All Kyshoen Jarrett could see was the end zone, the stands and the stadium lights.
The sensation in his fingertips faded as he lay on his stomach, dazed and desperate to feel something other than panic. Time stopped. Everything went silent around him — everything except the frantic thoughts replaying in his head.
“God, help me,” he whispered.
He was the Washington Redskins’ do-it-all safety and special-teamer, selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft for his versatility, toughness and natural instincts. And by the time Washington faced the Dallas Cowboys in the season finale of his rookie year, the Redskins had clinched an NFC playoff spot, and Jarrett had elevated himself to trusted asset in the secondary.
“I just did my job,” the Virginia Tech alum said. “And I smiled when I did it.”
Then came the hit.
Jarrett still can visualize the pivotal play unfolding: The Cowboys’ backup tight end moving behind the line of scrimmage. Running back Darren McFadden taking the handoff and heading toward the running lane.
Instinctively, Jarrett lowered his shoulder to make the tackle. And from that moment, he was changed.
“My body went numb,” Jarrett said softly, reflecting on the helmet-to-helmet collision that altered his life almost three years ago. “I remember everybody coming onto the field and asking me if I wanted to get on the stretcher. And I just wasn’t with it.”
He was determined to walk off the field to assure family and friends watching the game from afar that he was okay. But the tears streaming down his face as a Redskins staffer held his limp right arm at a 90-degree angle told a different story.
Jarrett, now 25, leaned back in a leather chair and clasped his hands together — a subtle movement that in some ways is a miracle. He shouldn’t be here, sitting in an office at the team’s home base in Ashburn, clad in burgundy and gold practice attire. He shouldn’t be smiling. He shouldn’t be able to move his fingers, let alone curl them into a fist.
Three years ago, he suffered nerve damage in his neck and shoulder that was so severe his right arm hung lifeless at his side. Yet Jarrett remains a fixture in the fabric of the Redskins franchise — no longer as a player but as a coaching intern working with the defensive backs and special teams units. It was the least Coach Jay Gruden felt he could do for his former draft pick with the infectious personality and keen football smarts.
“I welcome him on our staff any time, any place,” Gruden said. “I just want to make sure he was ready to commit to it.”
That day — Jan. 3, 2016 — signaled the abrupt end of Jarrett’s rookie season and marked the end of his old existence.
But Jarrett’s journey didn’t end there, and while he isn’t certain what lies ahead, the beloved Redskin isn’t quite ready to give up on his dream. Right now, he said, he’s “50-50” on making a comeback.
“There’s something in me that believes this is not the end,” Jarrett said. “Me being on the sideline — that’s not how the story ends.”
Jarrett’s own reflection became torture of a different kind.
He avoided mirrors in an effort to ignore his distorted image. He had been an athlete, sculpted and sleek. After the injury, he loathed the body standing before him.
“Throughout my life, I liked the way I looked,” he said, laughing. “I felt like I was handsome, attractive, well built, put together, walking in confidence. And then this injury — it just took a lot out of me.”
Four months later, Mayo Clinic doctors in Minnesota provided Jarrett with a proper diagnosis: He had suffered a serious injury to the brachial plexus, the network of nerves that extends from the spinal cord, through a passageway in the neck and into the armpit. The cluster of nerves controls sensory functions in the upper extremities.
It took several weeks before 50 percent of the feeling returned in his right arm, he said. And it was over a year before Jarrett underwent a nerve transfer from his biceps to his deltoid muscle.
But the psychological scars still linger.
While the left side of his body remained chiseled and muscular, the right “was just bone” following the collision. He was unable to lift or use his damaged arm, and atrophy rapidly set in early on, so much so that Jarrett’s weight dropped from 195 pounds to 180. He couldn’t bear to look at who he had become.
“That lack of confidence even played a part in how I felt my wife felt about me,” said Jarrett, who met his wife, Chantel, during their freshman year at Virginia Tech. “I have my days. But I’m no longer in that space of saying, ‘Man, I don’t like the way I look,’ or projecting how my wife must feel. [But] that’s not how she views me. Never was.”
He learned resiliency from his mother, Vinise Capers, who raised four boys on her own, including Jarrett’s older brother Daishawn, a legally blind triplegic who has cerebral palsy and limited cognitive ability and uses a wheelchair. Jarrett and his mother often served as Daishawn’s primary caregivers — bathing him, dressing him, carrying him, tending to his every need.
Along the way, Jarrett learned never to complain. Shedding his own insecurities, however, was a task he wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle. At least not at first.
