Almost 14 years ago, Keenan McCardell stood on the sidelines at William M. Raines High in Jacksonville, Fla., reliving his high school days.
The more McCardell watched the Vikings during their state championship season, the more the Jacksonville Jaguars wideout began to see shades of himself in junior wide receiver Jabar Gaffney.
McCardell saw the potential well before Gaffney caught the game-winning touchdown to win the Florida state championship game, mentoring the young wide receiver during the regular season and keeping him under his wing since 1997.
“He reminded me of myself,” said McCardell, now 41. “He didn’t necessarily have the blazing speed, but he had the ability to separate himself from the defensive backs.”
On the last Wednesday morning in June, Gaffney ate his breakfast and digested the news that the Washington Redskins had just signed veteran wide receiver Donte Stallworth.
“That’s going to be a good move for him,” the 30-year-old thought to himself at the Denver Broncos’ training facility.
“Then I’m getting ready to go, and I hear the news that I’m traded to Washington,” Gaffney said. “I’m like ‘What?’ Coach [Mike] Shanahan called me and next thing you know, I was on my way.”
Gaffney’s football career has come full circle in Washington, where he has reconnected with McCardell, the Redskins’ wide receivers coach since January 2010. Gaffney — whom the Redskins acquired in exchange for defensive end Jeremy Jarmon on July 27 — said he was shocked to learn he was going to Washington, but excited for the opportunity to learn under his longtime friend.
“Growing up, Keenan, he was my hometown receiver,” said Gaffney, who grew up in Jacksonville. “We’ve always known each other. When I got here and learned that he was my receiver coach, it’s just made our relationship that much better. It’s great learning from a guy like that, who I grew up watching.”
Gaffney earned a scholarship to play at the University of Florida, where McCardell kept tabs on Gaffney’s progress. In 2000 and 2001, Gaffney and Gators quarterback Rex Grossman — who is now fighting for the Redskins’ starting quarterback job — combined for 138 receptions for 2,375 yards and 27 touchdowns, the most catches for a player in major college history during their combined freshman and sophomore seasons.
“As soon as he started at Florida, you knew he had that ‘it’ factor, and he still has it,” said Grossman, reunited 10 years later with Gaffney in Washington. “He’s a great receiver.”
McCardell echoed Grossman’s assessment.
“You knew he had it,” McCardell said. “It was just about getting the opportunity and he got the opportunity.”
The Houston Texans drafted Gaffney in the second round of the 2002 draft. From 2002 to ’07, McCardell and Gaffney faced each other five times while playing for various teams. Win or lose, the two receivers always made sure to chat after the game, even if it only was for a minute.
“We’ve been away from each other for a while, but I’ve always kept up with him and he’s kept up with me,” Gaffney said. “Every time we saw each other on the field, it’s always been love.”
To date, the two haven’t discussed what happened last December, when Gaffney lost his friend and Denver Broncos teammate Kenny McKinley, who committed suicide with a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun Gaffney had sold to him last April. Gaffney declined to comment on the incident but at the time told investigators that McKinley wanted the gun for personal protection.
“We talk, but we don’t talk about that. We don’t bring that up,” McCardell said. “We just talk about life in general. We talk about football. If he wants to open up and express what happened, he will. But I’m not going to pry and poke in anyone’s personal life.”
Gaffney turned in his most productive season last year with Denver, catching 65 passes for 875 yards — both career highs — while averaging 13.5 yards per catch. Gaffney said he would love to eclipse his career best under McCardell, an effort that may help the Redskins’ offense find consistency.
Gaffney started in both preseason games and compiled six catches for 57 yards. In Friday’s 16-3 win at Indianapolis, his lone reception for 19 yards set up the Redskins’ first touchdown from the 1-yard line.
“Just to see him, year in and year out, making big plays without getting much recognition — that’s something that you can really look forward to him doing here with myself,” Santana Moss said. “I feel like we can really grow as a unit — me, him and some of the other guys and really make this corps something to be reckoned with.”
Moss, the Redskins’ top wide receiver the past several seasons, will line up opposite of Gaffney during the regular season. If Grossman wins the starting job over John Beck, Gaffney will try to rekindle their college days in the NFL.
And the man who has helped him mature as a wide receiver since high school is now back on the sideline, coaching him.
“Coming out here, Keenan is helping me become a better receiver,” Gaffney said. “ I want to prove that I’m one of the best receivers in this league. It’s not my 10th season in the league for no reason. A lot of guys come and go out. And I stuck around.”