For Strong, football is community

By: Thomas Lenneberg
Assistant Media Relations Director
Arizona State University

"Young kings, young kings
I be rollin' with some young kings, young kings"
*-Meek Mill, "Young Kings"

*Jaelen Strong's two-year career at Arizona State will go down as one of the best in school history. But based on his demeanor and his behavior, you'd never guess he was an All-American and a Bilektnikoff award semifinalist with more than 2,000 receiving yards and 150-plus receptions. He scored 17 touchdowns, and tossed the ball to the referee in the endzone every time, except for once.

You can tell a lot about a person by their actions after they experience success, rather than defeat. When the world is seemingly at your fingertips, how will you represent yourself? Who will you become?

On Oct. 4, 2014, Jaelen caught a 46-yard pass at the goal line as time expired to complete an improbable comeback and beat USC, 38-34. It was Arizona State's first victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum since 1999, redemption for seven consecutive failures prior. His teammates mobbed him in the endzone and pandemonium ensued, both on the field and around every TV with the game on.

Dubbed the "Jael Mary," it changed the trajectory of the Sun Devils' current season for everyone, and a handful of future seasons for some. It united fans, alums and students; bridged generations and demographics; and embodied the program's recent rebirth.

So how is a 20-year-old from Philadelphia, who just 14 months earlier was at a junior college in Woodland Hills, Calif., supposed to handle that?

In the week after the "Jael Mary," Jaelen deflected the praise and adulation. He embraced the community's now-unconditional love (who wouldn't?), but also shared it with everyone around him.

The publicity turned into a chance to talk not about himself, but about the role his teammates, brothers and coaches, both football and academic, helped him get to this life-changing moment. He pointed credit toward those that helped the play happen: Gary Chambers, whose 26-yard catch on the previous play put the team in position; Tyler Sulka, whose block at right tackle extended the play for an extra few seconds; Mike Bercovici, whose prayer of a throw found its intended target; and his position coach Delvaughn Alexander, whose philosophy of attacking the ball at its highest point resonated. He heaped acclaim on the underclassmen in his wide receiving corps, the guys on special teams who always gave 100 percent, and the members of the scout team who helped him to prepare each week.

Where does this come from? This predisposed nature to spread the love to those around him?

Jaelen's father, John Rankin, was a beloved member of Philadelphia. He was a local basketball legend and a detective in the Philadelphia Police Department. But most importantly, he was a positive presence for everyone he encountered. Although he passed away from Leukemia when Jaelen was just 9 years old, his emphasis on community was already firmly planted in Jaelen's mind.

Football became an outlet for him to showcase his pride in his family, and subsequently his city. He made sure to always seek out longtime friends on the opposing teams and they often posed for a picture, creating a snapshot in time to show just how far they had come. It was clear he believed the accolades and honors he earned weren't because of how great he was, but rather because of how great those around him were.

If Meek Mill is the voice of Philadelphia, then Jaelen is the city's veins, bringing life to every corner of the neighborhood. And he's taken that mentality from Mount Airy to West Catholic High to Pierce College to Arizona State.

For Jaelen, it's the community - his city, his team, his family - that drives him.

Houston – it's your time now.

Take a look at Jaelen Strong's football career at Arizona State.

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