More than a number: Jaylin Williams driven to thrive in No. 23 jersey

It was just a jersey number, but Germantown defensive coordinator Logan Rebstock still wondered why Jaylin Williams picked No. 23.

In Memphis, the best football players always scooped up single-digit numbers. St. Benedict linebacker Cam Jones crushed ball-carriers in a No. 1 jersey. Cordova receiver Jacolby Hewitt zoomed past corners with a No. 2 on his back. From what Rebstock had seen of the junior transfer from Frisco, Texas — an athlete he believed to be the fastest man in Memphis — a jersey more fashionable than No. 23 could have been his.

“Are you a Michael Jordan fan?” Rebstock asked, just trying to eliminate the obvious answer.

No, it wasn’t that, and Jaylin didn’t offer much beyond, “I lost a friend.” That was a layer of Germantown’s new star corner and receiver that would have to be peeled later.

Everything else was revealed quickly. Almost instantly, No. 23 became an offensive playmaker who robbed sleep from opposing coaches. He was a ballhawk that opposing quarterbacks avoided entirely. Off the field, Jaylin could be called an introvert, but only for the time it took to judge someone as genuine or fake. Once he places trust in someone, he’s fiercely loyal. He’s witty, a champion of verbal sparring matches who can unload strings of searing insults on command. He’s a fun-loving leader who spearheaded an effort to convince an old-school coach, Chris Smith, that music should be played at practice.

“I’m a kinda chill guy,” Jaylin said, “but when I’m on the field, if you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?”

Memphis rappers dominated the speaker system Jaylin’s senior year. Germantown went 10-0.

When the ride was nearly over, Rebstock learned what’s behind No. 23. It’s just a number, but it helped explain why the fastest man in Memphis moved so fast, why an under-the-radar recruit became a highly coveted prospect, and why he would eventually become an All-Big Ten corner at Indiana. Because when he wears No. 23, he’s not just representing himself.

He holds onto No. 23 as a memory of his third-grade friend, Teddy. That’s their number, which is why Jaylin was bummed to hear an incoming IU running back, Ronnie Walker Jr., would wear No. 23, too. Shortly after signing day, Jaylin told Rebstock his conundrum.

That’s the first time he mentioned Teddy’s name.

“Is Teddy really going to care if anyone else is wearing it?” Rebstock asked. “There’s 23s all over the world. You’re wearing 23. That’s all that matters.”

Jaylin wasn’t upset for long. But that momentary gripe peeled back another layer. Rebstock understood another piece of what makes No. 23 really fly. That number means something.

“It’s as real as the sun coming up for him. He wants to make people proud,” Rebstock said. “And he does.”

***

The stories of Jaylin and Teddy aren’t deep. But that’s because they were kids.

Kids that were always in trouble.

“We’re just talking in the back of the classroom,” Jaylin said. “Kindergarten.”

Jaylin was rambunctious, running around his teacher’s classroom, always at play. That overabundance of energy led Jaylin’s mom, Roshunda, to sign him up for little league football with the Whitehaven Rams. Teddy was a teammate. Teddy wore No. 23.

Jaylin preferred No. 26 as a youth, because he was born on Feb. 26, 2000, in Mississippi. Roshunda, a single mother, moved them to Memphis, joining with Jaylin’s step-dad, Frederick Smith. Their blended family went to Texas. Then California. Then back to Texas. Jaylin didn’t return to Memphis until 11th grade, but he held onto memories of Newberry Elementary, arriving early to play video games on Teddy’s PSP.

Jaylin and Teddy were fans of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, competing to see who could get the most money and the best cars in the game.

“We weren’t thinking about the future. We were living in the now,” Jaylin said. “That’s one thing I can say. We did have fun while he was here.”

The last time Jaylin saw Teddy, it was at a park in Memphis. Jaylin was too young to grasp that could be the last time. If Teddy’s hair was falling out, Jaylin didn’t notice. They all had bald-cut fades. If Teddy missed school one day, it was OK. He would be there the next.

Teddy didn’t come to school the next day, or the next day. One day, Teddy’s father did.

Reality was hard to accept. Jaylin didn’t know what leukemia was. He’d never had a friend die.

He wasn’t overly emotional about it. To this day, Jaylin doesn’t talk about No. 23 and Teddy all that often. That’s just not his way. But Teddy wasn’t pushed away, either. Jaylin adopted this idea, early on, that he was no longer living for just himself.

“They are always looking down on you, and what would they do if the roles were switched?” Jaylin said. “That’s how you gotta look at it. I’m doing what I feel like he would do if the situation was switched.”

