They Didn’t Know Jack
Thirty-one teams passed on UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, at one time a surefire top-10 pick, over injury concerns—including the one that eventually nabbed him in the second round. Here’s how Jacksonville decided to take a chance on the most talked-about knee in the NFL, and a player with something big to prove
CHICAGO — The morning after he was supposed to become a multimillionaire, Myles Jack awoke to an uncertain future and disappeared. For an hour, texts from his agent went unanswered. The UCLA standout scoured the city for a local chain to his gym, telling the gatekeeper at the front desk, “I just need to work out.”
The night before, Jack had become a reality TV spectacle. Now he was something of a nobody. “I couldn’t figure out who it was,” says Adam Weiss, a 26-year-old financial analyst who watched the 6-foot-1, 245-pound linebacker on the basketball court. “[Bulls guard] Jimmy Butler? That wouldn’t make sense. When someone said Myles Jack, I said, ‘No way, that doesn’t make sense either. Why would he be out here?’ ”
After six weeks of hopscotching the country for workouts, Jack still had something to prove after being passed over by the 31 NFL teams with first round draft picks. To confirm his surgically repaired right knee shouldn’t be a concern, he grabbed a basketball and threw down two-handed jams. His brother, Jahlen, captured them all on video.
“All of the sudden my phone began blowing up,” says John Thornton, Jack’s agent. “Myles texted me all these videos of him dunking. It just felt so typical Myles. As everyone is talking about how bad his knee is, Myles is out there doing things other guys can’t do. He feels like he can do anything.”
pic.twitter.com/lwXRusQyp1 — Myles Jack (@MylesJack) April 29, 2016
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At UCLA, Jack wore No. 30, a nod to his stated goal as a freshman of “three-and-out”—as in, three years and then on to the next level. Through his first two seasons, he played in the mold of a modern NFL linebacker, taking down backs with his blistering sideline-to-sideline speed and covering tight ends, slot receivers and even the occasional outside receiver. But last September, three games into his junior season, he tangled with a wide receiver on a seven-on-seven drill in practice and tore his meniscus. Still, he insisted on making the jump to pro football in 2016. He withdrew from UCLA in the first week of October, and declared for the draft.
“He’s taking his chips and shoving them into the middle, and we hope he draws a good hand,” Bruins coach Jim Mora said at a press conference last fall. “NFL teams are very, very conservative, and if there's any question whatsoever, they'll pass on you in a heartbeat. They're going to take the sure thing.”
After signing with his agent, John Thornton, Jack relocated to Tempe, Arizona, and worked with trainer Brett Fischer. Jack adopted a mostly Paleo diet (Fischer noticed too much refined sugar in the college student’s diet) and a strict regimen: at least five hours in the gym each day. At February’s combine, Jack was subjected to seven hours of poking and prodding by NFL medical staffs. He boasted that he felt like he was 100 percent, but truthfully, he wasn’t there yet. Jack wasn’t cleared for on-field drills until a week before his March 15 Pro Day. Although his 40-inch vertical leap and 10-feet, 4-inch broad jump would have placed him among the top linebackers at the combine, he still needed more time to heal.
Thornton knew there were only a few teams that would realistically draft his client in the first round—clubs that needed a linebacker and wouldn’t be scared off by the knee—and narrowed the list down to the 49ers, Dolphins, Jaguars and Raiders. Jim Mora had several conversations with Jaguars coach Gus Bradley before the draft. “Don’t be the fool that doesn’t take Myles Jack,” Mora recalls saying. “This is a kid who smiles in every practice. He's the hardest worker and he loves football. I know you, and this is your kind of guy.”
When Jacksonville called to schedule a private workout with Jack, the logistics were difficult to work out. Jack was in New York City to film a Speed Stick commercial on April 11, a Monday, and then had to fly to Indianapolis two days later for his medical re-check two weeks before the draft. “Can you do it the following Sunday in Los Angeles?” Thornton had asked. The Jaguars said yes, then moved it to Saturday, then pushed it up yet again to Friday.
“Myles just kept saying yes to everything I asked, that’s the one workout he really wanted to do,” Thornton says. “He said, ‘I’m going to kill it. I’m going to give them a tough decision when they pick at No. 5.”
“I got them,” Jack said after his workout with Jacksonville. “There’s no way they are not going to take me.”
The session was an hour long, and vigorous. “A different type of workout than we did with traditional linebackers,” Bradley said. “A lot of quick change of direction, not a lot of rest time, really tried to strain him and then just to see how he would recover from it." Bradley threw balls—“crazy hard” according to Jack—above the linebacker’s head, two feet to his side and at his ankles. “I did things they had never seen before,” Jack later said to Thornton. “I was doing some Odell Beckham stuff out there.”
Afterward, Bradley and general manager Dave Caldwell pulled Jack to a far corner of the field. Bradley began talking about defensive zone concepts, but Jack noticed Caldwell wasn’t engaged in the conversation—the GM’s eyes were fixated on his knee.
A few minutes in, Caldwell interjected. “Is your knee swelling up?” he asked.
“No, sir.” Jack responded.
“Is it sore?”
Jack rolled up his shorts. “No. Look, look, it’s not swollen. I don’t get any swelling, it’s fine. You don’t have to worry about it.”
In relaying the conversation to Thornton later that night, Jack said: “I got them. There’s no way they are not going to take me.”
