Varnado ranks second this season behind Marshall's Hassan Whiteside, averaging a career-high 5.0 blocks per game. On Nov. 21, Varnado broke Shaquille O'Neal's SEC record of 412 blocks. And recently, he surpassed Alonzo Mourning (453), Tim Duncan (481) and Adonal Foyle (492) to move into second place in the NCAA record books.
Though Varnado, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, calls the opportunity to set an NCAA record "an extreme honor," it's next to impossible to get him to talk much more about his swats.
"All of them are the same to me," he says. "I don't get too high off one."
It's become such a singular, identifiable skill for Varnado that the athletic department had fun with it in a promotional video in which Swat is seen making blocks in other settings, such as the racquetball court, football field goal, student union and even a campus parking lot.
Varnado, however, was a reluctant participant and had to be coaxed into filming it. He'd rather talk about Mississippi State's recent woes -- a need for more depth, less reliance on three-pointers -- and what the Bulldogs need to do turn things around. Just two and a half weeks ago, they were 15-4 and ranked No. 23 in the nation. The Bulldogs have lost four of five but play their next three games at home, including Thursday's showdown with in-state rival Ole Miss.
What the Bulldogs still do well is play defense. They're allowing an SEC-low 62.0 points per game, while holding opponents to just 37.0 percent from the floor, No. 4 in the nation. Two years ago Mississippi State ranked No. 2 nationally and last year it was No. 18.
That defensive prowess starts with Varnado. His presence under the basket not only alters shots taken in the post or on drives, but also emboldens his Mississippi State teammates to play tighter defense on the perimeter.
"He's like a safety net," senior guard Barry Stewart says. "Whenever Jarvis is back there, we feel more comfortable taking a risk, going for a steal or reaching in."
That impact is why Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy recently called Varnado "one of the most underrated players in all of college basketball," adding that he's a "Bill Russell throwback" for his workmanlike approach. His teammates appreciate that, too. Stewart says Varnado "is not one of those wild people. He's got a good head on his shoulders."
Varnado's balanced production this year of 13.5 points, 11.3 rebounds (sixth nationally) and 5.0 blocks per game -- which included a triple-double of 17 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks in an 82-80 win over Arkansas on Jan. 14 -- shows how far he's come offensively. Over Varnado's previous three seasons, he finished 10 games with more blocks than points.
That's in part because blocking shots comes naturally to Varnado, while he's needed time and practice to improve his offensive game. Stansbury notes his incorrigible work ethic, staying late after practice to take more jump shots when most big men are tired and worn out. Stewart, Varnado's roommate for four years, says his friend is always at the gym.
Shot-blocking, on the other hand, hasn't taken such effort.
"I can promise you this," Stansbury says, "in his four years here, we've never done one shot-blocking drill."
Consider it an education by osmosis. Varnado grew up at the gym, tagging along with his father to practice when Winston used to be an assistant for the girls' basketball team (before becoming a boys assistant and, in his son's senior year, the head coach). By junior high Varnado's favorite NBA team to watch was the Detroit Pistons with Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace because of their tough defensive play.
"You can't work on blocking shots," Varnado says. "You have to have timing and instincts. I just try not to hit it too hard, to keep it in play."
And that skill of keeping the ball in play -- of restraining himself not to swat a shot into the fourth row -- is one area Varnado has been able to improve, for the benefit of the team.
"Some guys block shots and want to yell and scream and knock it into the bleachers," Stansbury says. "We've never had a stat for this and I wish we did, but I would say over half his blocked shots he either retrieves them, or we retrieve them as a team."
The other significant area in which Varnado has made great strides is in not fouling his opponent. Stansbury's recollection of Varnado's freshman season -- "he'd play about eight minutes a game and then foul out," the coach recalls -- is an exaggeration, but not a big one. That year Varnado blocked 67 shots but committed 74 fouls while playing only 13.5 minutes per game. That's a rate of 6.3 fouls and 5.7 blocks per 40 minutes.
Now a senior, Varnado is playing 30.3 minutes per game (and 34.8 minutes in SEC play) and has 116 blocks compared to only 56 fouls. He's cut in his fouling in half, to 3.2 fouls per 40 minutes, while improving his blocked shots to 6.7 per 40 minutes.
He's been forced to log heavy minutes because backup center Elgin Bailey is lost for the season with an ankle injury, freshman center John Riek hasn't been ready to contribute in meaningful situations, and blue-chip recruit Renardo Sidney still hasn't been cleared by the NCAA due to allegations he received improper gifts as a high school student. His eligibility is currently in the hands of the NCAA's academic and membership affairs staff, with no concrete timetable for a decision. NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn wrote in an e-mail, "While there is not a specific expected completion date, the staff will conduct a complete review as quickly, yet as thoroughly, as possible."
Before the season, Varnado even gave up his scholarship so that Sidney would be able to join the team. But that selfless decision to take out student loans and become the sport's best walk-on has yet to pay off.
"It just frustrates me to see him not be able to be out there playing with us," Varnado says of Sidney.
In the meantime, Mississippi State has leaned a lot harder on its starters and has even dabbled in some zone defense -- very uncharacteristic for a Stansbury-coached team. But the Bulldogs are committing only 14.0 personal fouls per game, the fewest in the country.
At five blocks per game, Varnado ought to break the NCAA record within the next two weeks. For a night, Starkville will become Swatville. But then Varnado will insist that the focus be put back on the team and the pursuit of a second straight conference title.