A Freak strolls down Eighth Street and pivots sharply onto Ocean Drive, and on the crowded balcony of Wet Willie's, conversations abruptly cease. Notwithstanding all the eye candy on display in the heart of jam-packed South Beach on a warm June night, this buxom woman is too striking to overlook.
A moment passes before Jevon Kearse makes his presence felt on the balcony. Kearse, the Tennessee Titans' second-year defensive end and the most intimidating pass rusher to have entered the NFL in more than a decade, leans over the railing, flashes his diamond-studded Rolex at the physical specimen below and intones in his deep baritone, "Yo, we got it goin' on up in here." The freak looks up at the Freak—as Kearse is known to football fans—bats her long eyelashes and smiles. A tight black dress covers a bare minimum of her dark-chocolate skin. The sexy young reveler redirects her stiletto-heeled pumps toward Wet Willie's and joins the party.
Freaks and frozen wrists and homeys and drama: It's all there in Miami Beach for Kearse, a 23-year-old with an 86-inch wingspan who is soaring to superstardom. When people say Kearse has the world at his fingertips, you're tempted to take them literally. With apologies to Jerry Rice and Cris Carter, the Freak has, among other physical attributes, the most striking set of hands in football. When his cell phone rings for the 27th time in three hours and he lifts it to his left ear, he appears to be handling a bite-sized candy bar. Then he uses his other mitt to reach for his blended drink—a sinister concoction called Call-a-Cab that purportedly includes four shots of grain alcohol—and gives the illusion of a man sipping from a mouthwash cap.
Clad in a black tank top with a matching 'do-rag, khaki cargo shorts and black sandals, the Freak is dressed to thrill, and even his three homeboys from Fort Myers, Fla., aren't sure what excitement lies ahead. "We're gettin' crunk!" Kearse exclaims, and there are fist-touches all around. Crunk is Freakspeak for...well, for what? "You know, crunk—like you crank up a car," says Kearse's pal Otis (Monk) Marchman.
When the boys get crunk, the faint of heart had best run for cover. Hanging with the 6'4", 260-pound marvel is not for the meek. "Jevon is like a comic-book character," says Joe Lewis, another of his childhood friends. "He doesn't know his own strength, and he's always doing crazy stuff—running through the house like a wild man, leaping down the stairs, grabbing people from behind and lifting them off their feet. Hell, tonight he might grab you." Lewis pauses as you contemplate the Fay Wray moment that may await you, then continues: "Let's just say he has a bit more energy than the average dude."
Kearse is about as average as the X-Men. He's not merely fast for a big man; he's exceptionally fast for any man. Ask halfbacks Napoleon Kaufman of the Oakland Raiders and Priest Holmes of the Baltimore Ravens, both of whom were chased down by Kearse last December. Or talk to Ravens wideout Qadry (the Missile) Ismail, grounded by the fast-closing Kearse—who went over the top of pursuing cornerback Samari Rolle—on one of the most awe-inspiring plays of the 1999 season. At last year's NFL scouting combine Kearse ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds and tied Deion Sanders, his fellow North Fort Myers High alum, for the fastest opening 10-yard burst in league history. Throw in Kearse's uncanny agility, deceptive strength and 40-inch vertical leap, and it's no wonder he's called the Freak. "I've been in the league 20 years," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher, a Chicago Bears safety from 1981 through '84, "and I've not seen an athlete like Jevon."
Adds St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, last year's NFL and Super Bowl MVP, "When you look at someone with that size and all that ability, it's scary to think about the future of the game. What if there are more guys like him? I don't even want to think about it."
The Freak is a menace not only to quarterbacks and offensive linemen but also to some of the league's premier defenders. At the Pro Bowl last February, Kearse, the AFC's starter at left defensive end, was scolded by several veteran defensive linemen, one of whom said, "Man, you need to stop chasing players down, because our coaches are expecting us to do the same."
Yet for all the remarkable things Kearse did as a rookie, some of the moves he made away from the bright lights were equally amazing. In June 1999, two months after the Titans had selected him with the 16th pick in the draft, the former Florida linebacker participated in a minicamp pursuit drill that was the brainchild of Tennessee defensive line coach Jim Washburn: Four linemen were required to slam into a blocking sled, then race 30 yards downfield through an obstacle course made up of tackling dummies and toward a set of cones on the sideline. "Three cones were about five yards apart, and whoever didn't get one was the loser," Fisher recalls. "Guys were tackling and tripping each other, doing anything to get a cone, and Jevon kept getting his easily. Before we ran it the last time, someone yelled, 'Hey, Jevon, let's see you get two cones.' Without breaking stride he got all three."
The Freak's mystique grew when he reported to training camp with a creative alternative to the mandatory test of a player's vertical leap. Upon entering the room where the test was being conducted, Kearse glanced at the ceiling, an estimated 12 feet high, and asked defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, "If I touch it, can I leave?"