"Don't worry about it," Gray replied. "You're not going to reach the ceiling." With no running start, Kearse sprung upward, pushed a ceiling tile out of its frame and walked out of the room.
"He went even higher on Christmas Day? defensive coordinator Gregg Williams says incredulously. "It was the day before we played Jacksonville, our biggest game of the season, and Jeff let us do our walk-through in the ballroom of the Loew's Vanderbilt so we could spend some time with our families that morning. Jevon walked in wearing sweats and old, sloppy shoes, and the whole time he was staring at this chandelier. At the end of the walk-through Jevon waited until everyone else had filed out, then he jumped and slapped the chandelier, which I later measured as 12� feet off the ground."
If Kearse seems reluctant to let go of his puerile impulses, perhaps it's because he never really got to be a kid. In Fort Myers, a city of 46,800 near the Gulf of Mexico, it is not regarded as entirely coincidental that his family name is pronounced curse. In February 1976, seven months before Jevon was born, his father, Joseph, was shot and killed in a pool-hall dispute. "People say Jevon's dad was a bad, bad man," says Cisco Navas, the friend of Jevon's who became his surrogate brother during their high school years. "Word was he used to rob people with his bare hands."
Adds Lewis, "Yeah, he'd just turn 'em upside down and take their change if he had to. The cops wouldn't f—-with him."
Over the next four years Joseph's father and two other family members were killed. As if that weren't enough, a cousin died in a prison hospital while doing time for attempted murder, and another cousin (convicted of first-degree murder) and Jevon's older brother, J.J. (convicted of armed robbery), remain incarcerated. "I've experienced so many losses," Kearse says, "but all the adversity made me into a stronger person."
Jevon and J.J. grew up in the Sabal Palm housing project with their mother, Lessie Mae Green, and their five siblings. J.J. ran with a rough crowd, while Jevon, a shy kid who stuttered, was more straitlaced—though he did have his share of tussles. In the eighth grade Jevon got into a fight with Cisco in the Lee Middle School cafeteria after accusing Cisco of stealing his milk. The two were strangers, but they conned school officials into believing that they were good friends who had been putting on an act. Their ruse was prophetic. Cisco, who lived with his mother, Yolanda McDowell, on a seven-acre spread in North Fort Myers, began inviting Jevon to sleep over, and by the time the two were football teammates at North Fort Myers High, Jevon had become Cisco's regular roommate.
Kearse, who says the desire for a calmer environment compelled him to move in with Navas, became a National Honor Society student. "Jevon always had determination," Navas says. "Every day when we got home from school, the first thing he did was hit the books. Then we'd go out back and fish for snook." Kearse played safety and tight end on the football team, on which Navas (a fullback), Marchman (the quarterback) and Lewis (a receiver) also played key roles. The self-anointed Four Horsemen remain close. "We like to call our hometown Fort Misery, and believe me, the name fits," Marchman says. "But back then we had a team. Sixteen thousand people came to watch us play; they had to add bleachers to fit them all in."
Kearse chose Florida over Notre Dame and dozens of other schools, and though on the field he made a smooth transition from safety to linebacker, off the field he had his share of inglorious moments. Shortly after he arrived in Gainesville, in 1995, he was washing his car at a gas station when police responded to a complaint that his radio was too loud. "The cops were joking with me, saying, 'As soon as you finish your car, can you wash ours?' " Kearse recalls. "All of a sudden they went for their guns and pinned me against the car."
The man the police were looking for was J.J., who months earlier had identified himself as Jevon after being arrested for driving a stolen vehicle in Sarasota County and had then skipped out on a court date. Jevon spent a night in jail before things were straightened out. He has since forgiven J.J., who is serving time at DeSoto ( Fla.) Correctional Institution until at least June 2002. "I've learned what not to do from watching him," Jevon says. "Now he's watching me live the life he should be living."
In October '96 Kearse's half-brother Jermaine (Rocky) Green was killed in a drive-by shooting outside Sabal Palm. "I'm still not over it," says Kearse, who has a tattoo on his left shoulder bearing Rocky's name and the letters R.I.P. "I think about him all the time, especially when I'm on the field and I need that extra push. I'll tell myself, O.K., on this next play, my brother's with me."