Jaylin invested himself in friends and sports. Frederick, who is a medical professional, like Roshunda, recalls meeting an 8-year-old Jaylin, who spewed statistics on the Patriots and Lakers like a savant. “He’s a nerd trapped in a jock’s body,” Frederick said.

That body could run as fast as Jaylin’s mouth. Too fast.

Frederick speaks with some humor about an ill-fated carry on a muddy field, which sidelined Jaylin from a seventh-grade football season. “His feet went one way,” Frederick said, “and his hips went another.” The result was a badly sprained knee. Jaylin wouldn’t play football again until freshman year.

He tried basketball, but, again, he was too quick.

“When he was dribbling the ball up the court, he’d make cuts,” Frederick said, “and he’d leave the ball.”

Jaylin’s fast feet just needed direction. He found a mentor in Terry Grayson, who coached defensive backs at Centennial High in Frisco. He was the only Black man on staff. He was the sponsor for the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Plus, the track coach.

Those roles bonded Grayson tightly with Jaylin and his friends. Jaxon Gibbs was a safety, eventually bound for North Texas. Hunter Williams, a running back, ended up at Colorado State. Bryson Jenkins went to Texas A&M-Commerce as a linebacker.

Grayson called them “The Justice League,” not because of their athleticism, but because they were, in a word, comical. Even as freshmen and sophomores, they ragged on each other about their popularity — or lack thereof — with girls at school.

“They never took anything too serious,” Grayson said. “But when it was time to grind, it’s time to grind.”

They raced during practice. But as they waited for rides home, they raced for bragging rights.

Jaylin was the pack leader. He wasn’t loud about it. Grayson referred to Jaylin as his “quiet assassin,” because J-Will’s crew hyped him up before he took the track, eating up deficits as the relay team’s anchor. They were his biggest fans.

Always loyal, Jaylin recalled Teddy as he re-dedicated himself to football. He picked No. 23. Only his number wasn’t called much until late in his sophomore season.

“I hate to say this, but he was limited by the coaches,” Grayson said. “They played the guys they wanted to play. Jaylin didn’t grow up in Frisco.”

Life isn’t always fair. Jaylin knew that.

Grayson will recall a moment on the sideline at Centennial, just plotting with an athlete who was under-the-radar on his own team. “We need to change the game for you,” Grayson said. “What do we have to do to make them realize you need to be out there?”

They poured everything into track season. Jaylin ran every sprint, every relay. He hit 50 seconds in the 400 meters. His swagger just multiplied, and Grayson couldn’t wait to see him shine during football season.

“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Grayson said. “He plays like he’s not the best guy out there. He understands when he has to take it to a whole other gear.”

He found his next gear. Just not in Frisco. At the end of Jaylin’s sophomore year, his family moved again.

No. 23 was returning to Memphis.

***

Logan Rebstock, the beneficiary of this heaven-sent transfer, will remember how he found his fortune. It was the start of summer workouts in 2016. Germantown’s players sprint just so coaches can get a baseline time.

“He takes off, faster than anyone we’d seen in the city of Memphis,” Rebstock said. “Like, holy smokes.”

Jaylin had speed in pads, too. In one of his first games, No. 23 was split out wide. A Notre Dame recruit, Whitehaven corner Donte Vaughn, stood across from him.

“He outran him on a fade. For a touchdown,” said Chris Smith, Jaylin’s new head coach. “At that point, I knew he was a Division I player.”

Colleges were just slower to figure it out.

Rebstock and Smith sent out tapes of Germantown’s No. 23 burning four-star prospects. He was 150 pounds soaking wet, though, and Germantown went 3-8 that season. IU and Virginia offered that spring, but Jaylin’s recruitment was otherwise quiet.

That led to some hard conversations between Roshunda, Frederick, and Germantown’s coaches. His family returned to Memphis because of the deteriorating health of Frederick’s father, a diabetic. But they chose Germantown hoping Rebstock and Smith, two young, ambitious coaches, could help their son reach D-I.

They could. They just needed more from Jaylin. Prime example, the day the fastest man in Memphis arrived late for a walkthrough before Germantown’s spring game.

He was stuck in line at Wendy’s.

“The thing about Wendy’s, it’s literally around the corner from the school,” Jaylin said, still kicking himself. “I was like ‘I can make it, I can make it.’ They were calling me, calling me. I didn’t pick up the phone until I got there. Coach, he was already out there, waiting on me.”

“It was a few minutes,” Smith said, “but I knew if we let it go, it would lead to a whole year of that.”

Jaylin never wanted to let anyone down. He was just young. A little immature.

“If you take this serious, you’ll be unstoppable,” Smith told him. “You’ll become a Mr. Football finalist.”

