GREENSBORO — It’s never easy being the new kid in school. It’s even harder when you’re 6 feet 5 and nearly 300 pounds and everyone already seems to know who you are.
That was enough of a challenge for Jamaal Jarrett when he transferred from Smith to Grimsley for his junior year of high school. But Jarrett also had to prove himself to a group of football players who had just won a state championship.
“It was the football,” Jarrett says. “The academics were already there. My mom would not let me in the house with a C. Social was there because I love talking. It was really the football.”
The move across town from a struggling Smith program to a Grimsley program that won the spring 2021 NCHSAA Class 4-A title was more than a little bit intimidating.
“With the support and the talent here, it felt like I was going to a college,” Jarrett says. “I treated it like a big adventure, but I was scared coming in, nervous, thinking maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
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Jarrett already had the hype that went with some big-time scholarship offers, but that didn’t make him unique among the Whirlies. Fellow defensive lineman Travis Shaw was a top-10 national recruit who would eventually pick North Carolina. Another senior, defensive end Tamorye Thompson, was coming off a spring season in which he was named Defensive MVP in the NCHSAA Class 4-A final and would go on to play at South Carolina State..
“Just watching their highlights … Travis, Tamorye, everybody … I was like, look at the support. Look at the stands,” Jarrett says.
Thompson saw Jarrett’s potential, but he also saw a player who was “really raw” and needed to understand the expectations he faced.
“You get a kid with all those offers, all that going on, at first he wasn’t what the hype was,” Thompson says. “I think he knew that. … He was Smith’s guy, but we told him we didn’t care whether he had an offer from Alabama or he had an offer from Guilford College. If you’re good, you’re good. If you can play, you can play.”
With Thompson as a mentor and Shaw coaching him up while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Jarrett played well enough to solidify himself as a four-star recruit and announced July 19 that he will play college football for 2021 national champion Georgia. That commitment “takes a lot of stress off my shoulders,” Jarrett says, but it’s just the next step in a journey that began at Swann Middle School.
Where it began
When he enrolled at Swann Middle School for seventh grade, “I was about 6-1, 210,” Jarrett says. “They got me on the field. I didn’t know what I was going, but the coaches over there helped me out and I fell in love with the game. Then I transferred middle schools and played at Jackson my eighth-grade year.”
Jarrett also tried baseball, track, wrestling and even volleyball. He always stood out because of his size, if not his skill, and he kept growing.
“I was always hearing people say, ‘You’re big for nothing,’ so that was always pushing me to be that good,” Jarrett says. “I want to be a big dude who can do things a little guy can do. I can produce and put up numbers as well.”
Before his freshman year at Smith, Jarrett went to summer basketball workouts from 8 a.m. to about 3 p.m., then moved to football in the afternoon and evening. He enjoyed both sports, but doing double duty took its toll.
“We had AAU summer league and I was so tired because we’d already played four games,” Jarrett says, laughing at the memory. “I was literally dozing off on the bench and Coach was like, ‘Jamaal, get in.’ There were about 30 seconds left and we were blowing them out. I got in there and didn’t know what was going on because I was still waking up.”
That’s when things got interesting.
“A dude threw me the ball inbounds,” Jarrett says. “I guess they wanted me to run it up the court, but I threw it up on the wrong goal. It was so embarrassing.”
It wasn’t so embarrassing that he didn’t stick with both sports during his freshman and sophomore years with the Golden Eagles. One of the highlights was making the varsity in football as a 6-4, 215-pound ninth-grader.
In one game that season, Jarrett got a preview of what it would be like to go against Shaw and Thompson in practice. He went head-to-head with two Dudley lineman who were headed to the ACC, Myles Murphy (North Carolina) and Payton Page (Clemson).
“They tried to put me in at tackle that game, too,” Jarrett says. “I was 215 and they’re over 300 pounds running full speed at you. It was definitely a learning experience going against all these great players and just molding me to be a great player, just like them. Being around them and seeing how they play, the environment that supports them, at a young age it was great. That helped me become the player I am today.”
'That's the night I blew up'
What also helped Jarrett become a Southeastern Conference-caliber defensive lineman was plain old hard work.
Just when things seemed to be progressing for him, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Jarrett’s response during a time that “was the scariest for me as far as recruiting” says a lot about him and about the two current Smith players who worked out with him, Jamarri Coles and Bottra Thach.
“We had these big tractor tires at Smith just sitting on the track with nobody using them,” Jarrett says. “We came out there, sprayed them down with a hose and that was our weight room for the summer during COVID. We ran the track with weighted vests, held water jugs while we did hills, benched a tire with someone sitting on it, flipped the tires. … We’d hang off the monkey bars and do sit-ups. We just had to improvise with whatever we had and turned it to our advantage. A bleacher could be a tool for incline pushups.”
The three rising sophomores even bought some $5 rolls of duct tape to patch together a broken blocking sled that they used.
“We were out there all summer just figuring out ways to work out and get the grind in, and it paid off when the season came,” Jarrett says. “Everybody else was eating hot dogs and watching TV while we were out in that sun getting better.”
