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The ascension of Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2 days ago Ben Arthur, SeattlePI

Editor's note: This story was initially published ahead of Week 6 games, when the Seahawks were on their bye week.

It’s Dec. 5, 2015.

The Mississippi class 5A state title is in DK Metcalf’s hands.

His Oxford high school against Wayne County. Oxford at the 1-yard line, with time for one last play to win the game. It’s championship or nothing.

The ball goes to him. Of course it does. He’s the Chargers’ best athlete; a four-star receiver and one of the top wideouts in the country.

Metcalf motions to the backfield. The ball is shotgun snapped between the quarterback’s legs to Metcalf, who’s supposed to leap over the pile to cross the plane. But the snap is low, disrupting the play. Metcalf runs out wide instead. He’s tackled at the legs. He stretches for the goal line as time expires.

Short.

Euphoria for Wayne County. Heartbreak for Metcalf and Oxford — again. For the third straight year, the Chargers lose in the state championship.

There’s no more "next year" for Metcalf, a 17-year-old senior. No state title for his prep career resume.

Guilt consumes him. He didn’t send off head coach Johnny Hill the way he envisioned. Oxford’s coach of 22 years, Hill announced before the season that it would be his last year.

The Mississippi hall-of-fame coach would now retire without a state title.

“He felt like he had let all of us down,” recalls current Oxford head football coach Chris Cutcliffe, Metcalf’s position coach all four years of high school. “He had felt that he let the team down, the coaches down. He kind of put it on his shoulders.”

Dad mode turns on for Terrence Metcalf, Oxford’s defensive line coach. He picks his son off the ground. He hugs him. DK is devastated; one of the rare times he’s shown raw emotion.

You have a lot of football left to play, stresses Terrence. This chapter isn’t over in your life. God hasn’t closed the door on you for football. Let’s get ready for the next chapter.

Yes sir, says DK, fighting through tears.

Father and son, together, walk to the locker room, out of sight.

DK is unguardable to start 2020. Opposing cornerbacks need safety help against him.

DK — who went viral ahead of the 2019 draft with a shirtless pic showing his shredded, 6-foot-4, 230-pound physique — is not just a social media sensation. And he’s doing much more than running in a straight line really, really fast. DK, an ascending route runner, is emerging as the No. 1 receiver in a Seahawks’ offense that quarterback Russell Wilson says is playing at the highest level it ever has since he arrived in Seattle.

“He’s the best in the world at what he does,” says Wilson of DK, speaking to reporters last week.

Through five weeks, DK is third in the NFL in receiving yards (496) and tied for second in receiving touchdowns (5). He’s the only player this season with 90-plus receiving yards in each of his first five games. He leads the league in yards per reception (22.5). Explosive plays are his bread and butter.

Withholding comparisons to legends — refraining from imagining a bust in Canton because it’s too early — is a futile exercise. Through his first 21 regular-season games, DK has more catches, receiving yards and touchdowns than similarly-built legendary wideouts Terrell Owens and Calvin Johnson. He also has more receiving yards through 21 games than Falcons superstar Julio Jones, who he’s tied with in that span in receptions (80) and scores (12).

DK shows us what he can be with a 900-yard receiving rookie season; by putting up 160 receiving yards in his first playoff game, both a franchise postseason record and the most by a rookie in NFL postseason history. Then he shows us he’s already that in Year 2 by manhandling arguably the league’s best corner, reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gillmore, in a Sunday night thriller against the Patriots.

He’s the man on the Seahawks’ 94-yard game-winning drive against the Vikings in Week 5, wanting and hauling in two impressive fourth-down catches, including the game-winning touchdown.

He’s the man vs. Dallas two weeks prior; fumbling at the 1-yard line for a touchback early in the game — an epic lapse — then scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

And he’s the man for even being in this position.

His career at Ole Miss ends because of a neck injury, and a doctor tells him he’ll never play football again. Four months later, he has a record-setting performance at the 2019 NFL combine. He breaks down on a teary-eyed Facetime call to his family after the fact. But it’s just his power radiating in the moment.

The ascension of DK — his knack for rising to the occasion, his burgeoning star status — starts at home.

DK set his sights on the NFL as a little boy in Oxford, Mississippi. By middle school, he’s focused on earning a football scholarship. He didn’t talk about it, though.

His parents didn’t allow it.

“You can talk about it all you want,” says Terrence, “but if you don’t show that that’s where you’re supposed to be through your work ethic and how you treat people in your walk in life, it’s moot point.”