Jaylin admits, that post-Wendy’s talk didn’t sink in quickly. He was 17. But Smith raised the subject again that summer. That push may have changed Jaylin’s life.

“What do you want to do? What are your goals?” Jaylin recalled his coach asking. “I want to play D-I football, and he was like ‘You can. You have the ability.’ At one point, it was like, am I even good enough to get offers? Why am I doing this?”

But when coaches believed in Jaylin, he believed in a vision for himself and that No. 23 jersey.

Jaylin went out in the cold with Rebstock, working on his 40-yard dash starts for prospect combines. He was in the weight room, working himself to 170 pounds. He was goofy, right in the middle of a hoedown if players commandeered the speaker system and cued up some bad country music, ragging on their white, distinctly southern coaches. But Jaylin knew when to grind.

“I love him like he’s one of my own,” Rebstock said.

Smith and Rebstock just continued to send out their speedster’s highlight film. Rebstock told Jaylin’s parents, “They’ll find him.”

The summer before Jaylin’s senior year, they did.

Jaylin landed about three dozen offers in all, including Ole Miss. It was an attractive option, not worlds away from Memphis or The Justice League in Texas. Plus, Hugh Freeze and his program sold a “faith and family” culture, which appealed to Jaylin and his parents.

Jason Jones, the Ole Miss secondary coach, went to a Germantown practice to see the fastest man in Memphis. The hype was real.

“He played quarterback, wide receiver, DB. He was all over the field,” said Jones, now IU’s safeties coach. “He was that one person, in every phase, they tried to get the ball to him, because he was electric.”

But Jaylin never made it to Ole Miss. A month after his commitment, Freeze resigned as head coach. The Rebels’ staff was in flux. Jaylin decommitted.

There was a natural transition from Ole Miss to IU. Tom Allen, the ex-Ole Miss assistant and first-year Hoosier head coach, was also selling faith and family. IU was also recruiting two of Jaylin’s friendly rivals from Memphis, Cam Jones and Jacolby Hewitt. They talked about IU a lot.

But Jaylin was mum during his visit to IU. That’s just Jaylin, slow to open up. The only time Frederick saw Jaylin excited on a visit was Wake Forest, because they served steak at lunch. Jaylin loves food.

Jaylin loved IU, too. He just waited until they were back in the car to say it.

“He says, ‘Uh, I think I want to commit,’” Roshunda said. “I’m like, wait a minute? What?”

A little over a week after decommitting from Ole Miss, Jaylin was committed to IU. It was a quick flip.

Other schools wanted to flip him, again.

During the Red Devils’ undefeated regular season, programs like Baylor, TCU, and Florida came for No. 23. Rebstock remembers walking to Smith’s office to talk about that day’s practice plan, opening the door and seeing an Alabama assistant in there.

“I just backpedal and shut the door,” Rebstock said. “They leave, and I’m like ‘Jaylin?’ Yeah.”

There were strong sells made. TCU and Baylor were also home to former Centennial High corners Ranthony and Raleigh Texada, respectively. He had connections in Texas.

But Jaylin didn’t budge. IU was loyal to him. He was loyal back.

“Once you are in his circle, you’re in his circle,” Frederick said.

Relationships matter to Jaylin. Allen, too. IU’s coach spent five hours in a Holiday Inn with Rebstock and Smith, just to learn more about Jaylin as a person. Most of that time, Allen indulged the curiosities of two young coaches, talking X-and-Os, drawing up plays on napkins.

Committed to IU, Jaylin’s last season at Germantown was just a joyride. He’d catch slant patterns and break three tackles for a touchdown. He’d smother receivers at corner, but then he lobbied Coach Reb to move him to safety, just to read quarterbacks and cover more ground.

He won Mr. Football at his position, as Smith predicted. It was a long-awaited breakthrough, and Rebstock could tell emotions ran high for Jaylin at times, especially on senior night. It makes total sense in hindsight, knowing about Teddy and what No. 23 meant to him.

“Tears aren’t flowing, but they are welling up,” Rebstock said, “and then he goes out there and tears the roof off. It’s fascinating to see what we’ll do for others when they’re gone. What Jaylin has learned is I can’t wait until they are gone. I have to do things now.”

Jaylin is still doing things for Rebstock and Smith. Now at Haywood High — they made Tennessee’s Class 4A state final this season — they have another star corner, Jaylen Lewis. They linked J-Lew with J-Will.

J-Will offers advice. J-Lew watches IU football games. He’s seen J-Will picking off passes, or standing up a 220-pound Wisconsin fullback in the flat, throwing him to the ground.

