Terry Eidson is a pretty fair judge of talent. He’s seen plenty of it during his near three decades as defensive coordinator at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif.
He’s coached more than a dozen NFL players including Amani Toomer and D.J. Williams and planned defensive schemes against many more, including Matt Leinart.
But when he first saw Maurice Jones-Drew, then entering the 10th grade in a summer-league game, “I knew I was seeing something very special," Eidson said. "He was making moves in the open field that were hard to describe. It was a one-hand touch league and no one could even touch him.”
Few touched him about a year later in what some say was the biggest high school game to date.
It was the first time the top two teams in the country squared off. Diminutive De La Salle played star-studded Long Beach Poly at Long Beach City College.
At 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds at the time, Jones-Drew personified the dwarfed Spartans not only in stature but performance.
He played the game of his life, scoring all four of his team’s touchdowns in a 29-15 victory. His first score came on a short swing pass from current Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Matt Gutierrez and turning it into a 25-yard touchdown.
Jones-Drew celebrated by somersaulting into the end zone.
Though flagged, and later scorned by the coaching staff, it was a fitting and descriptive beginning to a stellar high school, better college (UCLA) and better yet current NFL Pro-Bowl career (Jacksonville Jaguars) for this undersized, sometimes spectacular and always productive all-purpose back and returner.
He had one of his best games as a pro on Sunday, rushing for 119 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win over the Texans.
“What I remember most about Maurice simply was his love for life,” De La Salle athletic director Leo Lopoz said. “He displayed it on campus, the locker room and the football field. … He was just a great teammate, a great competitor, a great Spartan.”
Eidson admits the coaching staff had hid Drew-Jones the first three or four games before his breakout performance against Poly, a team that had upwards of 15 Division I players, including current NFL players Darnell Bing, Marcedes Lewis, Manuel Wright and Winston Justice.
“We put in quite a few plays for Maurice just for that game and he kind of exploded,” Eidson said. “A lot of people were like ‘wow, where did that guy come from?’ But we kind of knew it all along.”
After the game, legendary De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur said: “Maurice doesn’t even know how good he is.”
The coaching staff didn’t see the celebratory somersault coming. They didn’t even speak to it until film session the next week.
According to Eidson, when Jones-Drew’s celebration showed up on film, Ladouceur said: “Maurice, if you do that again, you’re never playing at De La Salle again.”
Jones-Drew never did and he led the Spartans to a pair of mythical national championships. He also helped the team extend its eventual national-record 151-game win streak.
But Jones-Drew, in a NFL release this week that highlighted pro players and the high schools that produced them, said that winning was only a small part of his experience at De La Salle.
“Sure, the winning was great but it was the bond among the guys in the locker room that remains with me to this day,” he said. “It was a family atmosphere where you were committed to winning and doing the right thing. You trusted the person next to you that he would get the job done and the same guy expected the same out of you.”
No one ever expected to do the things that Jones-Drew did on the field at De La Salle.
Though he was rated the No. 1 all-purpose back in the country that year, many, because his lack of height, were skeptical he’d keep it up at UCLA.
By his senior year, he was an Associated Press All-America first teamer as an all-purpose player. He led the nation in punt-return average (29.07). He scored on returns of 72, 66 and 81 yards and set up other scores with returns of 69 and 59 yards.
He was sixth in NCAA scoring (10.91 per game) with 20 touchdowns (13 rushing, four receiving, three returns). He also accounted for 1,765 all-purpose yards and averaged 7.72 yards every time he touched the ball.
“I too wondered if he could continue his plight with his lack of size,” Ladouceur said. “But Maurice has proved at every level what a special player and person he is.”
The second-round pick of the Jags in 2006, set a team single-season all-purpose record with 2,250 his rookie season. He was second place for AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Coming into this, his fourth season, the 24-year-old rushed for 2,553 yards (34 touchdowns) and caught 148 passes for 1,408 yards. He had a very healthy 4.8 yards per carry.
He still stands a squatty 5-7, but at 207 pounds, he packs a mighty punch.
“I think he’s shown that numbers and size aren’t everything,” Lopoz said. “You can’t measure someone’s heart or desire to excel. Maurice was and always will be special because of who he is. He deserves every accolade he receives.
“Since day one he had ‘it.’ He still has ‘it.’ It’s not in his character to waver.”
Nor in his running style.
Know a professional athlete whose Starting Point was your high school? E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.