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Before he was named an All-Pro cornerback, before he was punched by A.J. Green, before he was suspended for s--t-talking the media and then proceeded to s--t-talk the entire NFL, before he stood on the sideline of Jacksonville's field in a splendid shearling coat and predicted, incorrectly, that the Jaguars were going to go to the Super Bowl and "win that bitch" -- before any of those things happened -- Jalen Ramsey sat on a bench and cried.
It was Nov. 20, 2016, and Jacksonville was about to lose to Detroit and drop to a dismal 2-8. With less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the camera lingered on the rookie cornerback for what felt like an eternity. His eyes welled up and he stared into the middle distance, shaking his head like a patient who had just received a devastating prognosis. It was a raw, gutting display of vulnerability and a rare glimpse into an athlete's psyche. While Ramsey is a fount of highlight-worthy plays and oh-no-he-didn't quotes, the shot of him silently weeping during a meaningless game might've been more revealing than anything he's said over the past two years.
Naturally, he was mocked on the internet. And yet: When I ask him why he cried that day in Detroit, he doesn't seem embarrassed in the slightest. "That was a low moment," he says flatly before taking a slurp of his Powerade slush. It's June, and we're sitting across from each other in a Sonic Drive-In in Smyrna, Tennessee, the sleepy Nashville suburb where Ramsey grew up. "It was like, 'This is getting old. Don't nobody care. Maybe I shouldn't care too.'"
But of course he continued to care. Which is why, when he looks back at the experience, he isn't ashamed. He tried. He desperately wanted to win. So he cried, because he was devastated and felt no need to conceal his emotions, just as he's never felt compelled to conceal any part of himself.
"I don't really care what people think about me, to be honest," he says. "At. All."
Such pronouncements -- You can't hurt me! -- typically draw skepticism, and rightfully so. No one drives through life with blackout windows; most of us are affected, in some way or another, by the love and hate we encounter in others. But the more time I spend with Jalen Ramsey, the more I realize he isn't like most people. If legendary cornerback Darrelle Revis was an island on the field, the 23-year-old Jaguar is an island off it, a self-governing state that refuses to engage in diplomacy with the outside world. As a player, his hermetically sealed brain elevates his game to extraordinary heights. As a person, it can make things complicated.
THE FACT THAT Ramsey is famous at all is a small miracle. He's a cornerback who plays in a tiny market; if he's in the news, it's usually because he's a reliable purveyor of juicy sound bites, often batting back reporters' queries with quotes that are perfectly tailored for aggregation and televised debate. Since he was drafted fifth in 2016, Ramsey has talked a city landfill's worth of trash, the likes of which the league hasn't seen since Steve Smith Sr. hung up his mouthguard. (As a rookie, Ramsey called the legendary wide receiver an "old man.")
As a result, when we meet earlier in the day, at a Logan's Roadhouse in Smyrna, I'm prepared for the second coming of Deion Sanders. But Ramsey rolls in quietly, his longtime girlfriend, Breanna Tate, in tow. I don't know what I expected -- a WWE-style entrance? A Deion-esque ensemble? -- but this isn't it: He's dressed plainly, in sweats, and he slips wordlessly into a booth. Ramsey brushes a few peanut shells off the table and regards me suspiciously, as though we're lined up across from each other on the field. When I ask him if he likes doing interviews, he scrunches his nose. "As long as they're not boring," he says.
He grew up less than 10 minutes from here in a modest home where his father, a firefighter, still lives. "It's hella country," he says. "If you go five minutes any type of way, you're around cows, horses, fields, barns." While he talks, Tate studies the menu. She's extremely petite and extremely pregnant. (In late July, she'll give birth to their daughter, Breelyn.) "I plan on having, like, five kids," Ramsey says.
Tate sighs. "I wanted four, he wanted six," she says.
Ramsey grins. "The Lord said be fruitful and multiply."
The two attended the same high school; like Ramsey, whose father and older brother played college football, Tate, who ran track at Ole Miss, comes from an athletic family. Her older brother is Golden Tate, a Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Lions. When I ask Ramsey if he's ever matched up against Golden, who is seven years older than he is, he shakes his head. "Yeah, he wouldn't want that."
Would he give you any trouble?
"None at all."
Golden's pretty fast.
"Not fast enough."
Tate rolls her eyes and smiles gently, like someone hearing a child tell a knock-knock joke for the ninth time.
Ramsey was prone to roughhousing as a boy; his mother, Margie, would panic when she'd pick him up from day care and notice that his arms were covered with bruises from crashing into things. I ask him when he first thought he'd play in the NFL. "Out the womb," he says, cutting into a piece of steak. I laugh. He doesn't.
Ramsey's 27-year-old brother, Jamal, thinks Jalen was unusually confident at a young age because he grew up tagging along with him, which forced Jalen to keep up with older boys. He was also relentlessly competitive. "He's the biggest sore loser," says Jamal, a firefighter. "If you'd beat him at a game, he'd kick you out of his room." Whenever Jalen was losing at Monopoly, he says, he would jumble up the paper money and insist that it was impossible to tell who was winning. Jamal laughs. "I'm surprised he had friends."
Few are spared. Recently, Tate tells me, Ramsey was playing basketball with his 9-year-old nephew and the kid's friends. "He was dunking on them," she says. Later, Ramsey's mother stepped onto the court. He dunked on her too.
By the time Ramsey entered high school, his talent was undeniable, but he was just 5-foot-3. Surely then, I say, he didn't think he was the best player in Tennessee. "I didn't think -- I was," he retorts. Aside from baseball, which he says he lacks the coordination for, he's excelled at every sport he's ever tried. He picked up lacrosse for a season and, once he figured out how to handle the stick, ran circles around the competition. ("There's not a lot of black people who do it," he says, smiling.) He's never tried skating, but if he trained for six months, he says, he could probably crack the NHL.
At first I thought Ramsey was self-mythologizing. But as he recounts his athletic exploits, it becomes clear that his unshakable confidence stems from lived experience. He's cocky as hell because he's never been humbled by failure. At 5, he was the strongest, fastest kid in his neighborhood. At 10, he was the best football player in the region. At 15 ... You get the idea.
After knee surgery and a well-timed growth spurt, Ramsey was widely recruited, ultimately landing at Florida State. He started from day one, the first Florida State cornerback to start as a true freshman since Sanders. "I expected to, and Coach [Jeremy] Pruitt expected me to," he says of his defensive coordinator. "Nobody else did." The obvious omission is former head coach Jimbo Fisher, now at Texas A&M. In February, when an A&M assistant tweeted a graphic touting Fisher's record with defensive backs, Ramsey clapped back online: "He didn't teach me not one DB technique ..."
Ramsey describes Fisher, with uncharacteristic brevity, as "OK." I tell him I've never met the coach. "You're not missing out," he replies. During Ramsey's sophomore year, Fisher once reamed him out after he pushed a blocker into quarterback Jameis Winston, kicking him out of practice. When I bring up the incident, Ramsey starts fiddling with his phone. "Here it is -- I've got the video," he says. He also saved a screenshot of the SportsCenter news alert.
FSU's defensive coordinator that year, Charles Kelly, now works on Pruitt's staff at Tennessee, coaching special teams and safeties. He downplays Ramsey's ejection ("He was competing on a play -- he doesn't know but one speed") and says Ramsey's personality was perfect for his position. "You've got to be the most mentally tough person on the field," he says. "If you make a mistake, everybody in the stands knows it." Great cornerbacks, Kelly says, have big egos and short memories; they possess a singular ability to block out noise.
In other words: They think like Jalen Ramsey.
BY THE TIME we drive to Sonic, the humidity is stifling, but we sit outside anyway. "This was our spot in high school after every game, every track meet," Ramsey says. After inhaling his slush, he orders a pony-keg-sized cookie dough milkshake for himself and some ice for Tate to chew on. When I speculate that he's consuming extra calories to support her pregnancy, he laughs. "I'm pregnant too!" he says.
I ask Ramsey what he did to piss off A.J. Green. Last season, when the Jaguars were playing the Bengals, the cornerback buzzed around the famously soft-spoken wide receiver like a 6-1 mosquito, jawing away for the better part of the first half. Then, with less than 20 seconds left, Green snapped; after Ramsey shoved him, he whipped around and attacked the younger player, punching him in the head like an aggrieved older brother. Both players were ejected.
"I called him soft, called him a punk," Ramsey says. "Talked to him. Said whatever I wanted to say. Did whatever I wanted to do." He snorts. "Receivers are, like, naturally soft. So sensitive."
On the field, Ramsey seems driven purely by his id, but there's a method to the madness he provokes. "It gets them out of their game, and it gets me into my game more. If I'm talking smack, I gotta back it up." He claims he largely avoids personal insults (in college, he used to sift through Instagram for opposition research on receivers' significant others), instead providing running commentary on the game -- mocking poorly run routes and QB preferences, sort of like a disrespectful Cris Collinsworth. "That gets under people's skin more than anything," he says. "I'm not clowning -- I'm talking facts. Yelling out their stats."
How do you monitor their statistics during the game?
