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Here's the story of Jeremy Mincey's athletic career, in one short scene:
It's 2001. He's a high school junior in Statesboro, Ga., and he says he can play point guard for his school basketball team. The head coach, Lee Hill, does not think Mincey, a bulky forward, can play the position, and he's tired of hearing about it.
"He wasn't quick or agile enough to be no point guard," Hill says now.
The coach tells Mincey, "You want to play point guard? You play against this boy right here."
Hill points to the starting point guard, a kid named Ryan.
"You beat this boy one-on-one, then you can play point guard."
Hill stands back and watches Mincey, too slow and too big, beat the starting point guard at one-on-one.
So did the coach let Mincey play point guard?
"No. I didn't," Hill says. "No way."
Move ahead nearly 15 years and Mincey is brought in to the Dallas Cowboys' locker room in 2014 to replace DeMarcus Ware. To pretty much everyone in the NFL, this is a colossal downgrade. Ware is one of the best linemen playing, and he was a staple of the Cowboys' defense. Mincey, who had floated from team to team and been cut several times, looks like, at best, a stopgap.
"The fire was lit," Mincey says. "I heard people say, 'They're gonna be 3-13.' I took it personal."
The Cowboys won the NFC East and won a playoff game. No doubt the leading reasons were Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and that offensive line, but Mincey's place as a defensive anchor was a big part of the resurgence. And he was an even bigger part of what went on in the locker room. Head coach Jason Garrett made the new guy a captain before the first preseason game, and tight end Jason Witten called on Mincey to make a pregame speech before Week 1.
Less than a year later, Mincey arrived this week at OTAs and he is surrounded by defensive teammates with all sorts of off-field issues: Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain and Randy Gregory to name a few. The team placed Hardy's locker next to Mincey's, and the veteran has even brought the new guy into his music studio where he records songs the Cowboys quote in the locker room. It's Mincey who is trusted to mentor and hold this group together. It's Mincey who has become one of the most important Cowboys in what has become a most important season.
"Mincey," Hardy has already asked, "how'd you get to 10 years in the league?"
Same way he beat the point guard in high school.
Jeremy Mincey lies to the eyes a little bit. He exudes jolly, with a round face and a sheepish grin. While players like Hardy can appear intense even at rest, Mincey seems less "Release the Kraken" and more "Release the Wisecracks." He even has a music career on the side, and opened up for L'il Wayne once in Jacksonville.
But Mincey can be quite serious inside, especially about the lessons he learned growing up. "I've been arrested a few times," he says of his youth. "I've been sitting in a jailhouse."
He even spent time in a reform school during junior high. Growing up in Statesboro was not easy, as Hill says Mincey was "a really poor kid." There were times when the coach knew Mincey couldn't get a ride to practice, and yet he showed up anyway, having walked for miles.
Mincey was a cut-up in class, and for a long time he indulged in it.
"When you're from poverty, you do a lot of things because you want attention," he said. "My personality was my niche in life. Sometimes I would sacrifice my relationship with a teacher to win the class over."
Then one of his coaches pulled him aside and told him his personality was power. If he acted right, others would follow. If he didn't, others would fail. Mincey thought about that for a while and then decided to straighten up – just to see what would happen.
"I came into class, and I decided to be a quiet, studious person," he said. "And the class was really good. It blew my mind."
That was in ninth grade. Mincey's leadership career began two years before his football career.
The problem was Mincey was about as convincing on the field when he started playing as a junior as he was on the basketball court. Which is to say: not at all.
"I didn't know if he played a down in his life," says longtime Statesboro football coach Steve Pennington, "because he didn't know what to do. When it came to technique and basic fundamentals, you wondered, would he ever be able to make it?"
Mincey had trouble reading his blocker, and that frustrated Pennington to no end, as reading was the key to the entire pass rush. And yet just like when Hill put Mincey in front of a point guard, Pennington marveled when he put Mincey in front of his best offensive lineman: he won almost every battle.
"I've been coaching 35 years," Pennington says. "There have not been many who have come across with his demeanor."
Pennington ended up devising a "Jeremy Mincey Rule": the other rushers would have to read the blocking scheme, but Mincey could just haul after the quarterback.
Mincey became captain of his football team and his basketball team. "He's a light in darkness," Patterson says. "It brings a sense of confidence to everybody else. That's what he does. He makes others feel better about themselves."
That, however, didn't undo all the poor first impressions he made on the field. Mincey had to go to junior college before coming to star for the Florida Gators under Urban Meyer. He worked his way to second-team all-SEC and graduated, but NFL teams didn't buy in. The New England Patriots drafted him in 2006 at 191 overall – nearly the same slot where they took Tom Brady years before. But Brady lasted; Mincey was cut in August. A week later, the San Francisco Niners picked him up and promptly dropped him.
Mincey was signed by Jacksonville in 2006 and waived in August of 2007. The Jags signed him again, and he played well, only to get injured and miss most of 2008. He was 27 years old with only nine games of regular-season experience.
"I was tired of getting cut," Mincey remembered. "I walked into Jack Del Rio's office with tears in my eyes. I said I could be as good as any of these other players, just give me a chance, put me on [the] practice squad."
The Jags signed him yet again in 2010 and placed him behind No. 1 draft pick Derrick Harvey. That was the new version of the starting high school point guard, and Mincey beat him. He led the team in sacks that year and the year after. Then, after signing a four-year contract worth about $20 million in 2012, a new coaching and personnel staff came in and soon he was let go again. There was a report of a missed meeting, and Mincey admitted to reporters he was "negligent as a football player and a role model." But again it was the same old story: there were higher expectations for more talented players.
"They were trying to start something different," Mincey says.
Del Rio quickly grabbed him in Denver, and again Mincey over-delivered: Von Miller blew out his knee and Mincey stepped in and helped the team reach the Super Bowl. He even got a text from Jacksonville coaches saying they had always believed in him. Again it led to little in the way of job security; the Broncos didn't keep him and he wound up in Dallas.
He was supposed to be a reserve.
Mincey will be 32 in December, coming off a season where he had six sacks in 16 regular-season starts. Somehow this is one of his first off-seasons without any doubt about his role in Week 1. He's important now, on the field and off. He's proven, entering the final season of a two-year deal in Dallas. Now those around him are unproven.
"We got a bunch of tough son of a guns," he said. "We got some cats salivating. Last year, we built the culture. But last year's not this year. You gotta recreate it."
That means being in the ear of Hardy and Gregory and others.
"You let them know this right here: It takes work to be here," Mincey said. "I've gotten first-round draft picks cut. I've been back of the line, back in the back of the line. Nobody's gonna give you nothing."
It's a lesson he's learned repeatedly in his life, and now it's given him real credibility. Some of the others around him have been given second and third chances, and they need to play as if this is their last chance. That's the way Mincey has learned to play.
"I'm real surprised," said Hill, his old coach. "You never think he'd do what he's doing. Real surprised. You see other kids that should be there and never do get there. He wasn't no helluva athlete now. He had to work hard at it."
It has not been perfect or pretty. Yet Mincey has turned something far from ideal into something close to ideal. He always beat the guy in front of him.
Now he needs to lead the guys behind him.