His performance against Northwest Guilford in Smith’s opener during the spring 2021 season opened some eyes when the UNC coaches saw the stream of the game on the NFHS network. Then came the Dudley game, when teammate Johnathan Newell got hurt and Jarrett moved from end to nose tackle as Newell’s replacement.
“That’s the night I blew up,” he says. “There were about 15 assistants in the stands that night to watch Dudley. The rest is history.”
When scouting combines and camps reopened as the pandemic subsided somewhat, more college coaches got to see Jarrett in person and the scholarship offers flowed. But his first offer, from North Carolina, is the one he still remembers most.
“As soon as UNC came in, I kid you not, me and my family started crying,” Jarrett says. “It was like, after driving out to this school and working out all summer, being doubted, it was happening. Virginia Tech came in and everybody else, Kentucky … Once one SEC offers, the whole SEC offers. Coach Trey Scott at Georgia reached out and my parents talked to him on the phone and offered.”
The chance to play for the Bulldogs and emulate another similarly sized North Carolina native, Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick and former Charlotte Mallard Creek standout Jordan Davis, was too much to pass up.
'I really looked up to them'
Meanwhile, Jarrett’s family had been thinking about moving him to Grimsley, the high school he should have been attending all along based on where they lived. His mother, Tisha Brown, wasn’t happy with the environment around Smith and asked him, “Why are we even doing this when we live five minutes from Grimsley?’ The only reason I went back to Smith my sophomore year was because they had new coaches and my friends were there.”
Once the transfer process was complete, it was time for Jarrett to meet his new teammates and coaches. Two-way lineman Henry Harden made an immediate impression and became his closest friend on the team.
“From the first day here he was touring me around and giving me rides,” Jarrett says.
But it was Thompson who became his mentor.
“He was just a brother,” Jarrett says. “We talk to this day about what he’s doing, what I’m doing.”
Thompson was immediately impressed by his younger protégé.
“When he’d see me he’d always have something good to say or dap me up,” Thompson says. “He’s super well-mannered. With someone that big, people can be intimidated, but he was just a big goofball. He loved to have fun, loved to speak with people. He was never mean to anybody, and the teachers loved him as a student.”
Jarrett got “tough love” from Thompson, Shaw and defensive line coach Kemar Bachelor.
“With Tamorye, Jamaal saw how hard he worked every day,” says Grimsley head coach Darryl Brown. “Tamorye’s a guy who would show up and practice every day like it was the last day of his football career. …
“With Travis and him not playing as much because he was hurt, what Jamaal got was more from a leadership standpoint. He got how to lead, how to get your teammates to respond.”
“I really looked up to them a lot,” Jarrett says of Thompson and Shaw. “It was great learning from them. I hit pause and was kind of reserved and tried to learn as much as I could from them before they left.”
Shaw sat out the first eight games of the season rehabilitating a shoulder injury suffered in the spring state championship game, while Thompson found a willing pupil who “was never scared to ask questions” and someone to whom he could pass the mantel of leadership.
“Tamorye taught me a lot in the weight room and about conditioning,” Jarrett says. “Travis taught me a lot about the position and the recruiting game. Those two things alone really helped me out.”
'Now I'm the big kid'
The Whirlies went unbeaten in the regular season but lost to Indian Trail Porter Ridge in the second round of the Class 4-A playoffs, bringing down the curtain on the high school careers of Thompson and Shaw. That ending was the beginning of an offseason that Jarrett and his coaches believe will define his final year at Grimsley before he enrolls at Georgia in January.
“Our guys are in weight training from August to June and he really committed himself to what we do,” says Joe Rigsbee, Grimsley’s defensive coordinator. “He also did extra running after practice (and competed in track and field) and that’s helped him with his endurance and things of that nature. Having an actual spring ball, those 10 days of practice, has paid huge dividends for him as well.”
As a junior, Jarrett was credited with 30 tackles, including nine for losses. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but being an interior defensive lineman and eating up blockers can sometimes be a thankless task.
“He’s a true interior defensive lineman,” Rigsbee says. “He’ll play between the guards a lot of the time and still have the ability to make some plays. We’ll move him around a little bit, but not quite as much as some guys we’ve had in the past because he’s such a huge dude. … For the most part, he’ll be a ‘shade’ or three-technique for us.”
Jarrett not only welcomes the challenge, he’s excited about what he can bring to the team in that role and as a mentor for rising sophomores Andre Hill and Bryce Davis on the defensive line.
“It’s crazy!” Jarrett says. “I was the little kid looking up to (Thompson and Shaw), and now I’m the big kid.”
Brown says Jarrett “has a huge ceiling. He hasn’t come close to scratching the surface of what he can be. The best is yet to come for him.”
Rigsbee says he believes Jarrett is “going to really solidify his spot in Grimsley football history and Guilford County athletics as a whole, and I’m looking forward to watching it.”
For his part, Jarrett says he wants to be remembered as “the hard-working big man. Grades always good. Pushing myself and others in the weight room. Pushing myself and others on the field. Just being a leader on and off the field.”
Just like his mentors.