Former Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon “The Freak” Kearse earned his catchy nickname for good reason.
Kearse, who earned that nickname during his college days, helped the Florida Gators win their first national title in 1996. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors two years later.
Kearse became a freakishly good pass rusher when he entered the National Football League ranks in 1999. The former outside linebacker switched to defensive end and terrorized quarterbacks during his first stint with the Titans from 1999 to 2003.
Kearse took the league by storm and set an NFL rookie record with 14.5 sacks as a rookie in 1999. He went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors that year. Kearse also helped the Titans reach Super Bowl XXXIV as a rookie.
Although injuries slowed Kearse down as his 11-year pro football career progressed, he remains one of the best pass rushers in Tennessee Titans franchise history.
This is Jevon Kearse’s inspiring football journey.
Jevon Kearse was born to parents Joseph and Lessie Mae in Fort Myers, FL on September 3, 1976. He has six siblings.
Joseph had a less-than-stellar reputation in the community. Cisco Navas, Jevon’s close friend in high school, told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver in the summer of 2000 that Joseph used to rob individuals using only his hands.
That kind of bravado ultimately cost Joseph his life when an assailant shot him in cold blood after an argument in a local pool hall in February 1976.
Jevon never got to meet his biological father. His mother, Lessie Mae, welcomed him into the world seven months after his dad passed away.
The killings did not stop there—Jevon’s grandfather and two other relatives became homicide victims in a span of just four years.
“I’ve experienced so many losses,” Kearse told Silver in 2000. “But all the adversity made me into a stronger person.”
After Joseph’s death, Jevon and his siblings lived in the Sabal Palm housing project with their mom.
Jevon’s friendship with Cisco began in an awkward fashion. School officials had to intervene after the two eighth graders quarreled over an issue in the cafeteria.
Somehow, the two boys fooled the officials into believing they were long-time friends who were just playing around. Before long, Cisco invited Jevon to sleep over at his house.
Jevon Kearse (DE)
3x Pro Bowl
1x All Pro
Born 9/3/1976, Fort Myers FL
1st round pick (16th overall) in 1999
Uncle of Cowboys S Jayron Kearse
28 career forced fumbles
74 career sacks
336 career tackles pic.twitter.com/gTPfNEfLFN
— random NFL players (@randNFLplayer) November 9, 2022
When they played football for the North Fort Myers Red Knights—the same team legendary defensive back Deion Sanders played for in the early-to-mid 1980s—they became roommates.
Jevon excelled in the classroom during his high school days. Navas recalled that Kearse already had his priorities in order back then—the latter hit the books as soon as he got home from school.
Once Jevon finished his schoolwork, he and Cisco went out and did some fishing, per Sports Illustrated.
Kearse’s fiery determination paid huge dividends—he earned a sterling 3.6 GPA and became a member of the National Honor Society in high school.
As good as Jevon was in the classroom, he also never let his guard down on the high school gridiron.
Kearse, who played safety and tight end for the Red Knights, had four kickoff returns for touchdowns as a freshman in 1991.
Kearse played so well that he eventually earned USA TODAY Prep All-American honors as a senior in 1994.
When the time came for Jevon to whittle down his college choices, he decided to remain in-state and commit to the Florida Gators.
Before long, Kearse evolved into one of the most feared pass rushers in the SEC in the mid-to-late 1990s.
College Days with the Florida Gators
Jevon Kearse attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL from 1995 to 1998. He suited up for Florida Gators head football coach Steve Spurrier.
Kearse’s college football career got off to an inauspicious beginning in the summer of 1995.
Jevon was washing his car at a gasoline station in Gainesville, FL when police suddenly showed up because of a complaint that he was playing his radio too loudly.
The police first joked with him and asked him if he could wash their car when he was finished with his. They pinned him against their vehicle, handcuffed him, and took him into custody.
They later found out they had arrested the wrong man. Their main suspect was Jevon’s brother, J.J., who used his brother’s name when Sarasota County police apprehended him for allegedly driving a stolen vehicle several months earlier.
J.J., who did not show up for his court date, had been hanging out with the wrong crowd since his formative days in Fort Myers, FL.
Jevon, who police released after one night in jail, eventually forgave his brother. J.J. was incarcerated at DeSoto Correctional Institution in Florida during Jevon’s first stint with the Tennessee Titans in the early 2000s.
“I’ve learned what not to do from watching him,”Jevon told Sports Illustrated in the summer of 2000. “Now he’s watching me live the life he should be living.”
Kearse played free safety as a true freshman during the 1995 NCAA campaign. Florida had an outstanding 12-1 win-loss record in Spurrier’s sixth year at the helm.
Unfortunately, the Gators lost to the top-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers in humiliating fashion in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, 62-24.
