Jermaine Kearse went from overshadowed by a heralded teammate at Lakes High School to the University of Washington, where he was criticized for dropping passes. He then went undrafted in the NFL and was a longshot to make the Seattle Seahawks roster.
Now — after making one of the biggest plays of the NFC Championship Game, a 35-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-7 in the fourth quarter — he’ll try to help bring the Seahawks their first Super Bowl victory.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing — growing up in this state, then playing for the hometown team, now going to the Super Bowl,” Kearse said. “I mean, just going to the Super Bowl, period, is what all kids dream of doing.”
But to get to this point, Kearse had to first disregard the lies.
Kearse was sitting in on a meeting with Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith this past offseason. Smith, a running back for the Seahawks from 1976-82, talked about how his father would drive him to a high-end neighborhood.
He told his son: “Don’t believe the lie — the lie that you can’t be here one day.”
“I didn’t really know what Sherm was trying to say,” Kearse said. “Then he said, ‘Don’t believe the lie, wherever you are. You could be undrafted, whatever, don’t believe that will hold you (back) from being at the top.’
“Ever since I heard that, I don’t know. It’s been different.”
Kearse isn’t one to lack confidence, but the message fortified his belief he would obtain opportunities and take advantage of them when he did.
After no team selected him in the 2012 NFL draft, Kearse said he received training camp invites from Jacksonville, San Diego and
Houston among others, but he chose Seattle, a team he grew up rooting for.
Kearse and wide receiver Phil Bates came to the Seahawks at the same time, and had lockers next to each other at the team’s training facility. But these were smaller, black lockers in the middle of the room designated for rookies trying to make the roster.
The normal lockers are brown, have the players’ name engraved across the top and are far more spacious.
“We would sit at those rookie lockers in training camp and (Kearse) would say, ‘I’m praying I can get a brown locker, one of those big lockers,’ ” Bates said.
Kearse paved his way to the brown locker through special teams. He made his first NFL catch in Week 9 against Minnesota, finishing 2012 with three catches for 31 yards.
Kearse continued to pursue a regular spot this past offseason, undergoing Lasik eye surgery in February to give himself an edge.
Coaches and teammates took notice of Kearse and his newfound confidence.
“I think somewhere in training camp, he kind of said, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll be able to do this,’ just to himself,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “... But he’s done a great job of just kind of believing, ‘Hey, I’m the man. I got this.’ ”
Kearse emerged this exhibition season, scoring twice against Denver. He added more game-changing plays in the regular season — his 43-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter being the difference in the 12-7 season-opening victory at Carolina. He recorded more yards and touchdowns on that one play than he had in all of 2012.
Kearse and big plays aren’t a new relationship. They go way back.
At the UW in 2010, Kearse caught a 27-yard touchdown pass from Jake Locker with 44 seconds remaining to lift the Huskies over the Cougars in the Apple Cup, 35-28.
Even at Lakes High School, he averaged 16 points per game in basketball and was touted by football coach Dave Miller as the best receiver he had ever coached — even better than former Lancers star Reggie Williams.
But Kearse was always overshadowed at Lakes by Kavario Middleton, the tight end who was considered the No. 2 recruit in the nation and drew all the coaches, recruiters and attention.
“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit envious,” Kearse said. “To have everyone always talk about Kavario, it was like ... OK. But it just kind of drove me to push myself.
“There were always all these coaches coming to see him, but I kind of saw it as an opportunity to help myself.”
Kearse received a letter from the UW, then a recruiter came to see him … after first speaking with Middleton.
“I’ll be really surprised if he does not have a great career at UW,” Miller told The News Tribune in 2008, “and is a first-round draft pick someday.”
The first came true, despite taking heat throughout his college career for dropped passes. Kearse is second behind Williams on the Huskies’ career receiving list.
Miller’s second prediction wasn’t so accurate. Whereas Williams was the No. 9 overall pick by Jacksonville in the 2004 NFL draft, Kearse wasn’t selected.
“I never thought just because I went undrafted that I wasn’t going to be successful,” Kearse said. “I don’t have no sob story because I went undrafted. The NFL is a league of opportunities. So, when your opportunities come, it’s up to you what you do with them.”
Kearse finished 142nd in receiving yards in the NFL this season. He caught 22 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns.
But no wide receiver this season has made a bigger play, in a bigger moment or bigger setting than Kearse.
Facing fourth-and-7 at the 49ers’ 35 in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks decided to go for the first down after first sending out the field-goal team.
Wilson drew San Francisco’s Aldon Smith offside, which changed the receivers’ routes to vertical patterns. After gaining two steps on Carlos Rogers with an inside move, Kearse saw the ball coming his way. Rogers regained his lost ground, but Kearse jumped and caught the pass in the end zone, putting the Seahawks up 20-17.
“He was one of the guys that I said at the beginning of the year that I thought was going to be lights out for us,” Wilson said. “I really noticed that in the offseason and then rookie minicamp when I was with him. I just noticed he caught the football.”
Bates was so thrilled for his good friend and locker-room neighbor, he approached Kearse after the play and violently punched him in the chest.
“He was like, ‘Why you hit me so hard!’ ” Bates said. “I was excited for him. I know how much he has put into this. All the accomplishments and good things that happen to him, he deserves.”
But for Kearse, it was just another opportunity — one he capitalized on.
He’ll join cornerback Marcus Trufant (Wilson High, Washington State University) as the only two players to go to a local high school, play college football in Washington state, then play for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
The only difference is Kearse wasn’t born in Washington. He was born in Oklahoma, his two brothers in Germany, and moved to Lakewood when he was in kindergarten when his father, David, was stationed at Fort Lewis. His father died of a sudden heart condition in 2007.
Kearse said having his dad at CenturyLink Field to witness the play that helped take the Seahawks to the Super Bowl would have made it that much better.
“My dad had a really big part in my sports life,” Kearse said. “It pops into my head – what if he was here to see that?
“I know that he is watching, and he would be proud.”
But David Kearse would also be proud that his son hasn’t believed the lies — that because he went undrafted, he would never amount to much in the NFL. Or because he was a practice player, he wouldn’t make the most of his opportunities. Or because he wasn’t as touted as fellow Lakes grads Middleton or Williams that he wouldn’t make big plays in the NFL.
“I never let going undrafted stop me, and I still won’t,” Kearse said.
“Some people say we are average, and you can feed into that if you focus on that. If someone starts calling you mediocre, you could really think on that and start putting that into your head, like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not as good.’ That’s when you start believing the lie. I don’t want to do that.”