Editor's note: The Choice is a four-part series that dives deep into four of the 2019 NFL Draft's top prospects, detailing how their early lives and decisions prepared them for this moment. Second in the series: Michigan star Rashan Gary.
Rashan Gary announced his college football commitment live, on national television.
ESPN2 cameras ran hot as the nation’s top-ranked high school football player declared, “For the next three to four years, I will be furthering my education as a football player at the University of ...”
He didn’t stop short for suspense. The Plainfield, N.J., native needed time to reach below the news desk and emerge with a blue cap featuring a maize block M.
Then came the formal announcement.
After receiving hundreds of recruiting letters and texts and phone calls, after official college visits and celebrity coaches prowling the Paramus Catholic sidelines, the first unanimous No. 1 overall recruit was going to be a Wolverine.
Gary did not sigh great relief. He never cracked a smile — not even close — as friends and family applauded around him. The then-18-year-old defensive lineman sat motionless as the camera zoomed in, searching for eyes obscured by a hat’s shadow and thick-framed glasses.
“Michigan” was all many cared to hear, a transactional line item allowing them to tweet and blog and rant about whether this athletic freak pulled the right hat out of the bag. Check the YouTube clips. They all stop right then and there.
There also was a too-often-lost human element to this, about a nervous teenage kid in Hercules’ body who looked like the world sat on his shoulders.
His mother took it all away with one loving embrace.
Jennifer Coney-Shepherd wrapped her arms around Rashan upon returning to the ESPN green room, brought him close and whispered three proud sentences loud enough for USA TODAY Network New Jersey columnist Darren Cooper to hear.
“We did it. We did it. My son is a Michigan man.”
Jennifer Coney-Shepherd's embrace of her son, Rashan Gary, brought calmness to the then-high school senior after he announced his college decision (Photo by Darren Cooper/USA TODAY Network New Jersey)
Cooper was given an all-access pass that day, from the limo ride to Bristol, Conn., on through the media onslaught surrounding Gary’s big decision.
“There was truly a genuine moment in the green room,” Cooper said. “[Rashan] put his head on her shoulder and cried.”
Choosing a school was such a big deal then. In reality, it was a mile marker on the road to April 25. That’s when some struggling NFL team will make Rashan Gary one of this year’s earliest draft picks, hoping the edge rusher can stop the run, hassle quarterbacks and lead a return to greatness.
Mother and son will come together again after his name is called, sharing a private moment with music blaring, televisions on and cameras certainly rolling at an Ann Arbor NFL draft party, surrounded by dozens who helped this rare talent realize a dream. That’s nothing new for these two, who have walked for years with the spotlight always on them.
Production versus potential
Google Rashan Gary and prepare to be overwhelmed. Search results are never-ending for someone who has been featured and analyzed to death since junior high, someone always measured against the title of top recruit instead of his own merits.
Such is life for someone universally declared his senior year’s greatest high school player -- it plays out under a magnifying glass.
It can leave one lost trying to find the man underneath all this hype. One click leads to another and another, and before long, it’s 3 a.m. in an Ann Arbor Courtyard Marriott, and you’re no closer to complete understanding than you were upon check-in.
The dig continues at Michigan’s pro day, where you start finding out more about a quiet, driven individual with a sly sense of humor. He grew exponentially in college despite the weight of often irrational expectations virtually impossible to meet.
Rashan Gary used to be known only as a football player. Now there’s a brand to consider. He has a logo, a sports agency and a series of endorsements. He has a documentary film crew producing exclusive content to promote Tropicana orange juice or the all-new Lincoln Nautilus or whatever else, enhancing and at times leveraging star power of someone already so well known.
He doesn’t have to hard-sell NFL teams who have evaluated his game tape and unreal combine workouts. They see right through a carefully cultivated image during the pre-draft process, diving deep to find out about the player, how hard he’ll work after he receives that first big paycheck and what he can do to help them win.