Thornton, a veteran agent, tried reasoning with the 20 year old: “Remember, these teams are going to tell you what you want to hear.”
“I know, I know,” Jack said. “But I gave it all in that workout. I crushed it.”
* * *
Anonymous reports about the state of Jack’s knee began trickling out at the combine, and were a veritable flood after his medical re-check. One Mr. Anonymous suggested that Jack was “a time bomb whose knee could give him several good years, or not. Bone and cartilage starting to break away.”
NFL source calls Myles Jack "a time bomb" whose knee could give him several good years, or not. Bone and cartilage starting to break away.— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) April 18, 2016
Though some teams reportedly removed Jack from their draft boards, Jack’s camp says that every doctor at the medical re-check expressed no concerns. Jack consulted multiple experts, including Dr. James Andrews and several NFL trainers whom Thornton knows. According to Thornton, they all cleared Jack and didn't believe he would need microfracture surgery.
The narrative, however, changed abruptly two days before the draft. Jack appeared at an NFL Play 60 event in Chicago, where a group of reporters swarmed the prospect. The linebacker was asked to respond to conflicting reports about his health, and offered this answer: “[The degenerative problems are] there, but it's nothing extreme. Down the line, possibly I could have microfracture surgery—potentially. Who knows what will happen? Nobody knows how long anybody is going to play in this league. To play three years in this league would be above average."
The quote became a New York Post headline. Some questioned if Jack had sabotaged his own stock. Thornton, who was not present at the event, believed Jack’s quote was blown out of context as he was simply responding to rumors. Jack felt awful about the way it was construed and says he was just trying to answer honestly. His agent faced an impossible situation. He couldn’t come out and say, My client doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He also didn’t want to appear overly sensitive or argumentative. At least two teams called Thornton that night to make sure something hadn’t happened that they didn’t know about.
“It was down moment, for sure,” Thornton says. “But most of the teams understood. They already knew everything that was out there.”
Mora, a longtime NFL assistant coach, comforted his former player by saying: “I sat in 25 draft rooms. And I can say not one time did we make one single decision based upon anything other than our information. Don’t worry about what the outside world is saying.”
* * *
On the first night of the draft, Jack escorted his mother, La Sonja, down the red carpet. He wore a bow tie and Under Armour shoes; she wore new sparkly Jimmy Choo’s. It was a moment he had envisioned, but the second question posed by NFL Network’s red carpet reporter felt sobering: “We’ve heard so much about your knee, will you set the record straight?”
"Whatever team drafts me, I’ll be at their rookie minicamp,” Jack said with a slight shrug. “I’ll be playing this season.”
Knowing the first round could be hit or miss, Thornton gave Jack the option of not attending, but the linebacker wanted to be in the greenroom. He was joined by his girlfriend, brother, grandmother, agent, trainer and college coach. When the Jaguars were on the clock with the fifth pick, everyone hushed. When Jack’s phone remained silent and Florida State corner Jalen Ramsey’s was called, Jack slunk in his seat.
“When the Jags passed on him that let him down the most,” Thornton says. “He really felt a bond with them. He felt like that’s where he wanted to go.”
There was still hope, especially at No. 14. The Raiders had worked Jack out a week before the draft, but they chose West Virginia safety Karl Joseph.
In the greenroom, Alabama coach Nick Saban came by to shake Jack’s hand. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer pulled up a chair and chatted for at least 10 minutes. Players came by, too. Wide receiver Corey Coleman, who was also at the medical re-check in Indianapolis, offered his support. “This is crazy,” he said to Jack. “I heard what the doctors said to you. They all said you were fine.”
Before the draft, Mora had asked a member of his staff to do research on players who slid in the first round and went on to have Hall-of-Fame worthy careers. By the middle of the first-round, Mora scribbled those names on a piece of paper and showed Jack:
Jack smiled at the encouragement, but left before the first round was over.
* * *
When Jack returned from his basketball session on Friday morning, Thornton asked what he wanted to do for Day 2. He could return to Auditorium Theater, if he wanted, or he could go home. Jack wanted to stay in Chicago, but avoid the greenroom, so Thornton arranged for a conference room at his hotel, the Trump International.
While Jack was working out, Thornton had a long conversation with Jaguars brass. He knew they were going to try to trade up for him, but didn’t want to tip his client, just in case something happened.
“Doctors are like scouts and personnel evaluators,” Caldwell says. “Every doctor has an opinion, and ours consulted quite a few cartilage experts. We don’t feel Myles will need microfracture. Our feelings never changed from the scouting combine to the medical recheck."
“Just make sure you arrive on time,” Thornton told Jack. Mora, who had returned to the West Coast, also received word before the choice was announced, via a text from Bradley.
Just after 5:30 p.m., Jack’s cell phone rang with a 904 area code: Jacksonville.
“You’re getting a steal,” the linebacker said.
Later, he joked: “I know, I’ll have to downgrade an apartment because I’m not making first-round money. I don’t care.”
On Saturday morning, Jack flew to Jacksonville. Upon seeing Caldwell in the team’s war room, he hugged the GM and said, “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” Caldwell responded. “You earned it, buddy.”
Bradley then embraced the linebacker.
“You look awesome,” the coach said, patting him on the shoulder.
“I’m great,” Jack responded. “I’m where I need to be.”
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