People back home saw glimpses of it years ago, but the truth is Jalen Ramsey began his public transition from humble kid to world-class trash talker by saying nothing at all.
Jamie Redmond, at the time an assistant coach at Ramsey’s private, faith-based high school in Nashville, went to San Antonio in 2013 to watch Ramsey play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. He had come to know a quiet kid who liked to learn, and earlier that season, Redmond’s son asked to meet Ramsey. The player had come over, taken a knee and made eye contact with Cade before connecting with the boy and sharing a long talk with him. Ramsey was Cade’s hero.
Long before he became the Jacksonville Jaguars’ best defensive back and perhaps their most impactful player overall, he couldn’t have been nicer, more patient, more willing to toss the ball and connect with him.
But then the All-America game began, introductions made, and when Ramsey’s name was announced he jogged slowly. He played to the cheers. He ran his mouth.
“Just showboating,” Redmond recalled this week. “I’m like, that’s not the Jalen I know.”
It is, however, the Jalen who this NFL season has introduced himself to the football universe and become one of its rising stars. He is skilled, brash and ambitious. Nothing is beyond his reach — not a starting job his freshman season at Florida State nor a national championship, becoming a top-five draft pick in 2016 and an all-pro a season later — and therefore nothing is beyond Jacksonville’s reach.
The previously hapless Jaguars aren’t just happy to be playing the big, bad New England Patriots in the AFC championship game this weekend; Ramsey — and therefore his teammates — believe they have it in them to unseat the NFL’s postseason kings.
“We going to the Super Bowl,” the 23-year-old cornerback told a group of fans at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field following his team’s defeat of Pittsburgh last weekend. “And we’re going to win that b—-!”
A short while later, Ramsey would ask his Twitter followers to excuse his profanity. But he didn’t exactly apologize.
“I say what people — what the team is thinking but might not want to say,” Ramsey, whose exceptional play has been perhaps overshadowed by his on-field scuffles with some of the league’s best receivers, told Jacksonville reporters on Friday. “Why not say it?”
It wasn’t always this way. Young Jalen was competitive, sure, and when his father brought him to the fire department where he worked, he liked to watch professional wrestling with the firefighters and mimic Ric Flair and the anti-authority superstars from D-Generation X.
“He liked a lot of the bad guys,” said Lamont Ramsey, the player’s father. “The guys who put on the show.”
But most times, at least then, the kid was easygoing and quiet. He won a math bee in middle school and preferred to play tag and shoot Nerf guns with his nephews. When he reached Brentwood Academy in 11th grade, coaches would’ve barely noticed the young man had he not been so talented.
Ramsey was so dominant, so ahead of his age group, that the University of Tennessee offered him a scholarship before he played a single down of varsity football. Former high school coaches said the act embarrassed Ramsey, who in those days was worried about showing up his older teammates, and so he just didn’t talk about it.
He didn’t talk about much, really, and the three former coaches interviewed for this story couldn’t remember anything provocative Ramsey said on sidelines, in locker rooms, after games or in class. One of those coaches, Ralph Potter, followed the aftermath of Ramsey’s run-in with Green, and weeks later he would say that, “no, it does not remind me of the Jalen that I coached.”
Cody White, Brentwood Academy’s coach when Ramsey was a senior, thought the same.
“His persona out in the public is not what most people see,” said White, adding that he cringed when Ramsey vowed that the Jaguars would defeat the Patriots, winners of two of the past three Super Bowls, on Sunday in Foxborough.
The coaches wondered what turned him. Who or what had taken their thoughtful young student and turned his tongue silver?
A few weeks after Ramsey signed with Florida State, where he’d become the first freshman to start immediately at cornerback since Deion Sanders, he spent his spring break in Tallahassee watching film with his new team.
“A football junkie,” was how Jeremy Pruitt remembered Ramsey. The head coach at the University of Tennessee coached defensive backs at Florida State when Ramsey came to Tallahassee. “He was a sponge; you couldn’t give him enough information.”
Which is to suggest he didn’t say much. No promises of a national title or a place on the All-America team, both of which he accomplished in three seasons. But over time, Ramsey grew bolder. He was good, and he knew it, so as he’d point out years later before the AFC championship: “Why not say it?”
At ACC media day one year, Ramsey carried a microphone and interviewed — taunted might be more accurate — other teams’ players. “How’s it feel to let us come back on y’all like that?” he asked a Louisville player, before mimicking a Boston College player’s accent, before reminding a Georgia Tech player of Florida State’s victory against the Yellow Jackets in the ACC championship game.
Ramsey publicly suggested he could reach the Olympics as a long-jumper, touted himself as the nation’s best corner, slowly became the type of player who program spokesmen worried about when he faced a microphone.
“The bigger the crowd,” his father said, “the more he’s into it.”
By the time Ramsey reached Jacksonville in 2016, the transition was complete. He feuded with Baltimore receiver Steve Smith Sr., later calling Smith an “old man” and that he didn’t respect him as a man. Later that season he was ejected for fighting with an Oakland wideout and last spring he called out Houston star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Then came the confrontation with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green this season. Lamont Ramsey, watching from the stands in early November as his son burrowed his way into the receiver’s head, loved it.
“He’s got A.J.,” the elder Ramsey told someone that day when he knew the battle had been won, and a short time later, Ramsey shoved Green and Green put the cornerback in a chokehold before suplexing him to the ground. Ramsey, after all, always did identify with wrestling’s bad guys.
“If you can’t take it,” Lamont Ramsey said, “that’s on you.”
The soft-spoken and quiet kid from Nashville has largely disappeared, and there’s no sign of that person when he has an audience. Ramsey had one Friday, when someone asked him about defending New England’s Rob Gronkowski, the 6-feet-6 tight end.
“He hasn’t played a corner like me before,” Ramsey said, and if his confidence has empowered the Jaguars, it has confused some of the people from back home.
Redmond, the former coach who once knew a different Jalen, heard about Ramsey’s possible matchup against Gronkowski and would chuckle about it. But last week he came home to learn that Cade, the son who met Ramsey years ago and still looked up to him, heard his hero say more prickly words.
“We’re going to win that b—-!” Ramsey had repeated, and Cade, now 11, was surprised and disappointed.
Redmond wondered if Ramsey had gone too far, lost himself in the character he’d created. Regardless, whenever the Jaguars’ season ends and Ramsey returns to Nashville for a glimpse at his old life, Redmond said he hoped to take the young defender to lunch, ask him to tone it down some and wait to see how the young man reacted, as much as anything to see if, for better or worse, there was any of the old Jalen left.
Read more on the NFL: