How Alabama star Jerry Jeudy overcame tragedy to become an NFL draft gem

Jerry Jeudy's NFL draft profile (1:02)

Jerry Jeudy is considered to be one of the best wide receivers to ever play at Alabama. Whose helmet will he put on next? (1:02)

THE PARTY WAS set for South Florida on April 23, the first night of the NFL draft and the last hours before Jerry Jeudy turns 21. The thought of being in Las Vegas for the draft never really appealed to Jeudy. There wasn't a big enough table, nor were there enough hotel accommodations, for all the people he wanted to invite.

His mom, Marie, would make the food, with a Caribbean flair to honor their Haitian roots. It was her night too. She had scrimped to support the family through the years, selling purses and lotions out of her car to supplement her paycheck. "When I get older," Jeudy used to tell his mom, "I'm going to buy you a house." They didn't know that football would change their lives someday.

His older sister, Diane Constant, was put in charge of party planning because, let's face it, Jeudy is uncomfortable making a big deal of himself -- sort of the antithesis of a typical wide receiver's personality.

But Jeudy has reason to brag. More than 60 wide receivers are up for grabs in this year's draft, an unprecedented glut of talent, and Jeudy is possibly the best of them. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects that up to seven receivers could be taken in the first round, which would tie an NFL record in the common draft era (since 1967), and that doesn't even tell the story of the sheer volume of talent at the position. Some analysts believe 20 of the first 100 players selected -- yes, 20% -- will be receivers.

"These guys are a bunch of Randy Mosses," says one NFL talent evaluator who wished to remain anonymous, "just phenomenal athletes that are going to change the game from the standpoint of how many there are." Jeudy, his Alabama teammate Henry Ruggs III and Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb are expected to be the first wideouts off the board.

So for Jeudy's family, there was much to do. His sister was in the middle of searching for a party venue on April 1 when she saw a news alert: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was issuing a stay-at-home order for the state because of the coronavirus pandemic. There would be no party. No red carpet on the water at the Fountains at Bellagio either, as the NFL announced a move to a virtual-draft format a few days later.

"It's a bummer that it can't be as big as we initially wanted it to be," Constant says as she navigates a family group chat to figure out a Plan B. "But honestly, as long as Jerry is doing what he loves and the people who matter the most are around, that's all that matters."

Regardless of how the names are called, the 2020 NFL draft offers hope for a family that has struggled and survived with one lingering reality: No matter how many people surround them, there will always be one person missing.

FOR THE FIRST half of his life, Jerry was the baby of the family, which led to his siblings calling him a mama's boy. Jeudy never minded that. "I am a mama's boy," he says.

His parents divorced when Jeudy was young, and he became his mom's little right-hand man. Marie came to the U.S. from Haiti when she was 14, and every summer, she would take her kids back there for what Constant called "a humbling experience."

"Back home, they don't have as much, but they make the most of what they do have," she says. "Their values are all about the family, church, home and school." Those values led Marie to keep a tight grip on Jeudy. She did not want him playing outside, and she especially did not want her baby getting beaten up in a football game. So Jeudy waited and eventually snuck out of the house when his mom was at work.

Local kids played pickup games on a narrow road between houses that they called "Back Street." Space was limited, so they had to learn to improvise. One of the more elusive street ball players was a young man named Lamar Jackson. The future Ravens quarterback taught Jeudy some moves. He taught him how to juke.

"The same things he's doing now he was doing when he was younger," Jeudy says.

Marie eventually found out about her son's outdoor exploits. But when she saw how much he loved playing football, she relented. By this time, Jeudy was no longer the baby of the family. He had a little sister named Aaliyah. She was born premature and had to stay in the hospital for months afterward. The first time Constant went to the hospital to see her, tiny Aaliyah was hooked up to machines. Constant asked the doctor if her sister was going to be OK. The doctor was incredulous. Didn't your mom tell you?

