He has helping hands.
That’s the best way to describe, in both the literal and figurative sense, the essence of Terrell Jana, who on the eve of both the NFL and CFL drafts, is every bit as much a giver as he is as receiver, and that’s saying a lot when you’re talking about a guy who just might be the most sure-handed pass-catcher in the college football world.
Six years ago, Jana left a dual-sport life at Burnaby’s St. Thomas More Collegiate, where for his final two seasons he had started at point guard and quarterback for the Knights’ senior varsity, determined to grab hold of his dream of playing major NCAA Div. 1 football as a bridge to the professional career he nows stands on the precipice of.
Yet along the way, the outstretched arms of the 6-foot, 200-pound Jana caught a whole lot more than passes and touchdowns with the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Virginia Cavaliers.
In fact in the most organic ways possible, Jana touched figurative hearts around the world from the moment his hands touched those engraved names on the granite walls of his university’s freshly-minted Memorial to Enslaved Laborers last July.
In a well-reported story, Jana was shocked during his first visit to the memorial, which honoured the enslaved labourers who help construct the Charlottesville, Va., school, when he realized that only their first names or occupations were engraved. There was no mention of their surnames.
“It was like they weren’t important enough,” he said at the time.
So to honour them, Jana, with the support of his team and athletic department officials, removed his surname from his game-day Virginia jersey each time the team played over the 2020 season.
Said Bronco Mendenhall, his head coach at Virginia, to the school’s website: “I thought it was tasteful, I thought it was substantive, I thought it was well-thought-out and I thought it was powerful, with him not drawing attention to himself, but possibly just asking folks to contemplate ‘How could that be?’”
So while those hands caught passes, they also touched hearts.
He was a fan favourite at the 61,500-seat Scott Stadium, where over his final two seasons with the Cavaliers, where he so often found himself working in some the greasiest areas of the field, he dropped only three total passes out of what was somewhere around a couple of hundred targets.
Yet along the off-field portion of his football journey, he achieved an entirely different level of respect and admiration for simply living up to his own daily values, leading with his heart in ways that mirrored the title of one of his in-class projects: ‘Athletes, Activism and Policy Change’.
As he’s watched from afar some 4,500 kilometres away, Jana’s former high school basketball coach at St. Thomas More can’t help but be proud.
“Regardless of his athletic ability, he was meant for bigger things as a human,” said Aaron Mitchell earlier this week, reflecting on time he spent with Jana as his head coach during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 senior varsity seasons.
“So what a combination… someone who is gifted athletically but is using his platform as a young black man, to show people what’s right in the world,” continued Mitchell. “How can you not have goosebumps and be inspired by that, right?”
WHAT’S THE CATCH? REWARDS COME WITH A RISK
From his earliest days on the football field, Terrell Jana’s incredible athleticism has shone yet never fully outshone the cerebral aspects of his persona.
Again, that’s saying something.
“When you have a person on the team who can break a 70-yard run at any time, you have a weapon that nobody else has,” explained St. Thomas More offensive coordinator Joe Adams in reflection of his years coaching Jana. “But when that person is also super-intelligent emotionally, has superb football smarts, and is as even-keeled as the day is long, then you’re talking about a generational type of talent.”
The Knights have had more than their share, and Adams puts Jana in a class with former STMC stars Calvin McCarty, Jon Cornish and Malcom Lee.
“The best way I can describe it for all four of those guys, is if you’re down six with two minutes left in the game, it’s like another day at the office,” said Adams.
“Terrell had an emotional intelligence and a level of tact that you just don’t see in a 16- or 17-year-old,” Adams added of a skill set that pre-told the brand of leadership he would bring to Virginia. “He had the ability to read the room, to take its temperature.”
Mitchell saw the same intangibles as he brought Jana up a year early to the senior varsity for the 2013-14 season, then proceeded to watch his starting Grade 10 point guard help lead the Knights to the B.C. Triple-A title over the Charles Hays Rainmakers.
“We had them scouted,” Mitchell remembered of the Prince Rupert team, “but they started to play a different kind of a wheel than we were expecting. Every time I watch that film, I am reminded of how (Jana) made all of the adjustments by himself with his teammates. We didn’t have to tell him a thing.”
His two-sport career toook Jana to the end of his Grade 11 year at STM in the spring of 2015.
He was clearly a special student-athlete, yet his desire to play football at a big-time NCAA Div. 1 school was beginning to butt heads with the position he was playing in high school.
“I had been training as a wide receiver (with Air Raid Academy), and I knew that to get to the states, that had to be the route,” Jana remembers. “The quarterback thing at STM had just happened because we needed one.”
Thus he was at a crossroads.
Was he willing to leave his familiar life at STM behind to take the chance that he could develop enough as a receiver over two seasons at a U.S. prep school (Woodberry Forest Prep, a 45-minute drive from the Virginia campus) on the other side of the continent, thus earning that elusive big-time scholarship and all the options it could potentially lead to?
“For me it was a question of ‘Am I good enough to do it?’ remembers Jana. “I’d be leaving a place where I had good people around me. I was doing well in basketball and football. Was I willing to risk it all for a potentially better opportunity where I might end up with nothing?”
All these years later, as he prepares to leave Virginia sitting 12th on its all-time receptions list, betting on himself has clearly paid off.
HANDS THAT PLAY WITH HEART
The CFL.ca‘s Mock Draft 2.0, released Tuesday ahead of its actual May 4 draft, has Terrell Jana slated to be selected sixth overall by Ottawa.
There has also been plenty of NFL attention heading into its three-day marathon beginning Thursday, hinting perhaps at a later-round selection or a free agent invitation.
Jana says he has done everything he can, and now it’s time to let the process happen with no regrets.
