Jalen Mills arrived for the first day of training camp with green hair. So much for being an anonymous rookie. Jim Schwartz, the Eagles' veteran defensive coordinator, looked at Mills . . . like he had green hair.
"If you're going to be wearing that green hair, you better be out here making plays," Schwartz told Mills.
Mills never flinched. It didn't occur to him that there was an alternative. And when he plays against top wide receivers, it doesn't occur to him that maybe he shouldn't wag his finger after an incompletion.
Reticence is not in his repertoire. He was named after Jalen Rose while Rose starred for Michigan's "Fab Five" - the brashest player on college basketball's brashest team. Mills can even identify the last time he felt any insecurity. He considers the question, and remembers a time in grade school.
Confidence is not the problem for the green-hair-wearing, finger-wagging, fast-talking Eagles cornerback. It's the most marked characteristic for a player who arrived in the offseason needing to earn a roster spot and will leave at the end of this week as a part of the Eagles' future - perhaps the only cornerback on the roster who can be penciled onto the depth chart in 2017.
"I love the hell out of that kid," Schwartz said. "I really do. He is a competitor. People talk about speed, people talk about ability to play the ball. To me, the number one criteria for playing corner is you have to be a competitor, and he is. He's given up some plays this year. He's made some plays and given up some, but it's never let it affect us."
The success of Mills' campaign can be measured as much by his playing time (64 percent of the defensive snaps) as his statistics (58 tackles, no interceptions, seven pass breakups). The Eagles traded former second-round pick Eric Rowe because they were confident Mills could contribute as a rookie. And Mills might be the least surprised seventh-round pick to ever play as much as he does. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said Mills arrived in Philadelphia believing he belonged on the team - "at least in his mind," and his personality prompted the coaching staff to keep giving him more responsibility with the defense.
"Nobody had to coach him . . . on confidence," Jenkins said.
"Probably just something that was bred in me," Mills said.
"I'd like to say I have something to do with that," said Kisa Jackson, Mills' mother.
Jackson said Jalen Rose's confidence was not the source of the name, but she admitted it's a convenient coincidence. Jackson told her two sons that they need to stand up for themselves no matter the circumstances.
"It's something that's embedded in him," Jackson said. "He never stops. He's a little workhorse."
Mills grew up in a single-mom home, and money was tight. At 7 years old, he felt insecure when classmates came to school with new sneakers. Mills sat down with his mother and grandmother, and they told him he cannot compare. He needs to be happy with what he has and who he is. Since that day, Mills has acted accordingly.
On the basketball court, Mills wanted to be Allen Iverson. He wore the arm sleeve and the headband just like the 76ers star. Even when he wasn't playing sports, he made sure he was always the alpha male. As a child, Mills went shopping with his mother at a Dallas-area shopping mall. A group of twenty-something men were hitting on Jackson. Mills intervened and didn't let them.
"As a little kid, he was always just the man," said Jackson, who refers to Mills as her husband because "he makes all the decisions."
But for all of Mills' precociousness as an athlete, he was not on a path to college. As a sophomore in high school, Mills had a stern conversation with assistant coach Aaron Fletcher - the father figure in Mills' life. Fletcher scolded Mills for mumbling under his breath during the talk, and made sure Mills knew what it would take to go to college. Mills barely received a bad grade again.
"It was one of those heart-to-hearts we had, and you can see where it actually changed his life around," said Fletcher, who is now an assistant coach at Tulsa. "We had to talk about changing your crowd, how important your schoolwork was, having the right people in your corner. . . . He did a phenomenal job of getting everything turned around, getting around the right people, and taking life more seriously."
Similar to his Eagles career, Mills played immediately at LSU. When future Pro Bowler Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the LSU team, Mills stepped into the lineup. He started the first 39 games of his college career before breaking his ankle last year. He practiced against Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, future NFL standouts.
"It's one thing to be confident, but it's another thing to be able to back it up," Beckham said. "And that's what he does."
Mills planned on leaving LSU after his junior season. He expected to be a second-day draft pick, and even told former coach Les Miles about his early exit. But Jackson wanted him to stay in school to graduate. Mills is four classes away from graduation, although his senior year did not go as planned.
In addition to a broken ankle that limited him to six games, Mills was accused of battery. Charges were dropped, but it affected his draft stock. He watched three days of the draft before the Eagles selected him with the 233rd overall pick. Johnson called it a "bittersweet" day. Mills asked the Eagles for No. 31 because 31 other teams passed on him.
The green hair came about as an idea from his cousin. Mills considered dying his hair purple at LSU. During the summer, his cousin mentioned he could go with green because of the Eagles.
"I'm stuck with it now," Mills said.
Mills said the finger-wagging was a tribute to a former LSU teammate, but his mother said he always did it. She said there's old film of Mills acting like Dikembe Mutombo after incomplete passes.
"It shows he's confident," Jackson said. "It shows, 'Not on me, you're not doing it.' "
Mills said he does it for himself, not for anyone else. It reminds him that even though he's a rookie and facing top wide receivers each week, he belongs on the field with them. And he keeps doing it even after he gives up a big play - Mills has been a victim of a few this season - because fundamental to that position is the ability to forget.
Whole other level
It was tested in Week 2 when he allowed a 49-yard catch to Alshon Jeffery in his first extended action. Fast forward to last Thursday, when the Eagles tasked Mills with shadowing Odell Beckham Jr. in the fourth quarter. That shows what the team thinks of him.
If Mills lasts with the Eagles, he's going to face wide receivers like Jeffery and Beckham often in his career. He's confident that those wide receivers will soon know they're facing a cornerback like Mills.
"Take my game to a whole other level," Mills said. "Be that dominant guy. Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman. . . . You see when the guys have a season, two or three seasons where they shut down the best guys on opposite teams? For sure, just trying to improve my game to be that top guy."