This kid can play
Rookie quarterback has talent to burn
By JONATHAN HUNTINGTON, EDMONTON SUN
From the first day of training camp nearly a month ago, it was clear that Steven Jyles was going to be an Edmonton Eskimo this year.
With a cannon for an arm and intriguing mobility, the wide-eyed rookie had incredible CFL potential written all over him before he had completed three throwing drills during that first early practice on May 21 at Clarke Stadium.
"This is year 10 for me (in the CFL) ... and that's the best I have seen as far as Day 1 is concerned (for a rookie quarterback)," said Edmonton Eskimo head coach Danny Maciocia after Jyles was done wowing the small crowd in the bleachers that morning.
While the 23-year-old import pivot still has a lot to learn about the Canadian game before he is ready to challenge Ricky Ray for the starting job, he really couldn't have made a better first impression through the entire camp.
But what is even more amazing is the journey the Esks' new No. 3 quarterback has taken to get here.
Underneath his likable personality and gifted athletic ability is a checkered past with pitfalls that would have swallowed the athletic potential of many young men.
But key decisions at crucial times by Jyles and the people within his inner circle have led him to Edmonton to chase his goal of playing professional football.
ON the cusp of becoming a high school star in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jyles was yanked out of every sports program at Glen Oaks High School in Grade 10.
When Jyles told his parents that he was expecting his first child, that was the end of the line for sports.
"My dad told me that I was going to have to work and supply for my kid and that was the responsible way," remembered Jyles.
But losing the ability to play sports quickly spun the 17-year-old teenager into depression.
Thankfully for Jyles, his mother saw what was happening and was able to work a plea bargain on her son's behalf two weeks later.
"My dad told me he was going to let me play one sport if I promised to keep my grades up and work and take care of my child," Jyles recalled.
So, while working nearly 38 hours a week at Burger King and hitting the books, Jyles was going to be able to play basketball or football - but not both.
It was a hard decision, but football won and Jyles began to excel on offence and defence.
However, in the midst of his high school junior year, he did even more damage to his off-field image by having a second child with a second young lady.
While he was lighting it up on the football scoreboard, his off-field scorecard was ugly: two children from two women in one year before Grade 11 was complete.
"When you are that young and you find interesting girls, bad things are going to happen," said Jyles.
"I advise all kids just to wait. That could have hurt me."
Indeed, with two children to feed and care for, some teenagers in his rough and tough Baton Rouge neighbourhood would have dropped out of school, or at the very least, started full-time work as soon as high school was complete.
Instead, having two infant boys - Steven Jr. and Jyron - actually helped motivate Jyles. "My kids are pretty much the reason why I went to college," he remarked.
"I just wanted to go to college and graduate and get a good job to raise my boys in a better environment."
So, after tearing up the field in his senior year - in one game he was 11-for-13 for 298 yards and five touchdowns - he had no shortage of college scholarship offers.
SOME of the biggest schools in the United States - LSU, Arkansas, Virginia Tech - wanted Jyles.
Recruiters were offering the moon, but with one catch: he had to play defensive back.
"A lot of schools wanted me to play defensive back because I was all-state two years in a row as safety in high school," he said.
But Jyles wanted to play quarterback, so he chose an unknown football program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
At the time he didn't know it, but that decision is how the Edmonton Eskimos secured his CFL rights less than a year later because, as fate would have it, Esks general manager Paul Jones lives in Monroe.
"Paul would come over while I was the offensive co-ordinator (at ULM) and I told him that you need to put Steven on your neg list right now," said Tommy Condell, who today is the offensive co-ordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"Paul was there when Steven threw for 500 yards against Utah State in his freshman year and then he put him on his neg list right away."
(Every CFL team has a neg list of players whose Canadian rights only belong to that particular club. In other words, the Eskimos knew at that point that Jyles was their property if he ever decided to come north.)
"I thought then (in his freshman year) he could be something special," said Jones.
Considering the animosity between the Eskimos and Roughriders, it's ironic that Condell played a hand in Edmonton securing Jyles's rights.
What's even more ironic is the major role Condell played in grooming Jyles.
While former Eskimo pivot Charlie Weatherbie is often given plenty of credit for coaching and guiding Jyles during his senior year in college, it was Condell that really helped Jyles before the pair split apart after just two years.
"He pretty much taught me everything there was to reading defences," said Jyles of Condell, who left ULM after 2003.
By the time Jyles left college, he had obliterated every single school passing record.
Although he was saddled with a very young and inexperienced offensive line in his senior year, Jyles threw for 2,235 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He graduated with 8,987 passing yards, 54 TDs and almost 1,500 yards rushing over four years.
THE SKY'S THE LIMIT
LIKE coming out of high school, Jyles had no shortage of offers when he finished his college career this past fall.
No less than four NFL teams - Tennessee, Oakland, Carolina and Pittsburgh - were interested.
But unlike almost every player in his shoes, Jyles signed with the Eskimos this winter before waiting for the NFL draft or subsequent free-agent frenzy.
On the surface, it was a stunning move.
But dig deeper and it is a sign that Jyles isn't gambling with his life like he used to do in high school.
Knowing an NFL offer might not pan out and the Eskimo offer could disappear, he was leaning heavily toward coming north.
But a special delivery by Jones sealed the deal.
After winning the Grey Cup in Vancouver, Jones sent a copy of the game film to Jyles this winter.
"That was one of the best games I ever watched. That is what really got me - that game there," he remarked.
"When I watched that game I saw two championship teams playing each other and that attracted me."
NOW in Edmonton - thousands of miles from home - the six-one, 200-pound pivot is starting a new chapter in his life.
And so far, he has impressed the veteran leaders on the Grey Cup champs.
"He is very humble, you can tell he has a good head on his shoulders and he understands his role on this football team - and that is the best way to learn," said receiver Ed Hervey.
Added undisputed starting quarterback Ricky Ray: "He is a smart kid. He just doesn't sit in meetings and look at his watch the whole time.
"He is also not a guy who gets back there and completes a five-yard pass and starts hooting and hollering.
"He is a guy that tries to get better every practice.
"He fits in great."
And he will be here for at least the next two years, after signing a two-year, plus an option, contract.
In fact, Jyles is mulling over the idea of living in Edmonton year-round with his new wife Ashley - who is no relation to Jyles's children.
But he does know for sure that he's trying to be a role model for his two boys back home in Louisiana.
"I didn't have anyone to look up to as far as playing pro ball, so I motivated myself," he continued.
"I am hoping that my boys can look at me and see that dad made it here. If they try to do that or be better than me, it will work out for the best."
Jyles already has Steven Jr. working on his throwing technique at the age of six.
"He is taking three-step drops, throwing fade balls already," chuckled Jyles.
But more importantly, he talks to his boys on the phone and tries to stay one step ahead of their needs - whether that means buying clothes for school or something else.
However, Jyles also knows that he wouldn't be on the verge of playing professional football if it wasn't for the two young moms handling the majority of the responsibility for his boys.
"They are very supportive," said Jyles.
"They have tried their hardest to help me. They did a lot while I was in school so I could continue to go to school and I didn't have to focus on sending so much money back home.
"(They could have) been evil and could have done some things to hurt me and I wouldn't have got this far."
And Jones believes this is just the beginning of Jyles's football development.
"I have always wanted to find a guy that could run and throw and be good at both - and be smart enough to learn the offence," said Jones, who is now in his eighth year scouting for the Green and Gold.
"With Steven, he's a guy that has tremendous upside. There is a long way for him to go, but I think he's the type that is willing to work and dedicate himself to do what it takes to get there.
"I think he has got a great future.
"I think the sky is the limit."