Beneath the bright wash of white, electric light on a Friday evening in August, Vince Young and his receivers are putting on a show. The quarterback drops back and shoots bombs at the sprinting, slanting, juking receivers, as speedy corners try to knock the ball out of the thick, hot air.
There are over 2,000 people watching, and they jam the metal bleachers of the Titans practice facility in Metro Center. They ooh and aah with each aerial display, like the crowd at a fireworks show.
But on another part of the field, at the edge of the light far from the fans and surrounded only by empty grass, the players of the Titans defensive line repeatedly smash into each other with graceless ferocity. It is oppressively hot and muggy, the air redolent with swamp stench wafting in from a stagnant pond that sits near the back end of the practice field.
"Jesus, are you even paying attention?!?!" screams a graying, seemingly furious coach named Jim Washburn.
"Did you really just watch us do this drill half-a-dozen times and then come at him with that crap? Do it again!"
Washburn is the defensive line coach, and his rant is directed at a player who did not sufficiently level his partner. There are about a dozen players standing in a tight gaggle behind Washburn. Jevon Kearse is right there, but he stands off behind his teammates, hands on hips, occasionally adjusting a black neoprene knee brace on his left leg.
Washburn is holding a small green football on a long leash. He places the football on the ground, and the players line up on either side of it. Washburn yells "Hike," pulls the leash, and his players assault each other. They are practicing the three-man-rush, part of a blitz package that will have many AFC quarterbacks crumpled on the turf with canaries circling their helmets.
When Kearse's turn comes, the 31-year-old shows a burst of speed and tangles briefly with his opponent before shedding him and breaking free. He looks good. But as Kearse walks back to his spot to stand a little behind and a little apart from the others, there is a stiffness in his gait. A slight wince wrinkles his normally implacable face. While his teammates clap and whistle encouragement, Kearse adjusts the neoprene brace, puts his hands back on his hips and says nothing.
When Kearse lines up against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Sept. 7, it will be the beginning of his 10th season in the NFL, and his first with the Titans since 2003. He began his career here in 1999, exploding out of the University of Florida and instantly finding success in the NFL as a sack specialist. Nicknamed "The Freak" for his tall, chiseled frame and thoroughbred speed, Kearse became an immediate professional success. He was voted Defensive Rookie of the Year, recording a league-high 14.5 sacks during the regular season and another two during the playoffs. He would also be the first rookie defensive end to start in a Pro Bowl since the 1970s. That same season, the Titans would make it to the Super Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to Kurt Warner's St. Louis Rams.
This would be the greatest campaign of Kearse's career. He recorded 57 total tackles, forced eight fumbles and played in every game. In one season he lit up the world, achieving more than most players do in an entire career.
It would never be the same for him again.
Over the next two seasons with the Titans, Kearse's performance was respectable, but never close to the virtuosic performance of his rookie year. Though he recorded double-digit sacks in 2000 and 2001, his overall numbers declined steadily until 2002 when he suffered a broken bone in his foot on the second play of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 2003 Kearse had another solid, if hardly extraordinary season, and the Titans would let his contract expire at the end of the year. But Kearse's platinum-caliber rookie year performance had sealed his reputation elsewhere in the league. In 2004, the Eagles signed him to an eight-year $65 million deal, the largest contract ever awarded to a player at his position. The contract included $20 million in signing and roster bonuses. In his first season as an Eagle, he was an integral part of a team that would again make it to the Super Bowl and again come up achingly short, losing to the New England Patriots.
Kearse is extremely amiable. Even pundits who have criticized his play say that he is unfailingly one of the nicest guys in the locker room. It's true—meeting him for the first time is like speaking with an old friend. He is quick to laugh and exudes the kind of warmth associated with baseball players from the middle of last century—not the high-paid, post "Neon Deon" pitchmen that populate today's NFL.