“I’m not much of a talker, especially about my feelings,” said Jarrett, who credited the Redskins’ chaplain, Pastor Brett Fuller, with getting him “aligned with some men of God” at Grace Covenant Church in Chantilly, Va. “That’s not what I was brought up to do; I didn’t have a father figure who did that. So it was another fear I had to overcome personally: to get out all of this built-up frustration.”
Even on the hottest of days, Jarrett still wears a long-sleeved shirt to cover his right arm, which is noticeably thinner than his left. It’s his form of protection from the stares and the possible judgment from strangers who are unaware of what he’s lost.
“Sometimes I feel like, if you look at me, you kind of just see disappointment, based on the career or the potential you saw someone having on the field,” he said, staring at the floor. “Maybe I’ll get over that one day.”
In a sea of sweaty bodies trekking through the mud and thick, muggy air, Jarrett’s slender, 5-foot-11 frame is easy to spot. He is buoyant as ever, flashing an easy smile on another long day that’s only halfway done.
Three years ago, he arrived at Redskins Training Center in Richmond eager to begin his NFL journey. His path has since detoured, taking him from practice drills led by Gruden to 7:15 a.m. meetings alongside his former coach during training camp.
Jarrett has been given a second chance for a new football life, one that centers on him instructing players instead of being one himself. But deep down, he hasn’t given up on playing again.
“Oh, yeah, I definitely got the itch,” he said with a grin. “The first day I came out here, I felt like I was coming out here for camp. I just had no helmet. The last time I was here, it was all positive. This is where I developed into the nickel position, where I showed I could be versatile.”
By the end of the 2015 season, Jarrett was logging valuable playing time in the secondary. “I was loving it,” he said, beaming. “Maybe I was probably looking too far ahead. I was already thinking about the things that I could improve on going into my second year, how I wanted to prepare, how I wanted to just get better.”
His smile fades. The tone of his voice becomes soft.
“That rookie year,” Jarrett said quietly, “it was just a starting point.”
There hasn’t been a day since his on-field collision with McFadden that Jarrett hasn’t felt pain. There are “light shocks” that last a second. Sometimes they linger for 10 or 15. Other days, “it just feels like somebody’s ripping my arm apart,” he said. The nerve pain medication he was prescribed doesn’t work.
Even on his wedding day, Feb. 19, 2016 — a month after the injury — Jarrett experienced nerve shocks and had to help his right arm with his left to hold his wife’s hand at the altar.
Only a handful of Redskins remain from Jarrett’s playing days. Only a select few have any inkling of who he was before. But Gruden remembers.
“It was devastating,” the coach said. “That type of injury was hard for a lot of people to take because he’s a great kid. He’s very passionate about the game, and that just came out the way he played. You hate to see anything like that happen to anybody but especially somebody like Kyshoen. He could have been a hell of a player.”
Unlike so many athletes, Jarrett had proved he was good enough to play in the NFL. But after 16 games, his career was over.
“It feels like the game has more so been taken away,” Jarrett said.
He stressed that it’s “a huge blessing” to still be a part of the Redskins family as he recalled the tears that had welled in his eyes when Bruce Allen, Daniel Snyder and former general manager Scot McCloughan reluctantly told him in Allen’s office that they had to waive him with a failed physical designation before the start of the 2016 training camp.
Jarrett is enjoying the process of learning how to be an NFL coach. But he can’t help but wonder what could have been.
While at practice, he envisions himself in team drills. He pictures himself picking off quarterback Alex Smith. Sometimes he simply imagines how “good it would feel” to run around and then trip and fall to the grass. He has found joy being this close to the game he loves. But the proximity also has awakened his competitive fire.
“I still feel like I got some juice!” Jarrett squealed, clapping his hands together. “I just don’t look the part.”
According to him, his only physical limitation is keeping his right arm raised above his head for an extended period of time without assistance.
“I guess that’s the bitter part,” he added, “just knowing that I’m still young.”
Jarrett is suspended between two worlds — not far enough removed from his old life to abandon thoughts of his playing days but taking steps in a new direction, one that could eventually lead to him becoming one of the youngest defensive backs coaches in the NFL. He insisted he’s “50-50” on making a comeback, but in the same breath, he cautions himself.
“But maybe it’s just time to move on and open my mind, my vision, of what I’ll become,” he said.
In time, resolution will come. For now, Jarrett is certain of one thing.
“I was chosen for a particular reason for this journey,” he said. “And I just know if it’s not the end [of me playing], then this is going to be a story to tell.”