Opinions have been formed on those points. Gary’s athleticism is wow worthy. His Michigan stat line is not — he had just 9.5 sacks in three seasons — leaving production versus potential as the only arguable point about an otherwise squeaky-clean prospect.
That muddies the water a smidge, whether or not the argument is appropriate, considering the defensive role Gary was given at Michigan. If he had massive pressure numbers and tackles for loss in college, he’d probably be a surefire top-five pick. He still might go that high, but a minor slide down the top 10 also is possible.
“Rashan Gary to me is -- he's a little bit more athlete than football player at this point in time,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “You'll see a rare, rare, rare combination of size and speed. He’s very explosive.
“The production doesn't necessarily match the skill set. So that to me, kind of, going back through, watching more tape on all these guys, as you go through the process, I view him as a top-10 player. Wouldn't shock me if he was the second pick in the draft because there's tremendous upside with him from a skill-set standpoint. I think the ceiling for him is like a Cam Jordan, who seemed to be one of the better defensive ends in the NFL. He was a big heavy end.
“I know some people say he should kick inside. I like him better on the edge. That's where he fits for me. But kind of the -- a lot of disruption, not a lot of production.”
Raiders defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (73) played with Rashan Gary (3) at Michigan, and sees NFL talent oozing out of his former teammate (Photo by The Associated Press)
Gary’s potential will dare scouts to dream. After playing next to Gary for two years at Michigan, Raiders defensive tackle Maurice Hurst believes those thoughts are rooted in reality. He sees greatness ahead, even if past stats don’t guarantee it.
“The ceiling’s sky high for someone like Rashan,” Hurst said. “He can do anything and play any system he’s a part of. He can play anywhere on the defensive line and be extremely productive.
“I think he’s one of those guys who is going to have a better pro career than college career. I think he’s someone who will continue to get better. You can tell how bad he wants it with the way he acts on the practice field and in the weight room.”
A Hurst-Gary reunion is a real prospect next week. The Raiders own the No. 4 overall pick, and coach/football czar Jon Gruden might want the scheme fit and pass-rushing pop Gary could provide at that spot or in a trade down the draft board.
“I love watching Rashan Gary against Ohio State in the second half when they are way behind,” Gruden said of the Wolverines’ 62-39 loss. “That is when you can find out how much you love it. I like to see them play against the toughest opponent, see if it brings out the best in them.”
Criticisms end with the production-versus-potential debate, with nothing else left to fuel the fire.
Gary doesn’t get in trouble. He isn’t stupid on social media. He works hard, received good grades and deeply cares about the sport. He’s fiercely loyal to those in his inner circle, and he loves his mother above all else.
That’s what his marketing people want you to know and, after speaking to several close to Gary in recent months, it’s not a facade. That’s the real Rashan. Whether that makes you buy a T-shirt or an autograph or a $50 ticket to his NFL draft party is up to you.
Gary wants NFL teams buying into his physical ability and his character, building consumer confidence with the story of how he got here and those who made sacrifices along the way.
“I tell them about my journey, where I grew up and where I played football, from Scotch-Plains Fanwood [High School] to Paramus Catholic to Michigan,” Gary said. “I tell them about my mother and my sister and my two nephews. They are my motivation. They are why I play football and strive to be the best at what I do.”
Gary’s commitment to them is written right on his forearms. Coney-Shepherd’s face appears in ink just above his left wrist, with her first name, Jennifer, inscribed on the flip side. The face of his sister, Nafeesa Gary, appears closer to the elbow, with the phrase “my sister’s keeper” not far away. His nephews’ names are visible on both wrists.
Gary’s father is not in that picture. He wasn’t a featured player in Gary’s rise to prominence as a football standout, and there’s seemingly no chance of re-entry just before his star shines bright at the NFL draft. The focus, as it always has, remains on his mother’s unconditional support and sacrifice.
Rashan Gary considers Coney-Shepherd his mom and dad, his moral compass and trusted confidant, but his sister and nephews are all his people, and he plans to take care of them. It’s payback for all they’ve done keeping his head on straight when he was the country’s most coveted recruit, with schools begging him to take their scholarship.