“I think I have learned to relinquish all expectations and control of the process,” he began. “I think that after my pro day, everything I could do was over.”
Of course, there is plenty for both leagues to love about Jana’s game.
Asked to speak to what he thinks he does best, it’s not surprising that Jana’s answer combines the athletic with the cerebral.
“For starters, I think my route running, working zones, understanding the defence on a comprehensive level… that you’re not just running a route but that you’re running a concept against a defensive concept, and you’re trying to understand not only what you’re doing, but what the quarterback is thinking, what the DB is thinking…
“There’s a whole bunch of complex layers going on that I think I’m lucky enough to understand on a pretty deep level, which I think separates me from a lot of other players. I think it’s shown in how I run my routes, how I craft my routes, and then my ability to catch the ball.”
Remember those helping hands.
“The best way to earn the trust of the coaching staff and your quarterback is to catch everything thrown your way,” says Jana, who upon returning home over this past summer had older brother Jalen, the former Simon Fraser running back, as well as dad Kore, a former point guard at Surrey’s Queen Elizabeth Secondary in the mid-1980s, helping him load up the Jugs machine for a daily 500-catch session.
The work paid off.
That much seemed apparent in a Nov. 2, 2019 game at Chapel Hill, as Virginia beat host North Carolina 38-31. Jana, in his usual No. 13 game jersey, caught a career-high 13 passes for 176 yards.
Jana will leave Virginia 12th all-time in receptions with 123, and 17th in receiving yardage with 1,481.
“No matter what the situation, I just made sure I secured the ball and I feel that manifested itself to the point where I think the past two years I might have had two drops, and that’s with a large amount of targets,” said Jana, who in 2019, catching passes from record-setting senior quarterback Bryce Perkins, registered just one dropped pass in what was deemed 75 catchable pass opportunities by Pro Football Focus. That made him the category’s top returning receiver in Div. 1 football heading into this past season.
“That is something that I take pride in,” the humble Jana says with conviction. “It’s not something that was given to me. I don’t have the biggest hands in the world but I worked on it every single day.”
“THAT MOMENT… IT’S EXACTLY THE REASON I DID IT”
Aaron Mitchell wasn’t about to hold back his excitement.
“My wife and son and I has just finished shopping at Tsawwassen Mills and we had stopped in at Boston Pizza to get something to eat,” remembers Mitchell, who very quickly spied the 2019 Orange Bowl between Virginia and Florida just kicking off on the restaurant’s TV screens that late December day back in 2019.
As Mitchell focused on the screen, he saw Virginia quarterback Perkins rear back and hit Jana in full stride with a perfectly placed 34-yard touchdown strike at the back of the end zone.
“I remember that I just screamed in the restaurant,” Mitchell laughed. “This was the Orange Bowl (0:52 on video below), and he had just caught a TD in a major bowl game. I was so fired up.”
Jana is grateful for his football experience, but to him, it was the entire package that made his time in Charlottesville so special.
“I went to a place that had an amazing atmosphere, that had amazing academics and gave me the opportunity to grow as a person,” said Jana, a football co-captain who is set to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in public policy and leadership.
While at Virginia, the school’s website notes that Jana, through various projects centring on athletes and public policy, was able to gain deeper insights into his studies through personal interviews he did with the likes of Cavs’ alums like NFL players Tiki Barber and Chris Long.
Jana and a number of his teammates also formed the Groundskeepers, a community outreach group, which is focused on unity and a commitment to change through education.
All of that makes it easy to see that as graduation approaches, and a pro football career beckons, the kid who first began to realize his student-athlete potential as a young teen at STM’s Kingsway campus in Burnaby, has become a part of the fabric of his Virginia campus community and beyond.
It’s a fact that struck an incredibly emotional chord with him over this most recent football off-season.
Jana and a number of his teammates had gathered for breakfast at a local diner, and as he begins to tell the story, he can’t help but laugh at how his company left no doubt about their shared identity.
“All of my roommates are linemen, so they’re all 6-5 and 300 pounds, so we stick out pretty well,” he begins.
A woman in the diner noticed the group, approached them, then made sure they were indeed Cavaliers football players.
“She said ‘I saw what one of your teammates did last year taking his name off his jersey, and I just wanted to say how amazing that was,’” related Jana. “So my friend points at me and says to her ‘This is him, right here, this guy.’”
The woman trained her focus on Jana and spoke from the heart.
“We got into a conversation and she explained that she was a direct descendant of one of the enslaved labourers who worked in Charlottesville,” said Jana. “She expressed how amazing it felt to see me do that and to hear the stories that I told. She said she was happy I was shedding light on this memorial which had just opened up.”
It was something Jana says he will never forget.
“That moment to me, that is exactly the reason I did it,” he said. “To represent the people of Charlottesville, the people who are forgotten… the fact that when she saw me, she took pride in that, and she saw herself in me when I was doing that? More than any award or story, it was that moment right there. Someone in the community felt connected to it on a deeper level. It was pretty powerful and I was happy to be a vessel for that experience with her.”
Yet if all of that almost makes you forget he’s a football player, here’s a reminder to think of him over the next week as he takes the first big steps towards the professional gridiron career he’s always dreamed of having.
“He’s always been years ahead of his time with his thinking and his approach,” Mitchell explained. “I think that has shone through not only in his playing, but now in his advocacy… in the causes in his life he has become vocal about.”
As far as Mitchell is concerned, his former student has become his teacher.
“He motivates me to be a better person, and as a privileged white person to be more outspoken to what’s wrong in the world,” says Mitchell.
“Selfishly, we learn so much more and gain so much more than we’ll ever know when we work with young people, and he’s the prime example of that.”
For Terrell Jana, the best receiver will always be a giver.
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