Still, when he failed to record more than eight sacks in either of his first two years in Philadelphia, the notoriously fickle Philly faithful began to doubt The Freak. After two more injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia—which included spraining multiple ligaments in his left knee during overtime against the Giants—the Eagles cut Kearse loose. He earned just over half of the potential money his contract allowed.
Many pundits wrote Kearse off as an overpaid underperformer, prone to injury.
Sal Paolantonio, who has covered the Eagles closely for both ESPN and The Philadelphia Inquirer, calls Kearse one of the most overrated defensive players in the history of the game. "The Freak?" asks Paolantonio. "More like The Meek."
But now Kearse is back where it all began. In March, the Titans signed Kearse to a $6 million contract, a fraction of his previous agreement with the Eagles. He's not looking for a payday, but a shot at redemption. He certainly doesn't need the paycheck—Kearse is worth millions—but he yearns to earn back the respect that once came so easy.
"It isn't about the money," he says. "It's about showing everyone that I'm still The Freak.... I have got to restore my name and let people know that I still have it."
But Kearse's homecoming has been marked by as much adversity as success.
Within weeks of arriving in town, the Vanderbilt police pulled him over on West End Avenue at 4:42 a.m. He would later be charged with DUI and violating the state's implied consent law.
"I felt like I was kind of targeted," Kearse says of the incident. "But they say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.... At least nothing crazy happened. I could have made a mistake and killed somebody."
Training camp has also had its pitfalls. He dinged his foot and, shortly thereafter, his surgically repaired knee.
"I got rolled up," he says of the play where he got hurt. "I fell on my knee wrong, but it's going to help me out in the long run."
Kearse explains that his left knee still doesn't have full mobility from the ligament strain he endured back in 2006. "When I fell on it," he says of his recent training camp mishap, "I bent it farther than it usually goes. That kind of broke up some of the tissue but it also kind of aggravated it more.... It was painful, but hopefully I'll have a little more flexibility on it."
He would spend the next day clunking around the practice field with what appeared to be a large bag of ice taped to his knee.
But Kearse was soon back to full-speed practicing with the defense, a roster loaded with talent and personality. He says that Titan's defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme exactly suits his abilities. He says he still has blazing speed and can still play like that kid from Florida who owned the league in 1999. All that's left for Kearse is to prove it.
A defensive end, or DE, must be both fast and incredibly strong.
They must be able to both stop the freight-train momentum of a speeding ball carrier, and zip through a gap in the offensive line to put the quarterback on his ass. To play this position at the highest level requires a combination of speed, athleticism and savagery more often found in a boxing ring than on the 100-yard grid of the football field.
Every day, for hours a day, in the sweltering heat of summer camp, the DEs and defensive tackles train together, trying to perfect the unperfectable act of busting holes in an offensive line and getting to the man with the ball.
"If there's no hole there, make one!" screams defensive line coach Washburn during one practice session.
The rap on Kearse is that he can't stop the run, though some say this is overstated. "I actually think Jevon was a bit underrated as a run stopper," says JasonB, who edits the popular Eagles blog Bleeding Green Nation, "but the fact is that he got the huge contract to get to the quarterback."
In his second game in the league, Kearse plastered Cleveland Brown's quarterback Tim Couch three times. He put up double-digit sacks—even though those digits kept declining—in each of his first three years as a pro. Sacks were the reason that Kearse was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and sacks were the reason the Eagles gave him all that money.
But after his 2002 foot injury, Kearse never recorded more than nine-and-a-half sacks, and he only achieved that number once. Last year he didn't start the second half of the season for the Eagles and registered just three-and-a-half sacks and 12 tackles.
"The NFL is difficult," says ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. "Teams figure out how to block you, and the bottom line is that teams figured out how to block Jevon Kearse. He only had one pitch in his repertoire...and his second time through the lineup, teams figured him out."
But Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't see it that way.
"I watched every game (Kearse) has played in the last two years," Schwartz says. "When he was healthy, he played good. In 2006 he had three sacks in the first two games. He was dominating the Giants and it wasn't until overtime that he got injured. Until then, he was on his way to a big-time season."