"It's easy to keep track of, like, one catch for 6 yards," he says. (Later, I check the box score from the Bengals game. Green had ... one catch for 6 yards.)
When pressed, Ramsey doles out praise as gamely as insults. He's a fan of Antonio Brown -- "He's easily the best receiver in the NFL. Easily," he says -- and DeAndre Hopkins. "He's had freaking 100 quarterbacks -- all trash," he says. "I could be his quarterback. I could literally be his quarterback." When Ramsey says "literally," his drawl seeps into the word and it expands like a sponge: "liiiiht-er-uh-ly." (Hopkins returns the praise, calling Ramsey one of the best defensive players in the league. He adds, smiling: "He's probably the most talkative cornerback in the NFL.")
In general, Ramsey continues, fans underestimate the effect that quarterback play has on wide receivers. For example, he says, look at Danny Amendola, who just signed with Miami. "Or is it Edelman?" he asks out loud. He mulls it over. No -- he's thinking of Amendola. "He just got a brand-new contract and he is terrible," he says. "People think he's so great. No, he's not. Tom [Brady] made him look good. Tom could take me as a receiver and I'd be a first-team All-Pro."
When I mention that the Patriots still have All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, he makes a face. "I don't think Gronk's good." Registering my involuntary blinking, he course-corrects. "Let me say -- I don't think Gronk is as great as people think he is." Before the Patriots game, he explains, he had the Jaguars' analytics staffers pull some numbers for him. "Any time Gronk has been matched up with a corner, he's had a very bad game -- and that corner has had a very good game." (Gronk has performed much better when lined up in the slot than he has on the perimeter, where he's more likely to encounter elite corners -- his catch rate drops from 71 percent to 56 percent, which is lower than that of the average NFL tight end.)
I ask him what Gronk did in the AFC championship. "Literally nothing. He may have had, like, one catch," he says. (Ramsey is correct, though Gronkowski left before halftime because of a concussion.)
NFL players spend their Sundays trying to grind their opponents' bones into dust, but if you corner them during the week, they're typically wary of putting those adversaries on blast. The reasons for this omertà are complex. Some don't want to risk awkward locker room encounters; every foe on the field could be a teammate next season. Others are wary of setting themselves up for public humiliation. Ramsey couldn't care less. He throws shade because it's what he believes; if it motivates a disgruntled quarterback to pass in his direction, well, that would be delightful! (At one point, I ask him what he'd like to improve about his game, and he tells me he can't identify an obvious flaw. "If I had to pick one thing," he says, "I would definitely pick, um, getting the ball more.")
For all the hand-wringing that ensues when someone like Ramsey calls out a rival, the consequences are trivial -- unless they're provoked by friendly fire. Criticizing teammates and coaches in public is a locker room third rail, one Ramsey has touched a few times. As a rookie, he told reporters he thought Jaguars coach Gus Bradley ran an overly simplistic scheme. He sticks by that, though he says he loved Bradley, now the defensive coordinator with the Chargers. "We were just too young and immature for him."
At first, Ramsey was happy to land in Jacksonville, even though he expected Dallas to take him with the No. 4 pick. (He believes that the Cowboys' coaches wanted him but that owner Jerry Jones bigfooted them and grabbed running back Ezekiel Elliott. "I will never play for them," he sniffs, "unless the Joneses leave.") But for much of that 3-13 season, he was miserable. "I wasn't expecting to come into the NFL and essentially be the best person on my team," he says. "This is going to sound really bad, but ... I didn't like that team. They were so used to losing. It didn't affect them."
That offseason, Jacksonville laid the groundwork for a turnaround. The team signed defensive lineman Calais Campbell and also snagged defensive backs A.J. Bouye and Barry Church. Ramsey was thrilled. In Bouye, he says, he finally found a counterpart; the two players spent Thursday nights together at the veteran's house, watching football and exchanging tips. The Jaguars finished 10-6, winning their first division championship in 18 years. But Ramsey wasn't satisfied. "We gotta get it this year -- because next year, we can't keep all those defensive linemen," he says. He tells me he was surprised the team didn't make more moves to bolster the offense. He also thinks the team should've taken a flier on a rookie quarterback.
And there it is again: the third rail. The Jaguars, of course, already have a quarterback, the oft-disparaged Blake Bortles. (Last summer Ramsey liked an Instagram post referencing a story by SB Nation blog Big Cat Country that listed possible replacements under center, stirring up a thimble-sized controversy.) When I ask Ramsey if he believes Bortles can win a Super Bowl, he pooh-poohs the question. "He doesn't need to," he says. By his estimation, the team is strong enough as a whole to go all the way. "The Jaguars can win a Super Bowl with Blake Bortles at quarterback," he says.
