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Rashan Gary’s love for football — and mom – Detroit Free Press

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PLAINFIELD, N.J. – Eventually, Jennifer Coney relented.

For years her son, Rashan Gary, tried to wear her down. He was a kid, so there was always something.

But the tattoo pleas were constant, so she left him with a few caveats.

He would go with his sister, Nafeesa, 10 years older and wiser.

The second was meant to sit in his head: “I want you to remember, whatever you get on your arm, it’s going to be with you for the rest of your life.”

It was a specific message: Her job, the only real job, was to protect and guide her son.

That part sunk in deep.

His text photo of the tattoo told her everything — the cursive word on his inner left arm: “Jennifer.”

“It was just so touching,” she said last week in her first-floor apartment, surrounded by 70-pound boxes, already being packed for next month’s move to the University of Michigan. “When I saw that, it was like wow, he knows.”

Gary may be the nation’s best high school football player, standing 6-feet-3 and just over 290 pounds. And most coveted recruit, the first in years to be named the No. 1 player by all the major recruiting services.

He may be an unstoppable force on the football field, but one person’s word — like two fingers to the sternum — drops him in an instant.

On this Mother’s Day, there is no question about his devotion.

“I’m just a big mama’s boy,” Gary said.

When Gary was born, he looked like most kids.

Seven pounds, 6 ounces, nothing unusual.

But then he began growing and didn’t slow down for 14 years. In 3-year old clothes by age 1. Year after year a new set, he just kept pushing the seams.

When Gary’s sixth-grade teacher asked Coney what Gary did outside of school, her immediate thought was video games. If that meant having him off the street corners a few blocks in either direction from their home, it kept her content.

Still, the conversation triggered something inside her, so she signed him up for football.

On the junior high team in sixth grade because of his size, one of the great prep football careers didn’t have a great beginning as the season ended after just two games due to disorganization.

But Gary’s athleticism — surprising with no higher-level athletes on the family tree — was undeniable. It hit Coney like a wave.

Gary told his mother he wanted to be on the swim team, so he taught himself how to swim by watching YouTube videos.

Coney watched him run and realized he was faster than other kids despite being so much bigger.

The family had always seen his natural strength, but on the field it looked different, more controlled and powerful.

“He was a pretty good athlete,” Coney said, laughing, the last to realize.

Dominance, though? A big-time football career? That was harder to project.

At around 11, when junior high arrived, she loved Gary enough to send him away, to live with his father in one of the next towns over. Junior high in Plainfield appeared rough and safety was the priority.

After a few years in Scotch Plains, including beginning high school there, Gary’s father planned to move. So Gary did also, back with his mother and her husband in Plainfield.

With two years of high school left, Coney wasn’t letting anything regress, including where her son would enroll.

His football talent was obvious, but her vision was always larger.

She was already shuttling him between trainers and workout gurus all over the area, so why not make the drive for school?

Committing a dip into his college savings to attend a private school, they inquired at half a dozen before landing on Paramus Catholic. Coney called around, met with schools, evaluated and researched.

It was a pattern she would repeat later, on a much wider and more prominent scale.

Nothing about the decision would be easy — it’s a 45-minute drive from Plainfield to Paramus — but the family was sold because of the school’s culture, academics and football leadering.

Other nearby Paramus students helped with carpooling, even though it meant a 6:30 a.m. departure for Gary, and nudging Coney to her job three hours early.

When Paramus president James Vail met him, Gary’s football prowess was apparent, but he was already on his way as a focused student.

“Any kid that came in with transcripts like that,” Vail said. “They would have been accepted.”

And, just months after watching the school’s best player, Jabrill Peppers, graduate and leave for Michigan, there was a new superstar in the halls.

When Gary walked into Jacki McKenna’s English class in the fall of 2014, she was intimidated. No matter her advanced degrees and years in the classroom, this would be a unique experience.

“He has to walk in sideways and bend down to get into the room and I’m thinking to myself, wow, check out this guy, he’s huge and I’ve got to teach this guy?” McKenna recalled. “The most soft-spoken, sweetheart ever. But he scared me the first day.”

