Airborne Best has better landing in sight

VALLEJO, Calif. – Jahvid Best closed in on the end zone, saw a defender knifing toward his knees and did what any ridiculously talented running back on the verge of NFL millions would do: He launched himself upward and over the goal line, a spectacular touchdown even by his skewed standards.

Half a minute later, California Memorial Stadium was eerily silent – Best, Cal's star junior halfback, lay motionless on his back after a horrific upside-down landing, his helmet having been dislodged on impact. As her son lay unconscious last November in the second quarter of a loss against Oregon State, Lisa Best did what any protective parent would do: She blazed a path downward through the stands and onto the field, ignoring a security official's instructions to wait until he had received clearance from his superiors.

"There was no way anybody was going to stop me," Lisa Best said last week. "I apologized to [the official] later; I know he was just doing his job. But I had to be with my son. I guess I always thought that I would really go crazy if he ever got hurt like that, but I prayed literally from the top of the stands until I got down to the field, and I was unbelievably calm."

Lisa's prayers were answered: Jahvid was conscious and able to move his extremities by the time she reached him.

On Tuesday, he was airborne once more – on a flight to New York City, where he'll be one of the players attending the 2010 NFL draft.

Though Best isn't a lock to go in Thursday night's first round – meaning he could be in for a televised green-room sweating session akin to that endured five years ago by former Golden Bears quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) – the 21-year-old accepted the invitation about half a second after it was extended by analyst and former Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt.

"My answer was 'yes' right away," Best recalled last Tuesday at a restaurant near his parents' home. "[Brandt] told me I might not get picked on Thursday, and I said, 'You don't have to tell me anymore. I don't care if I don't get drafted until Saturday.' It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and there was no way I could turn that down."

Best had visits with the New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots, and isn't expected to last beyond the early part of the second round. A good student with impeccable character – former Cal tackle Mike Tepper says he's "one of those guys you'd let your sister date" – Best hopes to emulate 2009 NFL rushing champion Chris Johnson as an elusive breakaway threat.

"I love the guy," one NFL head coach says of Best. "He's one-cut-and-go personified, and I absolutely think that speed will translate to our level. I get excited watching him on tape … probably a little too excited."

Best, who clocked the fastest official time (4.35 seconds) among running backs in February's NFL scouting combine, grew up dreaming of athletic stardom on an even grander scale. A two-time participant in the national Junior Olympics – he won the 200-meter dash in 2005 – Best spent his childhood fantasizing about gold medals.

He thought about playing football as early as the third grade, at one point securing the support of his father, David. Lisa, however, wasn't so easy to convince.

"My mom said, 'No go,' " Jahvid remembers. "She told me I could play when I got to high school – and I used to bug her every year to try to get her to change her mind. She was praying that by the time I got to high school, I would drop it."

Says Lisa: "I was nervous about it, but once I saw that nobody could really catch him, I calmed down."

After winning a California state sprinting championship with a fracture in his foot, Best arrived in Berkeley and made an instant impact. Early in his first collegiate game, Best ran the wrong way and got blasted by Tennessee linebacker Rico McCoy – a quintessential welcome-to-major-college-football moment. On the next play, Best burst into the secondary and ran 34 yards. He made the All-Pac-10 first team as a special teamer – he was the Bears' gunner on kick coverage, registering 12 tackles and a fumble recovery – but missed the final three games after suffering a season-ending hip fracture against Southern California.

At the time, there was some concern that Best's injury might have been similar to what ended the career of former two-sport star Bo Jackson, resulting in a hip replacement. That fear turned out to be unfounded. But despite a breakout sophomore season that featured 1,587 rushing yards and seven 60-yard-plus runs, Best continued to be hounded by health concerns. He sustained an elbow dislocation while bracing himself on a fall early in the '08 season against Colorado State and, after sitting out the next game, played the rest of the year with a bulky brace.

There was also the big hit he took from Maryland's Kevin Barnes(notes) in the '08 opener which resulted in Best vomiting in Gatorade-inspired hues on national TV – an image that quickly went viral on the Internet.

"That kind of died down," Best says, laughing, "ever since I got the concussion."

Best, a Heisman Trophy candidate coming into his junior season, sent a sick feeling through the stomachs of football fans across the country with his ill-fated leap against the Beavers, which turned out to be the last play of his college career.

After taking a direct snap and sweeping outside toward the left sideline, Best hurdled Oregon State cornerback Tim Clark, who had come in low. He says he never saw Beavers safety Cameron Collins racing in from the right side. Collins delivered a hit to the airborne tailback's right hip which launched Best even higher – perhaps a good four feet in the air.

"It threw me off balance," Best remembers. "My body was turning left and the ground was to the right, and I tried to turn but couldn't. I knew I was going to hit the ground hard, and then everything went black."

Said Cal fullback Brian Holley: "It was kind of surreal. I've never seen anybody that high on the field before. As soon as he hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. I looked in his eyes and he was just out cold. It was kind of hard to finish the game with that in the back of your mind."

Best's next memory was lying in a bed in the emergency room of Oakland's Highland Hospital, surrounded by his parents and sister. One of the first questions he asked was, "Did I score?" He watched a replay on his PDA and has seen several since – "Because I was completely knocked out," he reasons, "there aren't any feelings I associate with it, so they don't get brought up when I watch it" – and, despite the concussion and an extremely sore back, started plotting his return.

"I wanted to come back," he says. "But Coach [Jeff] Tedford said, 'There's no way I'm playing you again.' They took my helmet and everything."

Best during the combine
(Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

Two weeks after the injury, Best watched impatiently from the sideline as his close friend and backup, Shane Vereen, carried 42 times for 193 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Stanford. He left school after the fall semester to prepare for the draft – Best, a legal studies major, has promised his parents he'll go back to get his degree – and began answering questions about his durability.

At 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, Best is smaller than most every-down NFL backs, but he scoffs at the notion that he's a health risk.

"It's been a bunch of freak accidents," he insists. "I don't have the ankle, shoulder and knee problems from absorbing the pounding that some backs do. It's just been from me trying to do too much. If I keep myself grounded, I'll be fine."

Despite a recent report that he's still concerned about his past injuries, Best says he'll be the same aggressive runner in the NFL that he was before the Oregon State collision.

"No, I'm not worried about [getting hit again]," he says. "Once I put the pads on and start hitting people and taking hits, it'll all be just like second nature."

Lisa Best, who in the weeks leading up to the concussion had lectured her son about not launching himself into the air, says she's at peace with his career choice.

"Football was something I worried about him playing since he was young," she says, "but I have to put aside my fears and support his passion. I'm excited to see him follow his dreams."

And despite the big rookie contract that likely awaits Jahvid, Lisa has no doubt that he'll stay grounded in a figurative sense.

"When he was in high school, and he became an instant star, some people questioned, 'Will it go to his head?' " she recalls. "I said, 'This is not the type of kid he is.' He hasn't changed yet, and I know he will always remain humble."