And besides: He likes Bortles! He just believes that, contrary to NFL orthodoxy (as it applies to players), criticism and respect aren't mutually exclusive. And while he says Bortles is a little "too chill" compared with the swaggering defense, he thinks that started to change last season. Ramsey points to a moment in the Bengals game when Bortles clashed with Jacksonville's coach, Doug Marrone, over whether to run a play or kneel when the team was up by three scores. "The players liked it," he says, grinning.
Anyone who's ever been part of a team knows there is danger in radical honesty -- that it invites not only hurt feelings but increased scrutiny. But running back Leonard Fournette, who remembers that same moment fondly, says players respect Ramsey because he's unafraid to share his opinions face-to-face. And because, well, he's really good. "It'd be another thing if he talked trash and didn't back it up," Fournette says. "He's a dog. That's who he is."
Later in the summer, I ask Marrone how he views the cornerback's candor. He says that as with any player, he wants Ramsey to learn from his mistakes -- but that he doesn't want him to conform for conformity's sake. "I don't like coaching that way," he says. Marrone also notes that trash-talk is hardly a cardinal sin -- and that Ramsey's takes are often born from preparation. "Before every game, I'll say: 'Tell me about the receiver you're going up against,'" he says. "He's as thorough as anyone I've ever been around."
It's debatable whether Ramsey's bluntness helps or hinders his team. But it's undeniably positive for the NFL. Hollywood is littered with antiheroes, characters who are subversive, impolite and far more watchable than their bland good-guy counterparts. At one point in our conversation, Ramsey mentions that he loved "Black Panther" but says he couldn't relate to the main character. "I'm Killmonger," he says, the movie's villain whose charismatic performance steals the show. It's a role he's come to accept, because for him it isn't a role at all. "A lot of people are gonna hate me before they like me," he says. "I'm perfectly fine with that."
AFTER RAMSEY FINISHES his milkshake, I ask him if I can meet his father. He grabs his phone and calls Lamont, who tells us we can come over as long as we leave before his clients arrive. (He's trained a number of local stars, including Eagles pass rusher Derek Barnett.) When we pull up to the Ramseys' brick house, the garage door is already open, revealing a small collection of weight machines. The man known as Big L ambles outside. Like Jalen, he's tall and built. He's also surprisingly subdued. Based on what I had heard, I expected to meet the second coming of LaVar Ball. But Lamont just seems eager to get back to work.
We sit on benches in the garage. At first, Lamont tells me, he trained only his two sons, "but they were better than everybody else, so everybody wanted to start doing things." Jalen started working out before he began elementary school, doing pushups on his twiggy arms. By the time he was a teenager, he was training three times a week -- after football practice. "Most high schoolers don't work like that," Lamont says.
While most of Ramsey's coaches would probably prefer he keep his mouth shut, they tolerate his chatter because of his talent -- and because of a work ethic that's the stuff of legend among scouts. When the doctor who performed his knee surgery told him it would take a year to recover, the high school sophomore rehabbed twice a day, skipping parties so he could get back on the field in six months. "He still doesn't go to parties," Tate says. Now, instead of spending his summers in Miami or LA, Ramsey returns to this garage in Smyrna, running the nearby hills in a weighted vest.
"We've got guys who say they want to make it to college, and they don't want to do that," Lamont says.
A lot of people are gonna hate me before they like me. I'm perfectly fine with that.- Jalen Ramsey
I ask him if his son was as confident as a boy as he is as an adult. "Yes -- and he verbally let you know it," he says. When Jalen was 5, he would tell Lamont how many touchdowns he'd score before every game (and usually deliver). Big L loved it. "If you don't think you're the best, nobody else is going to think you're the best," he says. Ramsey, who is standing a few feet away and listening, smiles; it's obviously not the first time he's heard those words. When I ask Lamont what he thinks he is the best at, he infuses his response with a honeyed drawl that instantly reminds me of his son:
Jalen makes a face. "Ask him if I beat him in bowling."
"When did you beat me in bowling?" Lamont asks.
"Ever since I was a little kid."
His father snorts. He starts scrolling through the photos on his phone. "I beat my friend so bad ... the guy at the counter gave me a trophy. He saw how bad I was beating everybody." He hands me the phone. I nod, affirming that a picture of the trophy exists.
"Dude, this is fake news," Jalen says.
"Pictures don't lie!" Lamont screams.
Jalen grabs the phone and zooms in on the photo, squealing when he sees the script on the trophy. "Thank you for celebrating your birthday at King Bowl," he reads.