Aaliyah had been diagnosed with trisomy 18, a rare condition that causes severe developmental delays because of an extra chromosome 18, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Babies with trisomy 18 have a 10% chance of reaching their first birthday.

"We didn't have a computer at home," Constant says, "so I went to the library at school and I looked up her condition and saw what it is and that most kids don't live past 1. I broke down in tears. I was crying hysterically."

Marie refused to believe the physicians' grim diagnosis. In Haitian Creole, she said, Ou se yon doktè men ou pa dye. You're a doctor, but you're not God.

Aaliyah eventually went home, and she beat the odds. She had tubes to help her breathe and eat, and home nurses to help her live. But Aaliyah was happy and cried only when she was in pain. Jeudy called his little sister "Lulu." He doted over her. When the home nurses weren't around, he'd suction the mucus out of a tube in her throat.

"She changed my life a lot," Jeudy says. "She taught me how to fight through adversity."

Football was a good distraction for Jeudy, and South Florida was always full of competition. His freshman year, he attended Monarch High in Coconut Creek. His teammates were Calvin and Riley Ridley, future NFL receivers. The team was so loaded that it was the talk of Broward County. A coaching change eventually led Jeudy to transfer to Deerfield Beach, and now it was his turn to show what he could do. Jeudy, who is 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds, wasn't much of a physical presence at that point, more a thin tangle of long arms and legs. But his new coach, Jevon Glenn, knew who he was. And he knew he could be great.

He watched Jeudy effortlessly stop and start on his routes, sticking his foot in the ground and accelerating with little wasted motion. "That's a God-given ability you can't teach," Glenn says. He saw Jeudy shake defenders with ankle-breaking jukes. But Jeudy was also young and carried a happy-go-lucky demeanor.

"He was fortunate enough to play with Calvin Ridley and Riley Ridley and always kind of took that Little Jerry mindset," Glenn says. "The biggest thing was letting him know he had a chance to be elite, that he would soon be Big Jerry."

Before his junior season, he told Glenn, "Coach, I want to be the best receiver in the country." Jeudy changed his nutrition and sleep habits and studied cut-ups of other receivers. He practiced his juke moves in between classes, squaring up students walking in the opposite direction like they were defensive backs. "He probably scared most of them," Glenn says.

Junior year, Jeudy went to the Under Armour Future 50 Experience. Deion Sanders was coaching the defensive backs, and Jeudy, according to Glenn, was "killing them." Sanders started chirping at Jeudy.

"We're a hard-nosed program," Glenn says. "We don't blow smoke up our kids' behinds. I called one of my assistants and said, 'Jerry is for real. He's the best player here.'"

Former All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson drove 30 miles to Deerfield Beach one Friday night just to watch Jeudy play. To Johnson, it was almost like looking at a younger version of himself, from the route running to the elite footwork and sure hands.

"There's an 'it' factor that certain players have where they stand out and you can tell they're going to be special," he says. "He had it early. He was ice." Jeudy caught 76 passes for 1,054 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior year and was a four-star recruit.

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, Deerfield Beach defeated Atlantic to reach the Class 8A state semifinals. His older brother Terry, with whom he was very close, found Jerry on the field after the game. Terry had heartbreaking news: 7-year-old Aaliyah, who for so long had defied the odds of her ailments, had died. Jeudy broke down and cried.

In the days that followed, Jeudy's coach told him it was OK if he didn't want to play in the next game. Family first, Glenn said. "Coach, this is my family," Jeudy told him. He said football was the only thing that could take his mind off the grief.

Jeudy posted a picture of Aaliyah on Twitter. She was wearing an oxygen cannula across her face in the photo. "I swear I'm going to make it for you and mommy," he tweeted.

"It wasn't easy," Jeudy says, "but at the same time, she was suffering from all the things she was going through, like the things she can't do. She can't walk, she can't talk, but now I feel like she has a better place where she can do what she wants to do.

"She can walk, she can talk, she can be whatever she wants. Now she's not suffocating on this earth."

