Jeris Pendleton could write a book on what not to do to make it to the NFL, but somehow, against all odds, he did. He isn't a household name, and he might never be, but his story is one of lifelong challenge and triumph. He's one of the most inspiring people I've ever met.
Jeris was a highly recruited LB from Chicago's famed Dunbar High School who committed to play at Michigan State. Unfortunately, he never set foot in Lansing. He was ineligible by a long shot. Jeris and his girlfriend were also expecting their first child. He decided he needed to support his new family and go right into the workforce.
After missing out on playing football after college, Jeris took whatever jobs he could to support his family. From housekeeping at a nursing home for $5.20/hour to a construction job he lost, he continued to struggle with the fact that he had never pursued his dream of playing in college. Seeing his former high school opponent and current Chicago Bear Kelvin Hayden playing on TV, he decided it was time to go back to school. After receiving the support of his then girlfriend, now wife, he decided to enroll at Joliet Junior College near his home in Chicago. He thought he could play tight end or linebacker like he did in high school, but that 225-pound 18-year-old now weighed over 300 pounds. After a "tryout" with the team, he was quickly moved to the defensive line, where he began showing his impressive talent.
That's when I first learned of Jeris. I was assistant defensive backs coach at Ashland University, a Division II school in Ohio, when then-Offensive Coordinator Mike Bath, currently at Wyoming, began raving about this "kid" from JJC. After popping in the video, I didn't need much more convincing. Jeris could flat-out play. The issue now was eligibility for school. We knew he wasn't going to be eligible to play Division I, and we weren't sure he could make it in Division II either. After leaving Joliet in June, he still was not eligible. He still had to pass 5 credits and was working on a limited budget. But Jeris was able to enroll in online classes at two different schools. On the Thursday before the season opener—six years after high school and three schools later—Jeris was finally eligible to play.
Once he hit the field, there was no question about his talent, but would NFL scouts see him play, or would they shy away from a 28-year-old rookie? All 32 teams passed through Ashland to watch film, take in practice, or attend a game. That still wasn't enough for Jeris. He had no Pro Day and he struggled to get into other local college Pro Days. On a whim, his agent got him into Northwestern for their workout. He did nothing but impress every scout in attendance. Weighing nearly 325, he ran an unofficial 40 time of 4.95. But a strong workout didn't guarantee he'd get drafted or brought into an NFL camp.
Before the draft, Jeris's agent talked to numerous teams that had expressed interest, making draft weekend a stressful one. Jeris still didn't know if he would be drafted or end up as a free agent invite to a camp. Free agents get no guaranteed money and often struggle just to make the team. In the 7th round, with the 228th pick, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him. His dream finally came true.
Many say the NFL stands for "Not For Long." Jeris was, and is, out to fight that. After making the Jags roster in 2012, he was cut in the off-season. The Cowboys called and brought him into their camp this past summer. After an injury, he was again cut. On December 3, 2013, he was added to the Colts' practice. Just 3 weeks later, he got on the active roster and played during the Colts' final regular-season game against his former team from Jacksonville. He then played a significant role in both Colts playoff games.
Learn From Jeris
Jeris's story is far from over and his struggle to stay in the NFL may continue, but he gives us all hope. We all have challenges and go through struggles. Although Jeris made his share of poor decisions, his tenacity, optimism, and determination are worthy of the record books.
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