Welcome to another edition of the Flashback Friday feature on Football Meets Football. This week we’re back to an American footballer, and we will be looking at ‘The Freak’ Jevon Kearse. If you have any suggestions for players you would like to have featured in this article leave a comment on here, on our Facebook page or on our Twitter (@FBmeetsFB).
Jevon Kearse was born on 3rd September 1976 in Fort Myers, Florida. Jevon didn’t have an easy childhood and it was touched by many tragedies. His father, Joseph, had the size and skills to be an athlete but was never given the opportunity and ended up in a life of crime. Sadly he was murdered just before Jevon was born. His grandfather was shot and killed outside of his house while Jevon was a toddler, and he also lost 2 cousins – one was killed in self defence as he attempted to assault someone and another died in prison after being incarcerated for attempted murder.
Fortunately Jevon managed to steer clear of trouble and realised school could be his ticket out. He attended North Fort Myers High School and played both strong safety and tight end for the North Fort Myers Red Knights football team, and during his first season with the team he also returned 4 kickoffs for touchdowns. His senior year would see him record 96 tackles, 6 interceptions and 4 blocked punts. It wasn’t just on the field that Jevon impressed – he graduated with a 3.6 GPA, similar to A/B grades in UK schools, and was member of the National Honor Society.
Kearse was recruited by the University of Florida in 1995, where he would play under head coach Steve Spurrier. He was a red-shirt safety for his first season and watched from the sidelines as the Gators won the SEC Championship, but ultimately fell short in the National Championship game where they lost to Nebraska 62-24.
In 1996 he was moved to outside linebacker, and in the season opener against Southwestern Louisiana he was credited with 6 solo tackles and a sack. It was during this year that he earned the ‘Freak’ nickname as he lined up in no less than 6 different positions and was named to the All-SEC Freshman team as the Gators won the 1996 National Title, beating bitter rivals Florida State in the Championship game 52-20. Unfortunately family tragedy struck again during the off-season as his younger brother, Jermaine, was killed in a drive by shooting.
1997 saw Kearse get named to the All-SEC team as he recorded a team high 6.5 sacks, forced 2 fumbles and made 38 tackles. The Gators would win the Citrus Bowl that year, defeating Penn State 21-6.
In 1998 he was again named in the All-SEC team and also won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as he once more led the team with 7.5 sacks and made 54 tackles as the Gators went on to win the Orange Bowl, beating Syracuse 31-10. Kearse would declare for the NFL draft after that season, saying “I think I’ve accomplished the four goals I wanted to when I attended the University of Florida: To become a better person, to win a national championship, to get an education and finally to have a chance to play in the NFL.”
The Tennessee Titans drafted Jevon Kearse with the 16th pick of the 1999 NFL Draft and he signed a 5 year contract with the team. Kearse was the man the Titans wanted from the off and they tried to trade up to get him but were thwarted on several occasions so they were grateful when he was still on the board when their pick came around. It was a pick that was originally met with grumbles from Titans fans as they wanted a 3rd offensive star to go with quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George but Kearse was quick to change opinions.
He would play as left defensive end for the Titans and his rookie year was phenomenal – he smashed the rookie single season sack total record as he led the AFC with 14.5 sacks (a record for rookies that still stands), forced 6 fumbles and had 57 tackles (7 for loss). He would win Defensive Rookie of the Month for all but one month of the season and won Defensive Rookie of the Year as he helped the Titans to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl XXXIV appearance – a Super Bowl that would go down as one of the greatest games in history as the St. Louis Rams came out victorious after stopping the Titans on the 1 yard line as time expired. Kearse was selected as a Pro Bowl starter following the season, becoming the first rookie defensive end to get the honour since 1978.
In the 2000 NFL season The Freak again hit double digits in the sack column as he recorded 11.5 to go with 52 tackles (6 for loss) and 4 forced fumbles and he was named a Pro Bowl starter a second time. The Titans would make the play offs again but would lose in the divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens, who would go on to win the Super Bowl that year.
Kearse switched from right to left defensive end for the 2001 season and managed 10.0 sacks, 36 tackles and 3 forced fumbles. The Titans had a disappointing season, going 7-9 and missing out on the playoffs, however Kearse would make his third consecutive Pro Bowl apperance, this time as a reserve.
2002 saw Kearse suffer the first major injury of his career. On just the second snap of the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles he would fracture the fifth metatarsal on his left foot which would rule him out for 12 games. On his return he came off the bench and finished the season with 2 sacks and 4 tackles as the Titans made it to the AFC Championship game but would fall to the Oakland Raiders.
The Freak was back to form at the start of 2003 when he recorded 9.5 sacks in the first 9 games of the season, however he did not get another one for the remaining 7 games, 2 of which he missed with a sprained ankle. The Titans would make the playoffs again, defeating the Ravens in the Wildcard round before losing a hard-fought match to the New England Patriots 17-14 in the divisional round. The Patriots would win the Super Bowl that year, the second time in 4 years the Titans would lose to the eventual champions.
After the 2003 season the Titans and Kearse were unable to come to an agreement on a contract extension thus making The Freak an unrestricted free agent. The Philadelphia Eagles swooped in and signed him to an 8 year, $65 million deal, a record breaking deal for a defensive lineman at the time. His first year in Philadelphia was solid as he recorded 9.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 41 tackles as the Eagles made it to Super Bowl XXXIX, however it would be the Patriots that ended Kearse’s season once more as they took home a second consecutive Vince Lombardi trophy with a 24-21 victory.
2005 was another sound season for Jevon as he put up 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 38 tackles, but injuries and suspensions to other star players like Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Terrell Owens meant the Eagles suffered a Super Bowl hangover season and were only able to put up a 6-10 record.
Jevon flew out of the blocks for the 2006 season as he put up 3.5 sacks in the first 2 games, however during overtime of the second game he suffered a major knee injury which would rule him out for the rest of the season. It was originally feared he had torn several ligaments and dislocated his kneecap which would have put his career in jeopardy but thankfully it wasn’t as serious as that – there was a tear to the lateral meniscus cartilage and a fracture to his tibia.
Kearse would be back for the 2007 season but he wouldn’t be the same player he once was. He lost around 30lb compared to the previous season (which he put down to extensive cardio-vascular exercise as part of his rehab) and there were reports from teammates that he was partying in Florida like a rock star and living as if he wasn’t playing football any more. As the season went on he did put some of the 30lb back on but he was missing the burst off the line that made him such a dominant force in years past and eventually lost his starting role in week 11. In 14 games he recorded just 3.5 sacks and 8 tackles and he was cut by the Eagles at the end of the year, just 4 years into his 8 year contract.
2008 saw a return to the Tennessee Titans, where he was signed to a 2 year, $6 million deal. He would start all 16 games in his first season back with the team, recording 3.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 34 tackles as the Titans went 13-3 but fell to the Ravens in the Divisional round of the play offs. This would be the last time Tennessee would make the play offs before this years appearance.
Kearse began 2009 as a starter but was mainly ineffective and was benched during the season. He would only feature in 6 games, recording 1 sack and 6 tackles. The Titans would not offer him a new contract when his 2 year tenure came to an end and despite a foray into free agency he went unsigned and ultimately retired. His final career stats were 74.0 sacks, 26 forced fumbles, 1 interception and 313 tackles in 133 games.
Since leaving the league The Freak has set up the Jevon Kearse Foundation, helping children in Lee County in the south west of Florida. His nephew, Jayron Kearse, is currently a safety for the Minnesota Vikings.