“Jaylin is now projecting back to this kid,” Rebstock said. “Hey, you can be like this.”

There is one example, though, they don’t want J-Lew to follow. On Jaylin’s fourth pick of the season for IU, he shot up the sideline, hungry for a score. He was about to make something happen. But he didn’t make one thing happen.

He forgot to switch the ball to his outside arm. Maryland caught Jaylin at the 50. The ball came loose.

Rebstock shot Jaylin a postgame text, just “Tuck it in the outside arm.”

Rebstock grumbles, somewhat kiddingly, “I was on him every day about that.”

***

Days after that fumble, Jaylin was still upset with himself.

“I have to make up for it,” he said. “I really have to.”

Jaylin explained it as a symptom of his high school years. He just loved being the one who could score for his team. He pushed just a little bit more in that No. 23 jersey. He wanted touchdowns. Still does.

His eyes were locked on the end zone. “I had tunnel vision,” Jaylin said. He thought he’d get a block. He didn’t think the Maryland player would reach him. He was reminded that mistakes happen, but responded bluntly, “It won’t happen again.”

Jaylin hates squandering chances. But it doesn’t mean he hasn’t. In fact, IU cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby felt the need to sit Jaylin down this past offseason, having his soon-to-be junior write down three areas where he wanted to improve. Shelby needed more from him.

The goals Jaylin scribbled were broad: to improve mentally, spiritually, and as a football player. But that was Jaylin’s way of acknowledging he could be better, in so many ways.

For one, he wasn’t watching very much film of his opponents.

“When I got to college, I wasn’t really taking it as serious as I should have,” Jaylin said. “When things start not going your way, you start looking at ‘Why is this happening?’ I had to look at myself, because I was the only person to blame.”

He couldn’t take anything for granted. He’s reminded of Teddy, who never got his chance. Jaylin also recalls his grandfather, Fred Franklin, who could have played college football but didn’t.

A star linebacker for his high school, Fred dropped out before graduation. His older brother was drafted into the Vietnam War, and Fred needed to work to support his mother and siblings.

Fred came into Frederick’s life like Frederick into Jaylin’s. Fred isn’t Frederick’s biological father. But he’s the only dad Frederick knew. One of Frederick’s proudest memories was as a teen in the 1980s, watching Fred try out for a failed pro football team in Memphis.

His father was in his late 30s or early 40s.

“I saw him pick up the back end of trucks for show,” Frederick said. “It was just the physical conditioning part that got him (in the tryout). But it was a proud moment. It showed as long as you got that fight in you, you can’t say you’re beaten.”

Fred wanted Jaylin to have his chance. He perceived threats, telling Jaylin to stay away from this girl or that girl. A master chef, he loved through his cooking. Once Jaylin signed his letter of intent with IU, Fred just kept asking him, “What do you want to eat?”

He promised to help Jaylin move into his dorm. He’d cook him a big meal.

“He cooked catfish, oxtails, pot roast, everything, out on the grill,” Jaylin said. “I miss his cooking a lot.”

Fred died weeks before move-in day, suffering a heart attack. Jaylin still remembers getting a panicked phone call from his grandmother, rushing over to their house, holding Fred’s hand. That loss was a devastating blow.

It took a moment for Jaylin to collect himself at IU. But there are no excuses. Jaylin just had to find his way, and represent the No. 23 the way he so badly wanted to.

“You feel like you have to hold yourself to a different standard when you’re wearing that number,” Jaylin said. “That’s just how I feel every time I take the field, when I have 23 on, I feel like I’m not just playing for me but everybody that’s close to me that I’ve lost.”

When Shelby told him to write down three things, Jaylin locked onto them. Jaylin and Frederick had talks with Tom Allen, too, before this season started.

Allen believes a relationship-driven program is central to the emergence of a player like Jaylin, now tied for third in the Big Ten in interceptions. Jaylin had just two picks total as a freshman and sophomore. He has four as a junior.

He trusted Shelby’s motives, like Grayson, Smith, and Rebstock. When challenged, Jaylin responded.

“It’s amazing when those things line up, even his academic performance. Are you just going to do what you’re supposed to do, or do you want to become great?” Allen said. “It always starts with being in the right culture, the right environment, and it aligns with what you want. Then you gotta respond. You gotta buy into that and you gotta let that relationship grow and get more and more strong and more intertwined to where you can feel like I can come and we can talk about anything.”

Shelby found Jaylin before a plane ride home from Rutgers, telling him how proud he was. He put goals down on paper, then took action. Grayson, Rebstock, and Smith are all proud, too.

