Alshon Jeffery kept his plans quiet from his basketball coach.
For more than a year, football players at Calhoun County High School had tried to pressure the basketball star. Come on, they told him. Come play with us.
“They kept badgering him and badgering him about playing football,” said Zam Fredrick Sr., the longtime basketball coach of the school in central South Carolina. “And he didn’t tell me right away that he was going to play football.”
Jeffery had not played football as a freshman, and he did not try out as a sophomore. But, a few games into his sophomore season, he agreed to join the team.
When Fredrick saw his point guard catching footballs at practice, the secret was out.
Nervous thoughts filled Fredrick’s mind.
“With his size, he’s just an easy target,” Fredrick remembered thinking at the time. “He’s a real skinny kid, skinny as a rail. He didn’t do a lot of weightlifting then.
“I was real concerned about his knees and all that. I didn’t want my No. 1 guy damaged and not being able to do anything [during basketball season]. And I’ve had that happen to me, so I was real skeptical about that.”
But Fredrick also knew that Jeffery was a gifted athlete and a determined leader. Maybe Jeffery didn’t talk a lot off the court, but his coaches trusted him and his teammates loved him, and his traits could translate to football as well as anything.
The more football Fredrick watched, the less he worried.
“After watching him play a few times, I thought, ‘You know what?’ ” Fredrick said. “ ‘Alshon, he’ll take care of himself.’ ”
All the way to the NFL.
Next week, the Bears’ 23-year-old wide receiver will travel to Hawaii to play in his first Pro Bowl. Jeffery is slated to be on the grounds of Lanikuhonua – “Where Heaven Meets the Earth” – on Tuesday and Wednesday for the league’s inaugural Pro Bowl draft show to determine sides. He’ll be at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Jan. 26 to play for Team Rice (as in Jerry) or Team Sanders (as in Deion).
More than 4,500 miles away, in St. Matthews, S.C., Fredrick will be watching.
It was only a few years ago when Fredrick was watching Jeffery on the hardwood. Jeffery started as a freshman for the Saints, a rarity for a powerhouse team with a sharp-minded coach who had starred with the South Carolina Gamecocks before being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981.
With Jeffery on the court, Calhoun County won 81 consecutive games en route to four consecutive state championships. The Saints’ 81-game win streak was snapped on a day in which Jeffery was unavailable, out of town playing football in the Under Armour All-American Game.
When Jeffery returned, the Saints went on another 22-game win streak.
“He was my best ball handler, and he was the guy that had all the savvy on the court,” Fredrick said. “He was one of the rare guys that could dominate a game without scoring points. On the stat sheet, he might have about 5 or 6 points, but he had his signature all over the game
“With him, it was like having a coach on the floor. My job was very easy.”
Jeffery always has had a way of making things look easy.
“He could catch anything,” Fredrick said. “Throw it in the air and he’d snatch that up.
“He’s always had those hands, man. And his basketball days taught him all about positioning and boxing out. It’s just like getting a rebound sometimes, how he uses his body to get inside position.”
What if Jeffery had ignored the pressure to play football?
What if Jeffery had chased his dreams in sneakers instead of cleats?
“Let me tell you something,” Fredrick said. “As great as he is as a receiver, I think he could have played pro basketball if that’s what he wanted to do.
“I still believe basketball is No. 1 in his heart. Nobody’s going to tell me different.
“But football was the sport that offered to him the most opportunities in a very rapid fashion. It was more about football choosing him than him choosing football.”
And when the Pro Bowl chose Jeffery to replace Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, Fredrick happily called his former player. Fredrick congratulated Jeffery, whose legacy lives on in the Calhoun County gymnasium as an example of what one can achieve with talent plus determination.
“It couldn’t happen to a better fellow,” Fredrick said. “I was so proud of him.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @tcmusick.