Freak of Nature Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse is running circles around offensive linemen--and terrorizing quarterbacks--with a frightening combination of speed and agility

August 27, 2000

A freak strolls down Eighth Street and pivots sharply onto Ocean
Drive, and on the crowded balcony of Wet Willie's, conversations
abruptly cease. Notwithstanding all the eye candy on display in
the heart of jam-packed South Beach on a warm June night, this
buxom woman is too striking to overlook.

A moment passes before Jevon Kearse makes his presence felt on
the balcony. Kearse, the Tennessee Titans' second-year defensive
end and the most intimidating pass rusher to have entered the NFL
in more than a decade, leans over the railing, flashes his
diamond-studded Rolex at the physical specimen below and intones
in his deep baritone, "Yo, we got it goin' on up in here." The
freak looks up at the Freak--as Kearse is known to football
fans--bats her long eyelashes and smiles. A tight black dress
covers a bare minimum of her dark-chocolate skin. The sexy young
reveler redirects her stiletto-heeled pumps toward Wet Willie's
and joins the party.

Freaks and frozen wrists and homeys and drama: It's all there in
Miami Beach for Kearse, a 23-year-old with an 86-inch wingspan
who is soaring to superstardom. When people say Kearse has the
world at his fingertips, you're tempted to take them literally.
With apologies to Jerry Rice and Cris Carter, the Freak has,
among other physical attributes, the most striking set of hands
in football. When his cell phone rings for the 27th time in three
hours and he lifts it to his left ear, he appears to be handling
a bite-sized candy bar. Then he uses his other mitt to reach for
his blended drink--a sinister concoction called Call-a-Cab that
purportedly includes four shots of grain alcohol--and gives the
illusion of a man sipping from a mouthwash cap.

Clad in a black tank top with a matching 'do-rag, khaki cargo
shorts and black sandals, the Freak is dressed to thrill, and
even his three homeboys from Fort Myers, Fla., aren't sure what
excitement lies ahead. "We're gettin' crunk!" Kearse exclaims,
and there are fist-touches all around. Crunk is Freakspeak
for...well, for what? "You know, crunk--like you crank up a
car," says Kearse's pal Otis (Monk) Marchman.

When the boys get crunk, the faint of heart had best run for
cover. Hanging with the 6'4", 260-pound marvel is not for the
meek. "Jevon is like a comic-book character," says Joe Lewis,
another of his childhood friends. "He doesn't know his own
strength, and he's always doing crazy stuff--running through the
house like a wild man, leaping down the stairs, grabbing people
from behind and lifting them off their feet. Hell, tonight he
might grab you." Lewis pauses as you contemplate the Fay Wray
moment that may await you, then continues: "Let's just say he has
a bit more energy than the average dude."

Kearse is about as average as the X-Men. He's not merely fast for
a big man; he's exceptionally fast for any man. Ask halfbacks
Napoleon Kaufman of the Oakland Raiders and Priest Holmes of the
Baltimore Ravens, both of whom were chased down by Kearse last
December. Or talk to Ravens wideout Qadry (the Missile) Ismail,
grounded by the fast-closing Kearse--who went over the top of
pursuing cornerback Samari Rolle--on one of the most awe-inspiring
plays of the 1999 season. At last year's NFL scouting combine
Kearse ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and tied Deion
Sanders, his fellow North Fort Myers High alum, for the fastest
opening 10-yard burst in league history. Throw in Kearse's
uncanny agility, deceptive strength and 40-inch vertical leap,
and it's no wonder he's called the Freak. "I've been in the
league 20 years," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher, a Chicago Bears
safety from 1981 through '84, "and I've not seen an athlete like
Jevon."

Adds St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, last year's NFL and
Super Bowl MVP, "When you look at someone with that size and all
that ability, it's scary to think about the future of the game.
What if there are more guys like him? I don't even want to think
about it."

The Freak is a menace not only to quarterbacks and offensive
linemen but also to some of the league's premier defenders. At
the Pro Bowl last February, Kearse, the AFC's starter at left
defensive end, was scolded by several veteran defensive linemen,
one of whom said, "Man, you need to stop chasing players down,
because our coaches are expecting us to do the same."

