It’s the summer of 2014 and the Central High School football team is going through workouts as it prepares for the upcoming season.
A receiver has caught the attention of Jamey DuBose, the head coach of the large school located in Phenix City, Ala. DuBose has helped produce dozens of college football players in his more than 20 years of high school coaching, and he believes he has spotted a future star.
There’s only one problem.
DuBose views Justyn Ross as a program-changing receiver with the potential to play in the NFL, but Ross has decided he is done with football.
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Ross is no longer teammates with his friends he grew up playing with as he has been moved to the varsity team while most of his underclassmen buddies are playing JV. He is also no longer having fun and has decided he is going to focus on a different sport.
“I stopped going to practice… I was going to play basketball,” Ross said.
Fast forward to 2018 and Ross is one of the top young receivers in college football.
The 6-foot-4 wideout is an up-and-coming star on a top five team in the country. Clemson has one of the best receiving corps in the nation, but Ross is already making his presence felt.
He leads the Tigers in receiving touchdowns with four and yards per catch at 20.4.
Ross has had quite the journey from being ready to give up football to becoming a dominant force in the sport.
“Justyn Ross can be the best at Clemson, Alabama, wherever it is. And I’m not being cocky. He wouldn’t say that about himself,” DuBose said. “But Justyn Ross can be the No. 1 receiver at any program in America right now. I say that and stand by it… The more comfortable he gets and the more he starts to feel comfortable the more he’s going to dominate.”
DONE WITH FOOTBALL
Justyn Ross can’t imagine his life without football now, but as a ninth grader he had every intention of giving up the sport for good.
Ross would come home from practice every day and talk to his mom – Charay Franklin. Every day his message to Franklin was the same.
“They moved him from the people he always knew from playing little league football and put him with a group of older kids and he wasn’t happy with that,” Franklin said.
“He was like, ‘Mom, I’m not going back.’ And I was like, ‘Well I’m going to take your phone.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m still not going back.’ Every day he quit.”
Finally, Ross built up enough courage to deliver the news to his coach when DuBose called to find out why Ross had missed a few workouts.
“I told him I wasn’t feeling it anymore,” Ross recalled. “He told me to come up to his office.”
The meeting in DuBose’s office did not last long and did not go the way Ross intended for it to. DuBose saw too much potential in Ross to see him give up the sport at such a young age, and so he had a very blunt conversation with his young star.
“He walked in my office and told me he didn’t want to play anymore and that lasted about 30 seconds,” DuBose said. “I stood in front of the door and told him he wasn’t going to ever walk out because he’d be making the biggest mistake of his entire life.”
Ross had a love for basketball, and while he was a fine basketball player, his future was clearly in football in DuBose’s eyes.
“Sometimes these young guys are given the wrong information through AAU basketball and all… They start telling them they don’t need this and that football’s going to hurt them,” DuBose said. “We want guys to play multiple sports and be good at everything… I think basketball gave him some of the things that he uses today to be successful in football. But at the end of the day Justyn Ross is a football player. And everybody’s seeing that.”
Once Ross decided that he was on board with football he quickly started making a name for himself.
He is one of a handful of players to play for DuBose as a freshman, and during the spring between his freshman and sophomore seasons he received his first scholarship offers from Mississippi State and Kentucky.
“He started to see, this is a way that I can get myself out of Phenix City, it’s a way I can help provide for my mother and my grandmother,” DuBose said. “I think he started to figure out, ‘Dang, a lot of people like me.’ He started going around and looking at places and visiting and seeing what football was all about.”
The more offers Ross received the more he realized he had a bright future in football and the more determined he was to garner as many offers as possible.
By the time Ross was a junior he had several of the top programs in the country chasing after him.
In-state schools Alabama and Auburn had extended offers to Ross, as had Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Miami, LSU, Ohio State and Clemson.
But Ross was waiting for the most important person in his life to return home to really dig into the recruiting process and decide where he wanted to go.