Little DK watches his dad train tirelessly, at Ole Miss and for seven years in the NFL with the Chicago Bears. He notices him going to the facility on his off days. He sees the trip to Super Bowl XLI.

Terrence’s teammates tell young DK what it takes, too. Former Bears safety Bobby Gray works with him; talks with him. Two-time Pro Bowler and 2005 NFL sack leader Derrick Burgess, one of Terrence’s best friends and a teammate at Ole Miss, is in his corner. Former Ole Miss star running back Deuce McAllister gives him pointers, too. It’s a village of mentors.

When it’s time for DK to put in his own work, he’s ready.

He’s on a lifting routine in sixth grade. Four days a week, from sixth to eighth grade, he goes with Terrence to workout at Ole Miss. He runs the steps at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium; does all the grueling drills dad tells him to do. Because dad says he can be legendary.

One day in sixth grade stands out. He’s more tired than usual in the workout. He’s exhausted, struggling to breathe. He hits a wall. So Terrence pushes him harder; tells him to slow his breathing down and encourages him through it.

DK finishes and makes time for all his 10 110’s — 110-yard runs from the back of one end zone to the goal line of the other, and vice versa.

“I would always tell him, ‘No coach can coach you harder than I’ve coached you already,’” says Terrence. “He’s carried that with him, I believe, every day. He lived with that. He trains to set himself apart.”

At Oxford high school, DK maintains a year-round training schedule. A four-star football recruit, he shines on the hardwood and in track & field, too. He goes straight from football season to basketball season to track season. It never ends.

He hits the gym at 6 a.m. before school to get his lift in. During football season, he stays late after practice to work on routes with his quarterback and close friend, current Southern Miss star Jack Abraham. The work for the week doesn’t finish after the game Friday. They get together most Sundays to throw for an hour and a half. The routine continues into the offseason.

It’s DK telling Abraham to stay for more reps most of the time.

“I think his daddy kind of leveled his head where he always kept him grounded,” says Hill. “He wouldn't let him get the big head. He wouldn't let him loaf. He wouldn't let him do this that type stuff. And I think that was a driving force in the fact that he didn't want to be just the best receiver we had at Oxford. He wanted to be the best receiver in the state of Mississippi. He wanted to be the best receiver in the southeast (United States).”

DK records six receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns in the dramatic Week 5 win over the Vikings. It’s another big game for him to start 2020.

He’s peppered with questions about how he makes the leaping grab on 4th & 10 to keep the game alive; what it’s like to have the touchdown reception, have it ruled incomplete then get the touchdown again, for real, on the Seahawks’ last play of the game.

How did his dad help him build the mental fortitude needed to succeed in that moment?

“My pops always taught me to be a dog and to not let anything stop me, no matter what it is, whether it’s in the weight room or on the field,” says DK. “My dad always told me to be your own person because there’s only one you. From everybody I heard of or anybody that I have been around, they always told me how big, strong and intimidating I look, so why not just act like it?

“He created a monster.”

The monster grows stronger with the Seahawks.

In Seattle, DK has the perfect environment to build on the foundation his father laid. A winning organization. An eventual Hall of Fame coach in Pete Carroll. A superstar quarterback in Wilson.

His chemistry with Wilson is blossoming. He shows unwavering trust in DK; confidence in him to deliver in the biggest moments.

DK is targeted on six of Wilson’s final nine passing attempts in the Seahawks’ stunning game-winning drive vs. Minnesota. Wilson goes to DK for the game-winning TD late in the fourth quarter two weeks prior in the victory against Dallas, after he blows a TD early in the game. And he goes to the second-year pro for the score on 4th & 5 in the season opener at Atlanta, after he drops a wide-open pass earlier in the drive.

The trust comes from waking up for 5:45 a.m. workouts at UCLA with Wilson before his first training camp in 2019. Sitting next to Wilson in meetings as a rookie. Asking him questions, constantly. Devouring Wilson’s 15-page, weekly scouting reports on opposing teams; studying those reports so thoroughly that he can answer any question about them when quizzed.

Then DK applies the knowledge on the field. Quickly. In his first NFL game, at home against the Bengals, he posts four receptions for a team-leading 89 yards — the most ever by a Seahawks rookie wide receiver in a debut.