WHEN IT CAME to college, Jeudy pretty much had his choice of programs, but he was motivated by one thing. "I wanted to be a champion," he says. Most coaches were promising him he'd start as a freshman; Jeudy liked that Nick Saban was the only one who wasn't. The Alabama coach told him he'd have the opportunity to play as a freshman.

Leaving wouldn't be easy. He was used to leaning on his family, especially after Aaliyah's death, but after finishing his high school coursework a semester early, he was headed to Tuscaloosa, 11½ hours from home. Jeudy would be OK. He put a picture of Aaliyah in a Star of David pendant (the same pendant that caused a stir at the combine in February when Jeudy said he wore it because people call him "Jeu," which sounds like "Jew"). When he looks at it, he says, "she's right there."

Marie would drive long hours to watch her son play. Only Jeudy wasn't playing as much as he'd hoped. The depth chart was crowded with young talent, but the person getting most of the touches was his old friend Calvin Ridley, who was now a junior and one of the most explosive wideouts in college football. Jeudy had spent his childhood watching and learning from Ridley, and now he had to do it again.

He'd occasionally call his high school coach to vent his frustrations. But Jeudy was mostly interested in trying to prove his worth. It wasn't easy. In addition to Jeudy, Alabama also signed Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith in the Class of 2017, a who's who list of future NFL wideouts.

"I'd say the chemistry with my receivers has developed because we all came in together," former Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa told reporters at the NFL combine. "There'd be times where just us three -- Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jerry -- would just go in by ourselves and we'd run routes and we'd throw to one other hoping we'd get an opportunity to play our freshman year. We did, and it just developed from there."

The third game of Jeudy's sophomore season, he had three catches for 136 yards against Ole Miss. His wait was over. He scored an SEC-leading 14 touchdowns and won the Biletnikoff Award that season.

Last season, Jeudy did not win the Biletnikoff; his 1,163 yards and 10 touchdowns were down from '18, a byproduct of the logjam of elite receivers on Alabama's roster. But Jeudy's 26 career touchdowns put him second on Alabama's all-time list, behind Amari Cooper.

Just like Cooper and Ridley, Jeudy knew he was ready to move on.

Three days after he caught six passes for 204 yards in a victory over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, Jeudy announced he was declaring for the NFL draft. Ruggs did the same a few days later.

Jeudy recently worked out in Fort Lauderdale with Chad Johnson, Ravens receiver Marquise "Hollywood" Brown and Hollywood's troubled cousin, Antonio Brown. Jeudy also caught passes from his old friend Lamar Jackson.

A number of NFL players reside in South Florida, and with OTAs suspended indefinitely, many of them were looking for a place to train. Miami is a well-known hotbed for receivers, and there's a camaraderie among them.

Johnson makes it clear that he's not training Jeudy. "We're just working," he says. Though they're often compared to each other, their personalities are obviously different. Johnson is a Hall of Fame trash-talker who once famously raced a horse. Jeudy says "sir" and "ma'am" a lot, and the closest he comes to trash-talking is in practice, when he might tell a teammate, in the heat of competition, "You can't guard me." Jeudy doesn't know why he's this way; talking just isn't part of his game.

Johnson says that's OK: "That comes from within. If that's not you, then you don't do it."

But he has big predictions for Jeudy, including that he'll be the first receiver selected in the draft.

"He will win Rookie of the Year," Johnson says. "He's different. I mean, special."

JEUDY WILL NOT have a ballroom on April 23. He'll spend draft day with his tight family circle. At some point, football will be back, and Jeudy plans to buy his mom that house and a white Range Rover.

"She's my mama," he says. "She do everything for me. Now it's time for me to do everything for her."

He has plenty to keep his hands full in the meantime. His daughter was born on March 27. He shared a picture of her recently on Instagram. She's sleepy-eyed and decked out in pink. To the right of the picture is her name.

Journee Aaliyah Jeudy.