Jevon encountered another setback in his personal life during his sophomore season in 1996. Assailants shot his half-brother Jermaine “Rocky” Green dead in the Tampa, FL area.
Kearse told Silver he hadn’t gotten over the harrowing incident almost four years later. Jevon eventually had Rocky’s name and the letters “R.I.P.” tattooed on his left shoulder. Kearse used his late half-brother as motivation when he needed to get his second wind during his playing days in the NFL.
Spurrier shifted Kearse to the outside linebacker position in 1996. With Jevon wreaking havoc as a pass rusher, the Gators duplicated their gaudy 12-1 win-loss record from the previous season.
Florida routed its in-state rivals, the Florida State Seminoles, in the 1997 Sugar Bowl, 52-20. The victory propelled the Gators to their first national title.
Jevon Kearse considered it his fondest memory with the Florida Gators.
“My No. 1 memory would be winning that national title back in ’96,” Kearse told FloridaGators.com’s Scott Carter in 2013. “It was meant for us to win it.”
While Florida was on its way to making history, Kearse made headlines for the wrong reasons that year.
Kearse admitted to Silver that in the summer of 2000, he violated NCAA rules by receiving money from agent Tank Black. Jevon used the money to pay his bills and buy his mother Lessie Mae a brand-new car.
Black denied the allegations, per Sports Illustrated.
Kearse played lights-out football as a junior in the 1997 NCAA season. His team-leading 6.5 sacks, 38 tackles, and two forced fumbles earned him his first All-SEC selection that year.
Florida won ten of 12 games in Kearse’s junior season. The Gators beat Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions in the 1998 Citrus Bowl, 21-6.
Jevon promptly picked up where he left off and had 7.5 sacks and 54 tackles in his senior season in 1998. As a result, Kearse earned his second consecutive All-SEC selection and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Florida went 10-2 for the second straight year and beat the Syracuse Orange in the 1999 Orange Bowl, 31-10.
Kearse finished his college football career with 145 combined tackles, 16.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, one interception, and one fumble recovery. His 34.5 tackles for loss also rank him eleventh in Gators football program history.
Kearse’s outstanding play on the defensive side of the ball earned him his famous nickname during his college days at Florida.
“In college at Florida, they started calling me ‘Freak’ then and it stuck,” Kearse told The New York Times‘ Thomas George in November 1999.
Jevon Kearse was just getting started. He would eventually evolve into one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers with the Tennessee Titans as the 1990s wound down.
Pro Football Career
The Tennessee Titans made Jevon Kearse the 16th overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft.
Kearse severed his controversial relationship with agent Tank Black just one month after the Titans took his name off the draft board.
Kearse made the decision following a criminal investigation into Black’s suspicious actions. The league ultimately charged Black with multiple counts of money laundering and conspiracy. The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) also suspended him.
Kearse got his pro football career off to a rip-roaring start. Jevon stood his ground against offensive linemen who outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds in his first three games. He racked up 20 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles in his first month on the job.
It didn’t take long for league pundits to take notice. Kearse earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September 1999.
Jevon encountered his first stumbling block in the NFL ranks shortly after earning that accolade. He began to feel disheartened after his efforts to put on weight proved futile.
Kearse entered the NFL as a muscular 6’4″, 265-lb. pass rusher. However, he lost roughly 20 pounds in his first month for some reason.
Naturally, the Titans wanted him to add more weight so he could compete better against the league’s top offensive linemen. Failing to do that would seriously jeopardize his promising gridiron career.
Jevon’s strength and rehab coach Steve Watterson designed a nutritional plan that had the Titans rookie consuming approximately 3,500 calories daily. Among his staples were steak, grilled fish, chicken kebabs, seafood pasta, crab and chicken salad, garlic bread, potatoes, and fruits.
Cottage cheese—an excellent source of slow-absorbing protein—was a no-no for Jevon. He balked at the thought of consuming that particular bodybuilding staple.
When Kearse hit a nutritional wall, Watterson reached out to executive chef Majid “Magic” Noori of Vanderbilt University.
Noori formulated a nutritional plan that had Kearse consuming as much as 6,500 calories daily. The former had to keep a close eye on Jevon whenever he ate out. It even reached a point where he literally begged Kearse to eat all the pasta he could possibly handle in one sitting.
Most SK by a Rookie in NFL history:
1. 1999 Jevon Kearse (14.5)
2. 2011 Aldon Smith (14.0)
T3. 1985 Reggie White, 2002 Dwight Freeney, & 2021 Micah Parsons (13.0)pic.twitter.com/JFQA7jjqKI
— Pro Sports Outlook (@PSO_Sports) September 3, 2022
Although Kearse had gained just five pounds by the time the Titans beat the St. Louis Rams 24-21 on Halloween 1999, the edge rusher known as “The Freak” forced Rams right tackle Fred Miller to commit seven penalties.