Schwartz also points out that it takes an extra year to heal the kind of injury that Kearse suffered. "The first year," says the coach, "you're never as effective."
Schwartz says he's not worried about Kearse's knee getting worn down because there are so many other talented players in that defensive unit.
From Antwan Odom and Kyle Vanden Bosch to the veteran Keith Bulluck, "We basically have six starters on our defensive line," says Schwartz. They comprise one of the most dangerous defenses in the league—ranked fifth in the NFL—and keep games close for a sometimes anemic offense.
Albert Haynesworth, the 330-pound 2007 Pro Bowl selection in the middle of the D-line, just signed an agreement that will keep him in Tennessee for the season. Haynesworth says that if he plays up to his potential, "then the team is going to have a good year and I am going to have a good year."
And then there is Kyle Vanden Bosch, who teammates refer to as KVB.
At 6-foot-4 with a shaved head, Vanden Bosch, who also made the Pro Bowl in 2007, never stops moving. "He's like a Tasmanian devil out there," Kearse says. "He just goes and goes, nonstop."
As Vanden Bosch waits his turn during drills, he paces back and forth, getting as close to the action as possible before being shooed back by a coach. He frays the bottoms of his shorts like a boxer, giving his steps a sense of jangled urgency. He seems to practice at full intensity, and the very first day in pads he scraps not once, but twice, with offensive guard Eugene Amano. The second melee comes at the end of a running play. Vanden Bosch grabs Amano by the shoulder pads with one enormous hand, and smacks the young man repeatedly on the ear hole with another. Soon, Amano's helmet flies off his head and coaches have to separate the two.
Ironically, Vanden Bosch is a bit of a Boy Scout off the field. On day three of training camp, as the other players filed into the locker room or stopped to sign autographs, Vanden Bosch ran to the sideline where his wife and children waited. The big man sat down on the grass and played with his children, seemingly oblivious to the world around him.
Kearse says that coach Washburn often points out Vanden Bosch's moves to younger players, so they might emulate him. Though Kearse is older, he also fervently hopes to replicate part of Vanden Bosch's career. Vanden Bosch spent much of his early career with the Arizona Cardinals on the bench with injuries, and now he's at the top of his game.
"Teams gave up on him [too]," Kearse says comparing his own injury history with that of his teammate. "He had some injuries and look at him now."
In the locker room, the men of the D-line share a corner row. There are no actual lockers in the locker room, just large wooden cubbies with cabinets over them. In front of each cubby, at knee level, sit square equipment trunks with carpeted lids. They sprout from the blue wall-to-wall carpet like toadstools and make a jarring "Bang!" when the lids are dropped shut, which happens every few minutes.
Kearse's cubby is next to rookie defensive tackle Jason Jones. Jones has the fresh-faced, slightly wide-eyed look of a man who is in an NFL locker room for the first time. Even worse, he's become a target of veteran defensive tackle Tony Brown's pointed verbal critiques. Brown's locker is on the other side of Kearse's, between Haynesworth and Vanden Bosch. The veteran, who sports short dreads and a quick smile, razzes Jones about everything from his T-shirts—"too tight"—to the color of the rims on his Lincoln—"played out."
Nearby Keith Bulluck talks about his college days at Syracuse, and how he and Kearse first met.
"We played against each other in the Orange Bowl in '99. When I moved here (in 2000) he was the first one to welcome me in." Bulluck says that he and Kearse are still friends. "We both kinda have the same clique," he says. He shows off Kearse's green Eagles helmet, which his friend gifted him upon his return to Tennessee.
Long after most of the other players have showered and dressed, Jevon Kearse limps in from the training room. He has already stripped and is wearing only black spandex shorts, a knee brace and tape on his ankles. Kearse is covered in sweat—on this day the heat index approaches 100—and he goes straight to the floor like a defeated boxer, laying back with his hands over his face, knees bent, his face twisted in a grimace.