When he started in Mike Shea’s religion class, Shea — well under 6 feet — made a joke that they had a lot in common, that he couldn’t fit in the desks either. That was a way to allow Gary to ask for a bigger desk.

Instead, Gary insisted he was fine and kept wedging himself in somehow, trying not to stand out.

Though he doesn’t walk the halls with Peppers’ effusive personality, Gary makes individual connections. A bulletin board outside the president’s office is filled with newspaper articles about his accomplishments and signing with Michigan, but that’s the only prominent place where he stands apart. Even his trophy for winning the Dodd award, a hulking Heisman-esque statue for the nation’s best lineman, is in the athletic director’s office.

His bond with McKenna strengthened: Gary the conscientious student, asking how he could improve after a grade he didn’t like. And McKenna was thrilled that one of her students wanted to go the extra mile to improve himself in her class.

Coney introduced herself to McKenna immediately and asked what book Gary needed, then drove to find it at a local bookstore so he would have it the next day. Immediately McKenna knew this would be a serious student with full support at home.

Little did she know that she was also strengthening the mother-son bond. Every night the extra Paramus work placed Gary at the dining room table across from Coney, who had returned to school herself. A pair of students, supporting each other.

Until the end of his school year, last week, his McKenna connection served another purpose, giving the big man shelter from the halls.

“I’m feel like I’m just like everybody else, I’m just blessed (physically) different than everybody else,” Gary said. “Plus my mother keeps me humble, everybody in my family keeps me humble and the people at PC keep me humble. … I’m not a celebrity (there) at all. Everybody has conversations in the hall, I have conversations in the hall. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, there’s Rashan.’ ”

Yet he needed some relief, simply because he’s so well-known and connected.

So often this year during his free eighth period, instead of hanging out and studying in an open school area, Gary pops into McKenna’s room quietly off to the side.

That’s the Gary Michigan coaches saw as well, the focus to improve in all aspects.

Just as he hid himself at Schembechler Hall in mid-January, studying for finals when he was snowed in Ann Arbor for an extra day.

His path to a 3.8 grade-point average? It was Coney’s voice ringing: If you’re going to do something, do it well.

Like his schoolwork, Gary’s on-field preparation paid off.

When Gary joined Paramus in the fall of 2014, his first two games were a bit choppy. He was big, athletic and fast — but clearly unrefined, slow off the ball and having footwork issues.

Then came the third game, against rival Bergen Catholic.

“He had six sacks and turned up his game,” Paramus defensive line coach Steve Kanoc recalled. “Big-time student of the game.”

Already a high-level recruit entering that year — he was a standout at the underclassman portion of Nike’s The Opening prospect event — Gary kept ascending through his two seasons at Paramus, turning into one of the nation’s unquestioned top prospects.

Despite constant double teams and schemes to keep the play away from him, Gary finished his senior season with 55 tackles, 29 for loss, 131/2 sacks and four forced fumbles, according to

Michigan may have the nation’s top defensive line this year with Gary and two senior defensive ends in Chris Wormley and Taco Charlton.

“You never know,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said of Gary in mid-April. “Life is good and he is very good. You know the rules, the best players play.”

Incoming Michigan football players Rashan Gary and Michael Dwumfour work out with trainer Peter Kafaf at Count Basie Field in Red Bank, N.J. on April 30, 2016. By Mark Snyder, DFP.

As he ambled onto Count Basie Park in Red Bank, N.J., last Saturday, Gary arrived with no entourage, wearing a gray Michigan football shirt and blue Michigan shorts.

Coney drove him the 45 minutes from Plainfield. “I don’t want him to drive on the (Garden State) Parkway,” she grinned.

But she spent only 10-15 minutes of the hour-plus workout watching Gary with Peter Kafaf, a Red Bank resident who has voluntarily worked with local linemen for the past seven years. After three years with Kafaf, she has complete trust.

A self-taught trainer, who has an executive day job in New York City, Kafaf charges only a hat from the players’ new school for training. On this day, he was wearing Penn State for Red Bank’s Garrett Sickels and was working with Gary and fellow U-M 2016 signee Michael Dwumfour.