Ross lights up when he talks about his mom – Charay Franklin.
He is quick to point out that he is closer to her than anyone else, and the two talk daily.
“It’s the best relationship I have with anybody. I can talk to her about anything,” Ross said.
Franklin is in the National Guard and was deployed during Ross’ junior season. He loved getting all of the offers as a junior, but he also knew that he wasn’t going to decide on a school until Franklin was home and could take visits with him.
“When she got back we jumped into it. My senior year I came on a lot of visits and stuff and we made a decision together,” Ross said.
The decision came down to three schools – Alabama, Auburn and Clemson.
The in-state schools were viewed as the favorite going into decision day, and for good reason.
The top player in the state of Alabama according to the 247Sports Composite rankings had signed with Alabama for five consecutive years dating back to Jameis Winston.
Other than Winston the top player in Alabama had signed with either Alabama or Auburn every year dating back to 2003 – so 13 of the previous 14 years.
“In this state if you don’t go to Alabama or Auburn and you’re a big time player they’re going to have some negative things to say,” DuBose said of the fans in the state. “They just love their sports, they love their schools and they love their teams.”
With that in mind, DuBose offered Ross some advice before he went to the stage to announce his college decision on National Signing Day.
DuBose did not know Ross’ decision before he announced it, but he knew what the reaction would be if he chose Clemson.
“I told Justyn and his mom before they went out and went on national TV, ‘If you say anything other than Alabama or Auburn turn your phone off,’” DuBose recalled. “’Don’t go to your phone. Don’t be on your phone. Don’t talk on your phone. Because if you’re going to be on your phone you’re going to get a lot of things said about you. Things are going to be said that you don’t like, and people may not mean them down the road.”
Ross did indeed choose Clemson, and he couldn’t be more thrilled with his decision about eight months later.
Ross still hears from fans back home that are unhappy, but he has tuned out the noise and is not letting it bother him.
“I don’t think that’s ever going to die down,” Ross said smiling.
The move is working out for the Tigers and Ross so far. He has 14 catches for 286 yards and four scores and is becoming more and more involved in Clemson’s offense every week.
After contributing only sparingly the first two weeks of the season Ross has 12 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns the past four games.
“I’m way more comfortable than I was around the first game. I’m just letting everything come to me now,” Ross said. “I’ve grown to love Clemson since I’ve been here over these last four months.”
Franklin loves Clemson as well. She felt comfortable with Ross being in the Upstate because it is close enough that it is an easy three-hour drive, and she loves the coaching staff and environment that Ross is surrounded by.
“It’s very exciting for me to see that he’s doing so well. I was a little nervous just the fact that that’s my only child and he’s going off to school and this is something new to both of us. But I see that he’s thriving and being the great person that he is,” Franklin said. “I love to see him out there. I love to hear them calling his name. He just looks so happy to me. I love everything about that.”
While Ross is already making a name for himself at Clemson, DuBose believes this is just the beginning.
Ross made a sensational catch during fall camp that Clemson’s social media team captured and posted on Twitter. The video went viral and landed Ross a highlight on ESPN.
“I thought it was funny… All these Clemson people were going crazy. You’ve gotta understand we watch that every day down here,” DuBose said. “Down here everybody was like, ‘What are they making a big deal out of? I’ve seen better ones than that.’ We just have come to expect that from Justyn Ross.”
Clemson fans are starting to expect that as well.
The Tigers have built a reputation as being “Wide Receiver U” and Ross is on his way to being the next star of the group.
He is also on his way to reaching the NFL and making his dreams come true for his mom.
Ross often reflects back on the conversation he had with DuBose that led to him sticking with football, as does Franklin.
“If he would’ve continued with basketball he probably would’ve been at a junior college or something like that playing basketball, which would’ve been fine,” Franklin said. “But I don’t think he would’ve gotten as far as he did now.”
“It would not be like this at all. I’m glad he helped me believe in myself.”