Yet for all the remarkable things Kearse did as a rookie, some of
the moves he made away from the bright lights were equally
amazing. In June 1999, two months after the Titans had selected
him with the 16th pick in the draft, the former Florida
linebacker participated in a minicamp pursuit drill that was the
brainchild of Tennessee defensive line coach Jim Washburn: Four
linemen were required to slam into a blocking sled, then race 30
yards downfield through an obstacle course made up of tackling
dummies and toward a set of cones on the sideline. "Three cones
were about five yards apart, and whoever didn't get one was the
loser," Fisher recalls. "Guys were tackling and tripping each
other, doing anything to get a cone, and Jevon kept getting his
easily. Before we ran it the last time, someone yelled, 'Hey,
Jevon, let's see you get two cones.' Without breaking stride he
got all three."

The Freak's mystique grew when he reported to training camp with
a creative alternative to the mandatory test of a player's
vertical leap. Upon entering the room where the test was being
conducted, Kearse glanced at the ceiling, an estimated 12 feet
high, and asked defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, "If I touch it,
can I leave?"

"Don't worry about it," Gray replied. "You're not going to reach
the ceiling." With no running start, Kearse sprung upward, pushed
a ceiling tile out of its frame and walked out of the room.

"He went even higher on Christmas Day," defensive coordinator
Gregg Williams says incredulously. "It was the day before we
played Jacksonville, our biggest game of the season, and Jeff
let us do our walk-through in the ballroom of the Loew's
Vanderbilt so we could spend some time with our families that
morning. Jevon walked in wearing sweats and old, sloppy shoes,
and the whole time he was staring at this chandelier. At the end
of the walk-through Jevon waited until everyone else had filed
out, then he jumped and slapped the chandelier, which I later
measured as 12 1/2 feet off the ground."

If Kearse seems reluctant to let go of his puerile impulses,
perhaps it's because he never really got to be a kid. In Fort
Myers, a city of 46,800 near the Gulf of Mexico, it is not
regarded as entirely coincidental that his family name is
pronounced curse. In February 1976, seven months before Jevon was
born, his father, Joseph, was shot and killed in a pool-hall
dispute. "People say Jevon's dad was a bad, bad man," says Cisco
Navas, the friend of Jevon's who became his surrogate brother
during their high school years. "Word was he used to rob people
with his bare hands."

Adds Lewis, "Yeah, he'd just turn 'em upside down and take their
change if he had to. The cops wouldn't f--- with him."

Over the next four years Joseph's father and two other family
members were killed. As if that weren't enough, a cousin died in
a prison hospital while doing time for attempted murder, and
another cousin (convicted of first-degree murder) and Jevon's
older brother, J.J. (convicted of armed robbery), remain
incarcerated. "I've experienced so many losses," Kearse says,
"but all the adversity made me into a stronger person."

Jevon and J.J. grew up in the Sabal Palm housing project with
their mother, Lessie Mae Green, and their five siblings. J.J. ran
with a rough crowd, while Jevon, a shy kid who stuttered, was
more straitlaced--though he did have his share of tussles. In the
eighth grade Jevon got into a fight with Cisco in the Lee Middle
School cafeteria after accusing Cisco of stealing his milk. The
two were strangers, but they conned school officials into
believing that they were good friends who had been putting on an
act. Their ruse was prophetic. Cisco, who lived with his mother,
Yolanda McDowell, on a seven-acre spread in North Fort Myers,
began inviting Jevon to sleep over, and by the time the two were
football teammates at North Fort Myers High, Jevon had become
Cisco's regular roommate.

Kearse, who says the desire for a calmer environment compelled
him to move in with Navas, became a National Honor Society
student. "Jevon always had determination," Navas says. "Every day
when we got home from school, the first thing he did was hit the
books. Then we'd go out back and fish for snook." Kearse played
safety and tight end on the football team, on which Navas (a
fullback), Marchman (the quarterback) and Lewis (a receiver) also
played key roles. The self-anointed Four Horsemen remain close.
"We like to call our hometown Fort Misery, and believe me, the
name fits," Marchman says. "But back then we had a team. Sixteen
thousand people came to watch us play; they had to add bleachers
to fit them all in."

Kearse chose Florida over Notre Dame and dozens of other schools,
and though on the field he made a smooth transition from safety
to linebacker, off the field he had his share of inglorious
moments. Shortly after he arrived in Gainesville, in 1995, he was
washing his car at a gas station when police responded to a
complaint that his radio was too loud. "The cops were joking with
me, saying, 'As soon as you finish your car, can you wash ours?'"
Kearse recalls. "All of a sudden they went for their guns and
pinned me against the car."

The man the police were looking for was J.J., who months earlier
had identified himself as Jevon after being arrested for driving
a stolen vehicle in Sarasota County and had then skipped out on a
court date. Jevon spent a night in jail before things were
straightened out. He has since forgiven J.J., who is serving time
at DeSoto (Fla.) Correctional Institution until at least June
2002. "I've learned what not to do from watching him," Jevon
says. "Now he's watching me live the life he should be living."

