MINNEAPOLIS – The football field where Alshon Jeffery first flashed the talent that took him to the top of the football world Sunday night is a modest place: a rectangle of patchy green, shaded slightly by a red-and-white grandstand that could use fresh paint, near a dusty side street. It is the field at Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, S.C., a town of just 2,100 residents. For a measure of perspective, consider that 35 times that number attended Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium. Not watched. Attended.
The gap between who Jeffery once was and is now could hardly be wider, and he had craved the journey to close it. He attended to his academics well enough at Calhoun County, even taking summertime classes, to qualify for a Division I athletic scholarship, choosing the University of South Carolina for the sake of staying close to home. But Jeffery and anyone who watched him play football understood that he had the opportunity to achieve something greater, that he could be a star on a far grander stage.
“He was a player,” Barry Charley, Jeffery’s cousin and Calhoun County High’s principal, said during an interview in August. “A recruiter from Southern Cal came earlier one day, and that night he and I were on the sideline talking. Alshon made a catch, and he said, ‘Wow. That guy is a freak. This guy will be playing on Sunday.’”
Here, with more than 100 million pairs of eyes upon him, there was no bigger Sunday in Jeffery’s football life, and as the rest of the Eagles did in their thrilling 41-33 victory over the Patriots, he rose to meet the measure of the moment. (Granted, the defense didn’t get quite as far off the ground. Not until the end, anyway.) He had three catches for 73 yards, including two of the game’s most important: a 34-yarder, for the night’s first touchdown, and a 22-yarder that led to LeGarrette Blount’s 21-yard score late in the second quarter. Both of the receptions were swan-like, and Swann-like, in their grace. On the first, Jeffery leaped over Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe in the back of the end zone to snare a deep, high Nick Foles throw. On the second, Foles feathered a pass to him amid several defenders, and Jeffery cradled the football as he was falling to the turf as if he had the surest, softest hands at a block-party egg toss.
He had guaranteed a Super Bowl victory, and he had helped deliver it.
“Man, I told y’all,” he said. “Hey, we don’t care who we’re playing.”
His catches were tone-setters for the Eagles, signs that they were as loose and ready for the Patriots, at least on offense, as they could be. These were the kinds of catches that the Eagles – football-operations chief Howie Roseman, in particular – had banked that Jeffery could and would make. They had made improving the wide-receiver position one of their highest priorities in the offseason, if not their highest, and Jeffery had been their primary target. The presence and potential of Carson Wentz had helped to persuade him to accept a one-year contract, to bet that Wentz would allow him to unleash the best of himself. The two built enough comfort, enough of a rapport together, that the Eagles, in turn, bet on Jeffery, signing him to a four-year extension … little more than a week before Wentz tore his left ACL against the Rams on Dec. 10.
The irony, then, of Jeffery’s value to the Eagles is he has been at his best with Foles – when Foles has gone his way. He caught the first touchdown pass that Foles threw after replacing Wentz, in the win over the Giants that clinched the NFC East title, and he caught two against the Vikings in that remarkable NFC championship game rout. He has provided what the Eagles have lacked, really, since DeSean Jackson: a dynamic playmaker on the outside. Jackson, of course, lent the Eagles’ offense a game-breaking speed receiver. Jeffery is something else entirely: a receiver who isn’t covered even when he is covered, a former basketball star who lifts off for a pass as if he is skying for a rebound, as if anything that requires him to go airborne is as natural to him as walking.
“He made the game so much easier,” said Zam Fredrick, Jeffery’s high school basketball coach. “He just had a knack of knowing what to do and when to do it. That was his gift.”
On Thursday, during the Eagles’ final media availability before the Super Bowl, Jeffery sat alone at a table, wearing a black knit hat and dark sunglasses. He was inside a dimly lit conference room, and his attire gave him the look of a cool cat, unworried about what lay ahead, the immortality at hand. It was why he had chosen Philadelphia and the Eagles, the possibilities.
“Coming from St. Matthews, Calhoun County High School, Liberty Street … ups and downs,” he said. “But hey, none of that matters now. None of that matters.”
So on Sunday night, when Jake Elliott’s championship-clinching 46-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, Alshon Jeffery sprinted down the Eagles’ sideline, his right index finger raised in the air, with no need to settle for anything modest anymore.