He has taken a number, 23, and made it a standard. Next time out, he’ll line up against Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, a school he nearly wore No. 23 for, playing as No. 23 for a school he dearly loves.

For Teddy, and Fred, and many others, he’s thankful. Because he plays for them, too.

“Especially Teddy,” Jaylin said. “He started this whole thing.”

28 comments

  1. Thanks for this wonderful story Jon. Po I am glad he is Hoosier too along with his HS teammates that came to IU. I hope these past two seasons have convinced even better HS players looking for the right environment come to IUFB program.

    Things are looking up for the Hoosiers and the All-B1G and All-American awards show those players what can happen at IU.

  2. TA said, “It always starts with being in the right culture, the right environment, and it aligns with what you want. Then you gotta respond. You gotta buy into that and you gotta let that relationship grow and get more and more strong and more intertwined……”

    I know from personal experience in my work life that TA’s statement above is absolutely true. In order for any individual to reach their full potential, they must be a part of the right culture. TA gets it when so many other college FB coaches just don’t.

  3. I still find it ironic that “Hugh Freeze and his program sold a “faith and family” culture (at Ole Miss)” given that he was forced to resign because of his personal misconduct (those weren’t mis-dials coach) and while his program was being investigated for numerous major rules violations. It appears that he was a fraud and that IU has the real deal when it comes to having a coach who has created a program based on faith and family, not to mention integrity.

    1. You realize that High Freeze hired both Tom Allen and Grant Heard, both of whom loved working for him. Oh, and those major rules violations and fraudulent atmosphere were going on while TA and GH were there. Are you suggesting our guys were involved in all of that? Do you think they were unaware of everything that was going on?

  4. Based on what has come out this year on several SEC schools I would say it runs rampant in the SEC. Competition down in the South is intense and some coaches in the SEC seem to give in and find any way to move up in the standings.

    I am glad we have coach Allen wanting to do it the right way and live his LEO motto as an example to his players to live the same way.

  5. It’s not my post that is ambiguous. It’s yours, likely because you weren’t aware that TA and GH were on the Ole Miss staff during the time that multiple violations were committed.

  6. BD, you’re not the only one who can read and connect the dots on a time line. TA was at Ole Miss, but how long was he there? Is there any evidence that he was involved in violating NCAA rules? In fact, has anyone ever even hinted that TA was involved? Just because a person worked in a company’s Accounting Department doesn’t mean they knew the CEO was cooking the books and committing fraud?

    And it wasn’t just the rules violations. Those alleged violations were not the reason Freeze was forced to resign (got fired for cause) from Ole Miss. He was calling escort service and phone-sex numbers on phones provided to him by Ole Miss. He lied, got caught lying and that was the end of his time at Ole Miss. That personal behavior is hardly consistent with a man who was selling a “faith and family” culture to players and his coaching staff. In fact, the article I read about Freeze stated that Ole Miss was not going to fire him because of the accusations of rules violations. They were standing by him until his “personal conduct” issues arose.

    1. So, are you saying a guy who coached the D and has a reputation for being a very hands on guy was oblivious to what was all around him?

  7. BD, as you always insist, please provide the proof that TA was involved or knew anything about the alleged rules violations at Ole Miss and/or Freeze’s personal conduct problems. I’ll wait.

    1. PO the best way to deal with BD is for us to not respond to his post no matter what he says about our post. He will either change his approach or leave.

    2. I’m not saying he was involved in any way, shape or form. I found it interesting that you ignored his association with Freeze, that’s all.

  8. Currently searching for “gold standard response” ….Wouldn’t be worth it. Most of you would clearly not understand. Maybe V-13 would get it. Wow!…I could have had a V-8!

    1. H4H, I don’t like V-8, but do like tomato juice, but I have always liked the number 13 that so many think is a bad number. Keep up the humorous posts as it brightens my day.

  9. BD, you can infer what you want, but once again you jumped to the wrong conclusion. I’ve known Freeze hired TA for six years, when I first heard that Wilson hired TA to be IU’s DC and researched TA’s background. But it was not relevant to the point I made in my post above, which was that a man selling a culture built on “family and faith” was overseeing a program that was accused of cheating and he was using his employer’s phone to call sex-workers. If you’re going to sell faith and family, you better be a leader who walks his talk! TA appears to be that kind of leader.

    1. I was just asking if you knew the entire situation. You ran with it from there, double standard and all.

  10. Sometimes bad examples can be good examples of what not to be, let’s trust that such has been the case with Allen. I was appalled when Liberty University hired Freeze. Pile on all you want here, Harv. By the blood of Jesus Freeze was forgiven for his sins before he was even born. But why a Christian school had to pick this man as its most public face is beyond me.

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