In October '96 Kearse's half-brother Jermaine (Rocky) Green was
killed in a drive-by shooting outside Sabal Palm. "I'm still not
over it," says Kearse, who has a tattoo on his left shoulder
bearing Rocky's name and the letters R.I.P. "I think about him
all the time, especially when I'm on the field and I need that
extra push. I'll tell myself, O.K., on this next play, my
brother's with me."

As Kearse developed into a star for the Gators, who won the
national championship the first season he played, he says he
began accepting money from agent Tank Black, in violation of NCAA
rules. "I probably wouldn't do it again," Kearse says, "but then
again, I got my mom a car, and I didn't have to send home money
from my Pell Grant to take care of her. Tank was paying the bills
and keeping money in my pocket." Kearse declared for the NFL
draft after his junior season and signed with Black. He fired the
agent in May '99, one month after being drafted by the Titans, in
the wake of a criminal investigation into Black's activities.
(Black, who has denied paying Kearse in college, has since been
indicted on numerous counts of money laundering and conspiracy
and has been suspended by the NFL Players Association.)

Like Minnesota Vikings wideout Randy Moss in '98, Kearse slipped
further than expected in the draft, took it personally and made
the rest of the league pay for the slight. He was perceived by
critics as a tweener--too light to play defensive end, too big
to play linebacker--whose performance at Florida had not lived
up to his promise. He played, he concedes, "with a chip on my
shoulder because of all the teams that passed on me." Even his
sky-high numbers (an AFC-leading 14 1/2 sacks, tied for the most
by a rookie; a league-high 10 forced fumbles; and six
recoveries) don't adequately reflect his impact on games. A
better indication might be the number of Titans defensive plays
that Tennessee's offensive unit insists on watching. "Coaches
would try to talk to those guys when they came off the field,"
says Josh Evans, a Titans defensive tackle who is serving a
one-year suspension for violating the league's policy on
substance abuse, "but they wouldn't pay attention. They were
afraid to get a glass of water because they might miss the Freak
Show."

The Freak finished second to the Tampa Bay Bucs' Warren Sapp in
the voting for the NFL's defensive player of the year. Kearse
also generated more buzz in opposing locker rooms than had any
front-seven defender since former New York Giants Hall of Famer
Lawrence Taylor. These were some of Kearse's most eye-popping
efforts.

--During a 24-21 win over the Rams on Halloween, Kearse had right
tackle Fred Miller spooked. Miller not only allowed Kearse a
sack, a forced fumble and five tackles, but he also was whistled
for six false starts and a holding penalty. "That was the coach's
fault for not giving him more help," Kearse says. "Fred started
the game with a pretty stance, but once I got in his head, I
could tell by the way he lined up whether it was a run or a pass.
I'd just look at him across the line, smile and shake my head
like, I'm getting ready to eat your ass up again."

Even Warner, who was the main course in Kearse's feast that day,
refused to rip his right tackle. "I felt sorry for Fred," Warner
says. "I was thinking, We've got to do something to bail him out.
Jevon was coming off the ball so fast, it was just unfair. The
guy is relentless." Miller, who fared better against Kearse in
the teams' Super Bowl rematch, saved his best move for after the
season: He signed a free-agent contract with the Titans.

--Midway through the second quarter of the Titans' 41-14 loss at
Baltimore on Dec. 5, Priest Holmes took a handoff at the Ravens'
22-yard line and burst free along the left sideline. Kearse, who
had been tied up by a blocker on the opposite side of the line,
finally shed his man at the 25, turned and angled over in pursuit
of Holmes. Kearse overran him at the Tennessee 27, and two other
defenders took advantage of the halfback's hesitation and dragged
him down inside the 10. Says Evans, "I was so in awe of what
Jevon did that I just stopped and watched. When we went back and
watched the film, Coach Washburn chewed into me and said, 'Why
the hell did you just stand there?' I said, 'Coach, I'm sorry,
but that dude had my head so messed up. All I wanted to do was
see what he'd do next.'"

What Kearse did next was even more astounding. On the first play
of the second half, from the Ravens' 23-yard line, Tony Banks
connected with Qadry Ismail on a six-yard out. Kearse, after
avoiding a chop block in the backfield, jumped in an unsuccessful
attempt to deflect the pass and landed on the 20 as Ismail, a
former Syracuse track star, broke free down the right sideline 10
yards upfield. Kearse turned and cut toward Ismail, closing the
gap to five yards as he drew parallel with the receiver, who was
outrunning Samari Rolle as he crossed the Ravens' 40. Kearse
continued to make up ground, finally thrusting his right arm over
Rolle's right shoulder and dragging both men down inside the
Tennessee 25.