"It was not my birthday," Lamont says.
"It says nothing about being good!" yells his son.
This continues for several minutes. Jalen and Lamont go back and forth, like boxers trading jabs with no intention of hurting each other. Old softball games and cornhole matches are brought up. Family rivalries are rehashed. At one point, I close my eyes and I can't tell the difference between the two men's voices.
Then, just when the debate hits a crescendo, a couple of young men in athletic gear -- Lamont's clients -- trickle into the garage. He turns to me and shakes my hand. "It was nice meeting you," he says, standing up. "Y'all don't gotta go home ... but you gotta get the hell out of here."
WHEN RAMSEY MEETS me a few hours later at a competitive driving range (his suggestion), he has changed clothes: He's still wearing sweats, but he's got a diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist and animal print Nikes on his feet. He buys pizza and wings for the group, then grabs a club. "I'm just showing off," he jokes, hacking at balls as they roll onto the turf. At one point he whiffs on a massive cut, then whirls around to see if anyone noticed.
Along with Ramsey's manager, girlfriend and a couple of family friends, his mother is sitting with us. A lithe, graceful woman, Margie is as soft-spoken as her son is loud; when we chat, I have to lean in to hear her above the music. "Jalen wasn't your typical boy," she says while watching the cornerback perform what appears to be a Happy Gilmore impression. "He was your typical boy times 10."
Like most of Ramsey's loved ones, Margie is quick to point out that her son's tough exterior belies a tender spirit. "He's so worried about me being happy," she whispers after he checks on us for maybe the 10th time to see if we need anything. (Ramsey's tender spirit has its limits; later that night, he posts an Instagram story of the final score that shows me finishing in last place.) "He's always wanted to make everybody else happy."
Among family and friends, Margie says, Ramsey's empathy -- and sensitivity -- shines through. "He's gonna kill me, but ... he's not afraid to show emotion," she says.
I already know this, of course. Along with millions of football fans, I've seen Ramsey cry. I've also heard him explain why he doesn't regret those tears. At a moment when being a star means presenting a carefully manicured image to the world, Ramsey, in all of his s--t-talking, weeping, self-aggrandizing glory, allows us to see him without a filter. It's an approach that doesn't always make things easy for him or the people around him, but it's served him well on the field. "I like to win my own way, and I like to lose my own way," he says. "I believe motivation comes from within."
For example: When I ask if he wants revenge on the Patriots after Jacksonville blew a lead in the AFC championship last season, he scoffs. Like many Jaguars fans, Ramsey believes the refs were biased ("It was clear as day they wanted them to win," he says) and Myles Jack should have been allowed to keep running after he recovered a fumble ("He wasn't down"). But he also thinks his team deserved to lose after softening its game plan in the second half. "People say, 'Y'all should use that as motivation.' No, we shouldn't," he says. "Why should we use it as motivation when we were up on a team and then we -- and the refs -- let them get back into the game?"
While Margie is taking a turn at the tee, Ramsey downs his second strawberry lemonade. He tells me that he likes the Jaguars organization and its owner, Shahid Khan. Last year Ramsey knelt alongside some of his teammates during the national anthem, hoping to call attention to racial injustice. (Throughout preseason this year, Ramsey stayed in the locker room during the anthem.) Looking back, he says, Khan, who locked arms with the standing players, treated the team with respect. "He's the owner who's like, 'These are grown men. We're gonna let them make educated decisions,'" he says.
Ramsey says he'd like to retire a Jaguar. He's building a five-bedroom house near the marsh in Jacksonville -- a home for his growing family. I ask him whether he thinks he'll be the best father in the world, and, for once, he says no. "I'm gonna try to be," he says. "I can just try." He says he wants to build generational wealth so that his children can do what they love, just like their dad. He doesn't see football as a job. "Even if I wasn't being paid, I'd still want to do it," he explains. "It's my dream."
What do you like most about the game?
He sighs. "Literally everything."
Unsurprisingly, he expects to retire as the best cornerback to ever play the game -- better than Sanders, he says, even if some fans refuse to acknowledge it. "But people who know the game of football -- truly know the game of football -- they'll look back and be like: This dude," he says.
I ask him what he expects out of this season. "A Super Bowl," he replies, before bursting into laughter. Sensing my confusion, he smiles. "You knew I was gonna say that," he says. Minutes later, his mother informs him that it's his turn to hit, so he leaps out of his seat and grabs a club, pointing it at the group. "Regard the winner!" he tells us, his grin as incandescent as the skylights behind him. One of his friends points out that the game isn't over. Ramsey doesn't really care.