“A guy like him, who has all the talent in the world, he can take it easy,” says Wilson in September. “He could do this, he could do that. (But) he’s one of the first guys there every day. He’s one of the guys who’s always ready to work. He’s always ready to get extra reps. He wants to be great. When somebody wants to be great, it’s not just about wanting to. It’s about doing the actions. It’s about everything that you do about it. It’s a lifestyle that you have to live. I think he really wants to do it.”

Wilson and DK grow closer in 2020. They quarantine together in the spring with the novel coronavirus pandemic ongoing. They workout at Wilson’s compound in San Diego. They train in Mexico. Wilson teaches DK how to swim. Wilson calls him one of his best friends; a little brother. DK introduces himself as such, too.

But it’s not just Wilson. So many in the Seahawks locker room influence DK and help him to grow. It’s Tyler Lockett and Duane Brown and Bobby Wagner and others.

“It’s just a blessing to be around this organization,” says DK last Sunday. “I can go on and on with the people who’ve just taken me under their wing and just pulled me to the side. They’re friends. They’re not teammates. So it just makes it easier to go out there and lay my life on the line, my body on the line every play for these boys.”

Then he plays against Julio Jones and Larry FItzgerald, too. He meets Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and Michael Irvin. Legends. He soaks up their knowledge.

He wants to be named in that group — so he internalizes what they say.

“I think that’s always in the forefront of his mind, ‘I have to work like those guys work,’ because they’re telling him ‘I never took time off. I trained like I wanted to be the best,’’’ says Terrence. “And then he has Russell as his quarterback that’s telling him, ‘hey, it takes this to be this individual.’ And he already knows what he wants to do.”

NFL fans bemoan their favorite team for passing on him. Pundits see a Hall-of-Fame talent. Seahawks safety Jamal Adams sees the new Megatron. Cornerback Quinton Dunbar proclaims he “looks like Julio (Jones) out there” in practice.

The spotlights grows bigger for DK.

"All he could have ever dreamed for is happening,” says Carroll on Monday. “DK hasn't played perfectly. He's made his mistakes and missed some balls that he could catch and will catch and all that. So it's still all out there for him. But I think what people are noticing is that you can't help but notice his presence, his physical presence when you play against him. It's so obvious. He's so fast and so strong and so tough. He's getting after guys when he's blocking … he'll have to find the rhythm of what that all takes as he's learning. He hasn't had enough success yet to know that yet. He's still learning. He's still working. But he's available to learn.

“He's really bright and he cares so much.”

DK takes the blame for the state championship heartbreak; that he couldn't finish the play at the 1-yard line against Wayne County. But the Oxford coaches don't see it that way. It’s the little things about DK that always make them proud; who he is matters more than that one tough moment five years ago.

Like how against Clarksdale that one year, his dad’s high school, he picks up his block and drives his man so far they feared he’d draw a flag — out of bounds, through the Oxford sideline and into the track surrounding the field. Like how, as one of the top college prospects in the South, he’s at the spring practice for the Oxford eight graders, carrying water bottles and giving pointers to the young kids.

They beam with pride, too, in how he overcomes that scary neck injury at Ole Miss to run a dazzling 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2019 combine. The Oxford football staff, on their lunch break at a coaching clinic in Nashville, watch him run on the TV. His old coaches hoot and holler louder than anyone else, drawing eyes all round.

And just a few days after that run, a moment that lifts his fame ahead of the draft, he comes to see them. He shoots Cutcliffe a text that he’s in town. He arrives at Oxford high school. He sees the coaches and his old teachers; those who made an impact on him. He does the morning announcements for the school over the intercom.

So when DK gets drafted — an emotional night after everything he’s been through, the long wait for the phone call — the Oxford football team is there for him, too. They throw a big draft party in their fieldhouse to watch his special moment.

“I don’t think we could be more proud of him,” says Cutcliffe. “What he means to the community here, to the teachers and students and especially the football team ... he’s left a great legacy at Oxford high school.”

After that heartbreak at the 1-yard line against Wayne County, as he lifts up his emotional son off the ground, Terrence offers his fatherly encouragement. But it’s not a drawn out conversation. It can’t be.

Basketball season is up next. Then track in the spring. He’ll be back at this very stadium next fall, too, suiting up for the Ole Miss Rebels. And from there, who knows? So the work can’t stop.

Train to set yourself apart. 

Be legendary.

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Ben Arthur covers sports for SeattlePI. He can be reached by email at benjaminarthur@seattlepi.com. Follow him on twitter at @benyarthur

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