"Upon further review," Ismail says jokingly, "Jevon rushed the
passer, stopped, sat down, took a drink of Gatorade on the
sidelines, spoke to our coach for a bit about why we didn't draft
him, and then proceeded to run me down."

--Four days after the Baltimore game, the Freak wreaked havoc in
a 21-14 win over the Raiders. On the first play from scrimmage,
Kearse sacked Rich Gannon. Later in the first quarter Napoleon
Kaufman, considered one of the NFL's fastest backs, took an
inside handoff and broke into the clear. Kearse chased him,
overran him 12 yards downfield and executed a graceful pivot to
resume pursuit. Fifteen yards later Kearse again caught up with
Kaufman, got juked once more, made another quick turn and
dragged the runner down.

--In a 47-36 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the
regular-season finale, Kearse pulled off what Williams calls
"the quadruple crown": sacking Mike Tomczak, stripping the ball,
recovering it after it had bounced along the turf and returning
it 14 yards for a touchdown. Kearse blew past right tackle Shar
Pourdanesh, who had tweaked the Freak with nasty pregame
comments and aggressive on-field tactics. "That low-down, dirty
motherf----- punched me in my side and stuck his finger in
[safety] Blaine Bishop's eye," Evans says of Pourdanesh. "That's
when the killer came out in Jevon. Once he learns to bring out
that animal inside him every game, no one will stop him."

Though Kearse wore down mentally and physically as the season
dragged on--in an attempt to keep his weight up, the Titans hired
a chef to prepare his dinners, but he still weighed only 245
pounds for the Super Bowl--he had his share of big moments in the
Titans' remarkable playoff run, including a sack for a safety in
the opening-round victory over the Buffalo Bills and a pivotal
fumble recovery in the AFC Championship Game in Jacksonville.

As Kearse grows up before our eyes, it's frightening to think
what lies ahead. He is still a kid at heart--the devilish rookie
who cracked up his fellow defensive linemen at the lunch table
last fall by drawing an oversized apple, then affixing arms and
legs and turning it into a portrait of 280-pound Mike Jones. He
revels in the suggestive power of his double-entendre nickname,
which he got from a Florida teammate blown away by his physical
attributes. "Trust me, he loves it," Evans says. "We'll walk
through malls, and you'll hear people whispering, 'There's the
Freak'--like they're scared to talk to him. Then there are the
women who are curious how he got that name. A lot of freaks out
there want to know, 'Is he freakier than me?'"

Last year Kearse's big plays at Adelphia Coliseum were greeted by
the blaring of Chic's Le Freak over the loudspeaker. For this
season, Kearse says, "I'd like to come up with a sack dance,
something to represent my freakiness but that's not too obscene
for the kids."

The Titans plan to give him every opportunity to flesh it out.
Kearse, who picked up at least one sack in each of his last eight
regular-season games (two shy of the league record held by former
Denver Broncos linebacker Simon Fletcher) will be a man on the
move in 2000. Last season he lined up almost exclusively at left
end and was featured in only three of the team's defensive
alignments. From now on he'll move around more than a roadie at a
Phish concert. Williams says he has devised several "scheme
busters" that feature Kearse in unorthodox spots, and he won't
hesitate to drop the Freak into coverage against a physical tight
end near the goal line. "You can rest assured that every one of
our opponents will make a point of knowing where Jevon is,"
Williams says. "[He's having] the type of impact we've all been
seeking since LT."

Fisher doesn't buy into the Taylor comparisons--yet. "Jevon
realizes he's not even close to that level," says Fisher. "If we
had gone 8-8 last year, would people be [making those
comparisons]? I don't think so."

Then again, Kearse had a little something to do with the Titans'
rise from middle-of-the-pack team to AFC champion, one whose
takeaway-giveaway ratio improved from dead even in 1998 to plus
18 last season. "Jevon has only scratched the surface," Fisher
says. "Now he is studying the tackles in our division, and he's
worked hard on his technique." Eventually, Fisher envisions
deploying Kearse mainly at right end, where, the coach says, "we
feel he has a chance to be a step quicker."