“I always keep my family with me,” Gary said. “They make sure I do what I have to do for them.”
The coach’s dream
Rashan Gary always has been an outlier. That’s the case now that he’s an elite NFL prospect, surely to be taken in the top 10 overall. That was the case 10 years ago, when he was a 6-foot, 240-pound, 11-year-old too big for his age group, forced to play with older kids his size.
Athletic gifts, however, never were really an obstacle. They were a winning hand if played just right.
Gary wasn’t just big and strong. He had a desire to be great, and his mother did everything possible to foster immense talent, to help her son realize a shockingly attainable dream.
Great potential was clear, but make no mistake: Rashan Gary was born and raised for what comes next.
Coney-Shepherd got her son seen at college football camps and talent showcases. She hired the best private instruction. At one point, Rashan worked with a speed coach, a strength coach and a technical coach, on top of the football schooling he received first at Scotch Plains Fanwood High and then at Paramus Catholic. He transferred to the powerhouse program before his junior year, with an estimated 20 scholarship offers already in hand.
His first came from Rutgers in the eighth grade, and most every college football juggernaut eventually followed suit. Gary was massive, agile and effective along the defensive line. He was an excellent student and a hard worker fully committed to his craft.
In short, he was a coach’s dream.
No school earned Gary’s allegiance until that day at ESPN. All them pushed for it and pushed hard, but the young man was insulated from that pressure. Paramus Catholic defensive line coach John Westervelt, also the Paladins’ head coach during Gary’s senior year, explains why.
“Mama bear was in charge of that,” he said. “Rashan and his mother are very close. Very close. She handled all that stuff, or directed him on a lot of that stuff.
“He couldn’t have handled it any better. People were showing up at practice every day to watch him, and he dealt with it beautifully. He handled it well because he had a parent who was involved. She always had one eye on him. ...
“She never let his head get too big. She is an integral part of who he is today and what he has become. I wish most parents handled it the way she did. She kept him grounded. She shielded him from so much.”
Coney-Shepherd wanted her son solely focused on athletics and academics. After all, Gary couldn’t have one without the other.
There was hell to pay if he didn’t get good grades, a fact he learned the hard way in junior high, following a “C” in science. He wasn’t allowed to practice or play in the next game, making sure the message was clear and well received. Gary never received another “C,” and he was an academic standout in high school and college.
“He isn’t screwing around in class,” longtime coach and mentor Chris Partridge said. “He isn’t out partying. He’s doing everything he needs to do to be the best. That’s something that I admire in somebody so young.”
Partridge has known Gary forever, from young kid to grown man. He was Paramus Catholic’s head coach when Rashan transferred to the prestigious private school, and has been on Michigan’s staff from 2015 on throughout Gary’s college tenure.
Rashan Gary's focus and drive are what lead those closest to him believing he'll enjoy NFL success (Photo by USA TODAY Sports Images)
Partridge was instrumental in getting the blue chipper to Michigan and helping him thrive in Ann Arbor. Partridge used to keep close watch on Gary, who spent significant time in his office discussing life and football.
He doesn’t have to keep constant tabs anymore, a sign the kid who always had looked like an adult actually is growing up.
“He’s becoming more and more independent,” Partridge said. “That grown man you think you’re getting at 16 years old, he is that now. He understands how to maintain and handle the pressure.
“You’re going to have faults and failures. How you push through those things is so important. He has a good grasp on that, and he’s becoming a well-rounded person.”
He’s certainly more comfortable in public without his mother’s shield. Gary comes off relaxed in national pre-draft interviews, light years from the timid teenager announcing his college commitment on ESPN2.
All these pre-draft reps have helped him come off more charismatic, but he still doesn’t love them.
“The good thing about Rashan is that he doesn’t love the cameras-in-your-face attention,” Partridge said. “He loves the performance-based spotlight. There’s a huge difference.
”Some people love the interviews. That’s not what Rashan wants or what he craves. He wants to stand out in a film room full of coaches and teammates. That’s his reward for a job well done.”