Kearse is listed at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, but his long arms and broad shoulders—he has an 89-inch wingspan—make him appear much taller and thinner. His body looks as if it has been cut from black marble, but as he reclines on the floor Kearse looks very mortal. He clutches his left knee, the one that got injured back in Philly, and as he does a trainer kneels over him and they whisper about it.
"Is it sore?" a reporter asks.
Kearse breathes through his nose. He does not appear happy.
"I just want to make sure it doesn't get sore," he says testily.
Kearse then produces a small, two-pronged knife and begins to shear the tape away from his ankles. When he's finished, he hoists himself onto his square equipment trunk and stares about the room. He looks tired, spent.
Just then a reporter from a Nashville TV news show sticks a camera in Kearse's face, complete with a mini klieg light. Kearse does his best to brighten.
The reporter, a skinny, blond man with a reedy voice, asks him about how it feels to be back. Will The Freak be returning to Tennessee?
Kearse flashes a smile as bright as Christmas morning. His teeth are perfect and white as porcelain.
He says that he likes the defensive scheme, he's excited about the team's chances, and he thinks they can go all the way.
The camera switches off, and Kearse rises. He grabs a bottle of Zest body wash and Rembrandt toothpaste from the cabinet above his cubby, wraps a blue towel around his waist, and walks stiffly toward the shower room, heavily favoring his left knee as he goes.
In June, Kearse bought a house on Whitworth Boulevard, right off of Bowling Avenue in West Nashville. His is a rather upscale neighborhood. Both former Sen. Bill Frist and Sen. Lamar Alexander live right up the street.
At the front entrance of Kearse's home, twin staircases rise from the street and arch together toward the front door, forming a distinctly vulval oval. In the middle, standing amid well-manicured bushes, there is a statue of a cherubic boy holding a large dish. Inside the house, Kearse lays across a wide, high-backed couch in his living room with a white, elastic-looking wrap on his left knee.
The living room is expansive, in the style of suburban "great rooms," with light flooding in from tall windows. The furniture is show-room new. A magnum bottle of Grey Goose vodka stands atop a small wet bar with cans of pineapple juice in a carton nearby.
Kearse is holding a nearly laptop-sized remote control—for the large flat-screen TV hanging on the wall. He starts reflecting on his time in Philadelphia. As he speaks, the giant screen flickers images of a Robo Cop sequel, and the cathedral-ceilinged room echoes with the sound of automatic weaponry.
Kearse describes the Eagles defensive scheme as a "two gap" defense. This type of defense requires that a defensive end like Kearse focus more on stopping the run than sacking the quarterback.
"That type of defense...wasn't utilizing my talents," Kearse says. He adds that the Eagles defensive scheme, created by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, distributes sacks equally among defensemen. "Even safeties and corners and linebackers [were getting sacks]," Kearse says. "Here, we're doing a lot of four-man rushes, just the linemen, so we'll be getting those sacks."
JasonB, of Bleeding Green Nation, has heard Kearse give this explanation before and doesn't agree.
"Honestly," says JasonB, "[It] made no sense to me when I heard [Kearse] say that. Jim Johnson's defense is built almost entirely around pressuring the quarterback, so how a pass rush specialist couldn't thrive in such a situation is beyond me.... I think it is a pretty weak excuse from a guy that I never knew to make excuses before."
Sal Paolantonio also balks at the rationalization.
"What Jim Johnson tries to do," says Paolantonio, "is throw as many pass rushers as possible at the quarterback.... Kearse, more than anybody else that I've seen, should have been perfectly suited for what Jim Johnson tries to accomplish on the football field."
When these sentiments are relayed to Kearse, he stares straight ahead and curls his lip slightly, as if he has smelled something unpleasant.
"I love proving the naysayers wrong," Kearse says. "I get off on that. That motivates me. Like Sal and all that, that motivates me." He pauses and smiles. "They pissed off The Freak again."