The hour workout’s rhythm sounded like an old Batman show — whap, thwack, pow — as the pair incorporated martial arts moves into their defensive line drills.

Gary has dominated for years, even having the Paramus coaches forcing him to dial back in practice to avoid injuring the quarterbacks. But this gives him something different, nearly a dozen moves he can take to college, rushing off the edge.

From their junior high connection in Scotch Plains, Gary and Dwumfour bonded over their size. With a similar commitment now, they are literally bouncing off each other on this day.

“We’re like brothers, so for us to come down here together, work hard together, something we’ve been doing for years, it’s going to continue on when we get to Ann Arbor,” Dwumfour said.

That’s what makes both players special.

Gary still wants to work hard.

He’s the No. 1 player in the country, has the recruiting chaos behind him and is only six weeks from his arrival in Ann Arbor. But he’s still lifting with the Paramus team, unlike all of the seniors at the school in recent history, and he’s still refining his prodigious skills on his own, like with Kafaf.

Why travel all that way, burning three hours on a beautiful Saturday? Because Gary feels there could always be more.

Kafaf learned that before he got to work with Gary when Coney called for a 20-minute interview and talked to other players’ parents for reference.

“From Jen’s standpoint, she wants to make sure Rashan’s learning everything that he can possibly learn,” Kafaf said. “She’s concerned about what he doesn’t know, what that is and how he can learn it. She’s extraordinarily supportive of him and, on the other side, Rashan is incredibly respectful of her and the work she’s done in guiding him to be recruited. It was a long journey to be the No. 1 player in the country and all that came at him.

“That young man did not have one mis-tweet, he did not have one bad quote in an interview. He didn’t put anything on Facebook that could be used against you. Rashan is squeaky clean and that’s because of Jennifer. She raised him to be that way.”

What Gary has seen and heard as the nation’s top recruit is enough to write a book.

While Coney screened some of the recruiting herself, making informed judgments, her greatest influence came near the end of the process.

As she and her son headed to Atlanta for the Dodd award presentation the Thursday before National Signing Day, a late-night voicemail was left for Gary at Paramus.

A Clemson visit was scheduled for that weekend, but someone apparently didn’t want that to happen.

The message landed around 1:30 a.m.

“If you’re coming down here, you gotta do just like the KKK and be serious about your football,” a caller named “Clemson Dan” stated, as reported by “Clemson and the KKK, the two things we love the most.”

While Vail informed Clemson officials and insisted there be precautions to keep Gary safe, Coney’s reaction veered the other way.

“We laughed about it, it was a complete joke,” Coney said. “It was not scary, it was not intimidating, it was funny. Because people would send texts or make comments. Because people are hateful.”

It had no effect on their visit or the decision to choose Michigan over Clemson, as Gary decided on Signing Day in a private room at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Their naiveté may have served them well, at least in the moment.

“Racism is always subtle in a black person’s life, but I’ve never had flat-out racism, never in my life because I live in New Jersey,” she said. “And neither has Rashan. But I think because of where we are and what we have not been exposed to, we kind of laughed it off.”

That’s part of her evolution. Fiercely protective, she was the mother at one point firing back message board missives to those commenting from a keyboard.

Just as her son evolves physically, she’s growing with him emotionally.

She has her job at Kean University, a daughter within walking distance with two grandchildren and a husband who works often. Yet Coney has devoted her life to Gary, which has made him exceptional.

Any 18-year-old who seeks to spend time with his mother — “she’s my everything,” he says — is a rare thing. Who else would take selfies with their mom in an airport?

When they’re home and the TV is on, he’ll flop on the wraparound dark leather couch next to her.

That’s where they were April 28, watching the NFL draft’s first round unfold. But the conversation you’d expect with the nation’s No. 1 kid and his mom — “That’ll be me in three years” — never occurred.

Instead they were talking about the players they knew from recruiting visits (Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) and avoiding high-profile missteps.

They’re confident Gary is NFL-bound, and everything in his game and life supports that. The NFL is not a topic, though, because their focus is always on the present.

With graduation looming June 9 at the Prudential Center in Newark — the speaker is U-M coach Jim Harbaugh — the next task is what Gary will need to do the first day he’s in Ann Arbor.