Kearse, who recorded a time of 4.43 seconds in the 10-yard dash in the 1999 NFL Scouting Combine, had no trouble keeping up with running backs Napoleon Kaufman of the Oakland Raiders and Priest Holmes of the Baltimore Ravens in subsequent games.
Kearse lived up to his catchy nickname when he leaped over his teammate Samari Rolle to pursue Ravens wide receiver Qadry “The Missile” Ismail in the fall of 1999.
“I’ve been in the league twenty years,” Kearse’s head coach, Jeff Fisher, told Sports Illustrated in the summer of 2000. “And I’ve not seen an athlete like Jevon.”
Kearse saved his best for last in Tennessee’s regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He strip-sacked Steelers quarterback Mike Tomczak, recovered the fumble, and took it to the end zone 14 yards for a touchdown.
St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who went up against Kearse in Super Bowl XXXIV, perished the thought of other physical specimens similar to Jevon dominating the league in a few years’ time.
Kearse’s boundless energy as a pass rusher knew no bounds. According to Silver, one of Jevon’s teammates at the 1999 Pro Bowl chastised him for not giving the AFC’s other defensive linemen a chance to wreak havoc on their NFC counterparts.
Jevon—who appeared in three straight Pro Bowls from 1999 to 2001—took it all in stride. He racked up a rookie record of 14.5 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries in his first pro football season.
To nobody’s surprise, Kearse earned 1999 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-Pro honors.
Most SK by a rookie in NFL history:
1. 1999 Jevon Kearse (14.5)
2. 2011 Aldon Smith (14.0)
T3. 2002 Dwight Freeney & 1985 Reggie White (13.0)
T5. 1996 Simeon Rice & 1986 Leslie O'Neal (12.5) pic.twitter.com/GlH3EvDZSe
— Best of Pro Sports (@pro_sports_best) September 7, 2021
With Kearse wreaking havoc on quarterbacks and opposing ball carriers, the Titans won a franchise-record 13 games in the 1999 NFL campaign. They hadn’t won that many games since they entered the American Football League (AFL) as the Houston Oilers in 1960.
Unfortunately, Kearse and his teammates lost to the Rams’ vaunted “Greatest Show on Turf” featuring Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt in Super Bowl XXXIV, 23-16.
Kearse started and played in his first 48 games in the National Football League. He had 89 combined tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks, and seven forced fumbles as he earned Pro Bowl honors again from 2000 to 2001.
The Titans duplicated their stellar 13-3 win-loss record from 1999 and had their narrow defeat by the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV fresh in their minds.
This time around, the Titans could not get past Ray Lewis’ Baltimore Ravens in the 2000 AFC Divisional Round, 24-10.
Tennessee regressed in the 2001 NFL season. The Titans won just seven games and missed the postseason for the sixth time in the past eight years.
Kearse and the Titans wanted to make amends for that in 2002. Unfortunately, he fractured his left foot in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Jevon had to sit Tennessee’s next 12 games out.
Despite Kearse’s lengthy absence, the Titans won 11 games in his fourth pro football season. Although Tennessee made a deep postseason run, the team could not get past the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, who beat them 41-24 on January 19, 2003.
Kearse made up for lost time in the 2003 NFL campaign. He had 42 combined tackles, eight tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and one interception as the Titans won 12 of their 16 regular-season games in 2003.
Regrettably, Kearse and Co. lost to the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round, 17-14, on January 10, 2004.
After Kearse and the Titans were unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension, he signed a lucrative, eight-year $66 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles on March 3, 2004.
According to ESPN’s Len Pasquarelli, the contract, which also included a $16 million signing bonus, made Jevon Kearse the highest-paid defensive lineman in league history at the time.
Kearse and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, drew up various scenarios for him to think about. Although money was a consideration for Kearse, he wanted to win the ultimate prize—the Super Bowl.
“I want to get a (Super Bowl) ring for these fingers,” Kearse told the Eagles’ official website (via ESPN).
Unfortunately, Jevon Kearse never saw that dream come to fruition.
When Rosenhaus mentioned the Eagles, a light went off in Kearse’s head. He thought he’d fit right in with the team that went to three straight NFC Championship Games from 2001 to 2003.
Prior to the Eagles signing the three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman, the Chicago Bears, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Washington Redskins were reportedly keen on signing him, per Pasquarelli.
Kearse joined a formidable Eagles team that also included quarterback Donovan McNabb, wide receiver Terrell Owens, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and safety Brian Dawkins in 2004.
The Eagles, who were perennial Super Bowl contenders in the early-to-mid 2000s, won their first seven games of the 2004 NFL campaign.