Kearse needs that extra step the way Bill Gates needs a Powerball
jackpot, but he has no intention of standing still. Not known as
a workout enthusiast in college, Kearse, after angering Titans
coaches this spring by failing to show up for the first week of
the team's off-season conditioning program, has since impressed
them with his dedication. "I feel like I've helped create a new
standard of hustle for defensive linemen," says Kearse. "Now I
want to do twice as much as I've been doing. Six or seven years
from now someone bigger, stronger and faster will come along, and
they'll call him the new, improved Freak. Until then I need to
raise the bar as high as I can."

Boredom has set in at the Casa de Freak, Kearse's Spanish-style
manor in Golden Beach, 25 miles north of Miami and a long, long
way from Fort Misery. Kearse has been gone for two hours, and
without him around there's a palpable void. Joe Lewis and his
younger cousin Johnny (J) Hall are out on the rear deck, which
overlooks a canal that connects with the Intercoastal Waterway.
There are WaveRunners and Jet Skis they'd like to ride, but no
one can get the darn things to start. Navas shoots pool, and then
a couple of women arrive and join the fellas upstairs for a
desultory game of cards. Finally, a bass line that can be heard a
block away penetrates the house's stucco walls, and a few seconds
later the Freak rolls up in his black SUV and restores energy to
the scene.

There'll be a barbecue, maybe a dip in one of the pools (indoor
and outdoor), then a midnight run to a club in Coconut Grove. But
now, as the last vestiges of sunlight shimmer on the canal,
Kearse wants to delve deep into his past. On Sept. 3, the day the
Titans open their season against the Bills in Buffalo, he will
turn 24--the same age his father was when he was gunned down. "You
know, that's a part of my past I don't really ask about," he says
quietly. "It would probably stir up a lot of extra stress. I've
never even discussed him with my mom, but I heard things around
town: 'Your dad would walk into a pool hall, and everybody would
just lay down their money and walk out.'

"Growing up I never surrounded myself with bad people, but folks
knew I had uncles who did killing and an older brother who wasn't
scared to do what was necessary. I'm not proud of that, but let's
just say there weren't any punks in my family. There were a lot
of big dudes who didn't take any s---, and sometimes, when they
wanted something, they took it. People heard the name, and they
knew what it meant. Now I'm trying to turn the Kearse name into
something positive."

Lewis walks outside and offers Kearse a bite of his hamburger.
The Freak rips off a small piece of beef and affixes it to a
fishhook, which he casts into the canal. Kearse has yet to catch
anything from this backyard perch, but the act is comforting. It
reminds him of the lazy afternoons he and his siblings spent
fishing with their maternal grandmother, Lucille Scott, back in
Fort Myers. "She'd sit there in her long chair with a cane pole
in her hand and tobacco in her cheek, and I'm telling you, she
was the queen," Kearse says. "Every so often she'd catch a mullet
and say, 'Y'all take this fish for me and put another worm on
there.' All she did was pull 'em out of the water, and I'd do the
rest."

That kid has grown up, and for a few seconds he seems mournful
about the life he has left behind. Then, eureka! Kearse jerks his
fishing rod up and furiously reels in his catch: a footlong
catfish that flops to and fro as Kearse enters the house and
makes a beeline for the kitchen, where the rest of the crew has
assembled. The homeys cackle with surprise, their female guests
squeal, and the Freak beams with childlike pride. "Look at that,
Playboy," he howls at Navas. "Now I'm gonna kill this sucker and
grill him for dinner."

Everyone laughs, but Kearse's words are strictly for show. Amid
the commotion, he walks back outside, pulls the hook from his
victim's mouth and gently tosses the fish back into the canal.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Freak of Nature The Titans' Jevon kearse (below) runs circles around offensive linemen--and terrorizes quarterbacks [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HEADY PLAY The Jaguars' Jay Fiedler was among the quarterbacks bagged by Kearse in '99, when he tied the rookie record for sacks, with 14 1/2. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER LURKING The 260-pound Kearse, with his bursts of speed and ability to change directions on a dime, is never far from the ball. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES FRIENDS FOR LIFE Kearse, with (from left) Lewis, Navas and his cousin Thorris Kearse, hasn't forgotten his roots. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE HIGH JUMPER Kearse, who had a safety in his playoff debut against the Bills, rose to greater heights in celebrating that miracle win. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES

"I've been in the league 20 years," says the Titans' Fisher,
"and I've not seen an athlete like Jevon."

"Once he learns to bring out that animal inside him every game,"
Evans says of his teammate, "no one will be able to stop him."

"All the adversity has made me into a stronger person."

"What if there are more guys like him?" says Warner.

"Jevon has only scratched the surface," says Fisher.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)