“I just take it a step at a time. In high school, I try to accomplish everything I can on the high school level,” Gary said. “Then when I get to college, I’ll focus then when I have the opportunity to. When it comes up in the conversation (in a few years),then we’ll really start talking about it.”

That patience grew from the conversations between mother and son.

“It’s just me and Rashan, we’re together all the time,” Coney said. “We’re doing fun things, we’re doing nothing, we’re sitting here.”

On car rides, it’s Motown blasting from the speakers for their sing along (after she tells him to remove the headphones).

Or Coney sharing what she sees around them, what she feels about a life lesson or simply a car’s move when speaking to the young, though large, driver from the passenger seat.

Does he realize that’s all part of the education, the hours and years surrendered? The well-honed ability to sleep in a parked car as he trains or works or camps or studies or makes an appearance?

“Heck no, Rashan doesn’t realize all I sacrifice,” Coney said, ripping off that hearty laugh. “I do it for myself. No matter what happens to me, I know my son is well-mannered, he shows respect, he’s courteous. He understands the importance of having good relationships, not burning bridges, being respectful and the importance of education and hard work. If you want to be a football player, do everything to be the best.”

Her best advice: “Keep an eyebrow raised” to protect yourself before fully trusting others.

Coney’s approach to her children, especially Gary in the spotlight, adapted from her parents. While they would simply tell her no, she added an explanation for her son, telling him why she wouldn’t let him just “hang out” with other kids or why private school made sense or why certain colleges were quickly struck from the list.

When they would go on recruiting trips, Coney separated from Gary, engaging the campus and academic setting by herself, conversing with average students. Gary and Kanoc would get the grand football tour — in Ann Arbor one time that meant a wild golf cart ride with Harbaugh at the wheel — and then the trio would reconvene after the trip to swap notes.

A volunteer coach at the school, Kanoc has been able to show Coney he is there only for Gary’s best interests. He has made four trips to Ann Arbor, some without Coney.

For all the time Coney has spent in the car, on trips and online reading about what other star athletes have done to excel, all for her son, one of her favorite moments came when she was 600 miles away.

At halftime of U-M’s spring game, the incoming freshman players who visited were introduced one at a time over the P.A. system, running out with their name on the scoreboard and a tunnel of cheerleaders on each side.

There were cheers for each new Wolverine, but Gary’s was a sound explosion. Introduced last, his blue headphones secure around his head, the echo still resonates a month later.

“I was so happy, so blessed that the fans are already supporting me and behind me,” Gary said. “That makes me want to work harder, too, because they expect a lot from me. I had just had a great moment and I couldn’t believe it.

“It was like wow, this is the place to be, this is the crowd that I can go the extra play for.”

Though she wasn’t there, watching it back home, Coney was stunned, less by the crowd and more by her son.

“I watched my son who seemed … I’ve never seen him smile like that,” said Coney, who isn’t sure what she’ll do with all her free time once the boy and the boxes leave next month. “It just choked me up because I’m like, ‘Rashan’s happy. He’s there and he’s happy.’ ”

Contact Mark Snyder: Follow him on Twitter @mark__snyder.

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Rashan Gary was ranked as’s top recruit for 2016. Here’s how Rivals’ past five top recruits have fared in college:

2015: Byron Cowart, DE

Billed as the most college-ready recuit in his class when he signed with Auburn, Cowart struggled to adjust to the SEC, recording just six tackles and six QB hurries.

2014: Da’Shawn Hand, DE

Hand has spent two seasons as a backup on Alabama’s stacked defensive line, though he managed 16 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.

2013: Robert Nkemdiche, DE

Nkemdiche never quite delivered in three seasons at Ole Miss. He had just seven sacks, and made second-team All-America twice before being drafted last month.

2012: Dorial Green-Beckham, WR

Green-Beckham led Mizzou in receiving TDs as a freshman despite being suspended multiple games. He was drafted by Tennessee in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft.

2011: Jadeveon Clowney, DE

Clowney was dominant at South Carolina, including a crushing hit on U-M’s Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl. Houston took him No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL draft.