Kearse’s 6.0 sacks were a major reason behind that hot start. He had 3.0 sacks in a game against the Detroit Lions during that seven-game winning streak.
Alas, Kearse could not maintain his momentum as he recorded just 1.5 sacks for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, the Eagles won 13 games and reached Super Bowl XXXIX against Tom Brady’s New England Patriots.
Jevon had reached the Super Bowl for the second time in the past five years. He came close to achieving his goal of winning that elusive Super Bowl ring.
Alas, the Eagles’ late rally fell just short as the Patriots won, 24-21.
Kearse had 7.5 sacks for Philadelphia for the second straight year but the Eagles regressed with a sub-par 6-10 win-loss record in 2005. They missed the postseason for the first time in six years.
Jevon Kearse number of days until @Eagles regular season football!! Kearse played four seasons in Philly, recording 105 tackles and 22 sacks. He helped the #Eagles reach the Super Bowl. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/6im4B9XJsB
— Corner Pub Sports (@CornerPubSports) June 10, 2022
Kearse and the Eagles were in a good position to make amends for their lackluster 2005 NFL campaign. Regrettably, Jevon hurt his knee in Philly’s third game of the season. Consequently, the Eagles placed Kearse on their injured reserve list.
With Kearse watching from the sidelines, the Eagles bounced back with a respectable 10-6 win-loss record in 2006. To his dismay, Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints beat Philadelphia in the NFC Divisional Round, 27-24, in January 2007.
Although Kearse suited up in 14 and started eight games, he recorded just 3.5 sacks for the Eagles in 2007. Philadelphia won just eight games and missed the postseason yet again.
Kearse did not live up to his high expectations in the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles eventually released him and voided the remaining three years of his deal on February 28, 2008.
Kearse earned almost $29.2 million of the $66 million contract he signed with Philly four years earlier.
Jevon Kearse began his second stint with the Tennessee Titans in the spring of 2008. The departure of defensive ends Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy in free agency prompted the Titans to welcome back the 1999 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Kearse signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Titans on May 23, 2008, per The Gainesville Sun.
To the dismay of Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, Nashville, TN police arrested his 1999 first-round draft selection on a DUI charge on June 24, 2008.
Authorities pulled Kearse over after they spotted his SUV weaving erratically near the Vanderbilt University campus at 4:42 a.m.
Kearse eventually pulled himself together and suited up in all 16 games for the Titans in 2008. Jevon had 3.5 sacks, 34 combined tackles, and three forced fumbles for Tennessee that year.
Tennessee had an outstanding 13-3 win-loss record after Kearse’s return to the Music City that year. Regrettably, the Titans lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Divisional Round, 13-10.
2008: #Titans Keith Bullock and Lendale White stomp on the towel, while Jevon Kearse decides to blow his nose with it.
Aftermath: Tennessee gets knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, while Pittsburgh went on to win their 7th Super Bowl. pic.twitter.com/KfxkDr5xeM
— Anthony (@onairanthony) January 13, 2018
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher decided to start William Hayes at defensive end the following season. As a result, Kearse had a career-low 1.0 sack and four combined tackles in six appearances in 2009.
The Titans won just eight games that year and missed the postseason for the fourth time in the past six seasons.
Jevon Kearse, one of the greatest defensive linemen in Tennessee Titans franchise history, retired following the 2009 NFL campaign.
Kearse had 74.0 sacks, 336 combined tackles, 80 tackles for loss, 26 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, one touchdown off a fumble recovery, and one interception in his 11-year NFL career.
Jevon Kearse is currently residing in the Moorestown, NJ area.
Four years after Kearse retired from the NFL, he told FloridaGators.com that he helped organize various league events such as the NFL Scouting Combine, the NFL Draft, the Super Bowl, and the Pro Bowl. He did a lot of traveling around the country and attended various corporate events at the time.
Jevon Kearse experienced some financial hardships during his retirement years.
According to the South Florida Business Journal’s Brian Bandell, the IRS slapped a tax lien worth $432,015 against Kearse in November 2012.
The bank that granted Kearse a $5.25 million mortgage on his $6.05 million Pompano Beach, FL residence filed a lawsuit against him the following month.
Kearse was also part of a group of former NFL players who filed a lawsuit against a Florida bank that allegedly mishandled their funds and made them lose almost $60 million.
— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) January 22, 2022
Kearse, who’s still in good physical condition, felt he could still play football almost eight years after he hung up his cleats at the end of the 2009 NFL campaign.
“I definitely could still play,” Kearse told the News-Press’ Seth Sofflan in the fall of 2017. “But I would only want to play third downs, just go in on the money downs and chase the quarterback down.”
Jevon Kearse is a member of the SEC Football Legends’ Class of 2019, the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.