An unbreakable bond
Gary might not need his mother’s constant guidance and protection, but he still wants her around as much as ever. He understands how much she did to put him in this position. He’s immensely grateful, and has no problem putting clichés and the pre-draft script aside to tell a room full of reporters exactly how he feels about her.
“My mom is my everything,” Gary said. “She’s my right and left foot. She’s my right and my left hand. She made me the man I am today. To be honest, I don’t know where I’d be without her in my life.”
Coney-Shepherd is credited for being Gary’s guiding light, and deservedly so. His father isn’t mentioned at all, and that isn’t new. Those who knew Gary from his Paramus Catholic days said he never was mentioned during that time.
Gary and Coney-Shepherd have discussed his father a few times on camera. One such conversation was featured in Amazon’s “All or Nothing” documentary on the 2018 Michigan football team, and again recently as part of a series of vignettes featuring Gary for NFL Network.
The mother-son dynamic was featured in the latest installment, and Coney-Shepherd broke it down straight.
“Rashan wants from his father what he got from me,” Coney-Shepherd said. “I was always there. I was at school, talking to teachers. I’m supportive in everything he does. And sometimes I’m maybe too much.
“I think Rashan wanted his dad to be what I was. He’s not an absentee father. He’s the uninvolved father.”
Gary fully admits, with genuine emotion written across his face, why his father’s involvement at this stage is not an option.
“He could’ve been in my motivation when I was coming up and finding out my future, then, yeah, he’d be part of my motivation,” Gary said. “I would’ve seen what he had to go through, like I saw what (my mom) had to go through.
“In the future, when I have kids, I’m not going to be what he was. If I could’ve gotten my pride to the side, yeah, I could’ve sat down with him and really talked to him and find out what happened, what was the drop-off point. But, until I get over my pettiness of me being mad, I’m not going to do it.”
Sights set sky high
Gary is focused on the immediate future and honoring those who helped him get here, but there’s also an eye on the horizon. He won’t play football forever, and he’s trying to capitalize on this moment in the sun to plan for the long term.
Gary has opened Rashan Gary Sports, with a certified agent and marketing arms, under him as CEO.
"I always had a dream of playing in the NFL and leaving a legacy," Gary said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The older I got, I understood that football is not forever. This is a step to take care of my family in the long run. Starting this agency is a way I can definitely do that in my years on the football field and the years when I'm not on the football field."
Right now, Gary is the agency’s star client. That’s why it’s important to get this pre-draft process right, to hit proper notes and attract other athletes into the fold. NFL rookie contracts are straight forward through slotting, so Rashan Gary Sports can make a mark through marketing, branding and endorsements.
The agency is working hard to do exactly that, to show they can do for others what Gary has done this winter and spring.
Gary hasn’t talked much about the agency during the pre-draft process, as part of a message that football is his top priority. It could be a steady revenue stream, however, if it can get up and running well with a larger client list.
Gary has the potential and work ethic to succeed in his current line of work, and those around him are proud of someone contemplating his present and future.
“I want to see him reach his goals, and I’m talking about the really important ones,” Partridge said. “It’s about getting a degree from Michigan. It’s being a first-round draft pick and then making it in the NFL.
“It’s starting his own company. Those are goals he had as a high school kid. Helping him achieve those goals has been special to me, while helping him understand that trials and tribulations will come that you have to keep pushing through.
“This relationship isn’t about now. The NFL draft isn’t the end point. It’s a milestone on the journey. It’s about when he’s 30 and he can look back and see all he’s accomplished.”
There probably will be another mother-son embrace on that 30th birthday, where mother and son share another private moment in a public space full of well wishers. He’ll thank her again for unwavering support, as he has so many times before in public and in person.
“I don’t know how much credit my mom gets other than to say this,” Gary said, “She deserves everything.”
On Tuesday, in the next installment of "The Choice": Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams is set on supporting his family and a Birmingham community that helped him deal with great tragedy.
Catch up on the first story in the series, on Ohio State star Nick Bosa, right here.