We wear the same bracelet, Deiondre’ Hall and I.
The bracelet is green, with Jake Can written on it in white. Our bracelets are in memory of Jake Cavanaugh, a young man from our hometown who died in December 2010 from cancer when he was 22 years old—the age Hall and I are now. Jake was very popular and was connected to everyone somehow, so even five-plus years after his death, Jake Can bracelets are often seen around Blue Springs, Missouri, where Hall and I went to high school together. Now, Hall is taking his Jake Can bracelet with him to Chicago: The Bears drafted him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft at 127th overall on April 30.
Throughout high school, Hall would make it a point to play in the Jake Cavanaugh Foundation Turkey Bowl around Thanksgiving—if his Wildcats weren’t deep in the playoffs. He would play in the charity football tournament with his older teammates or former teammates who had known Jake, and he’d get a new Jake Can bracelet to wear and remind himself of reasons why he plays football. For people he loves and for people who can’t.
“Family is everything to me,” Hall said last week by phone. “So [the bracelet] is a constant reminder of that.”
Hall said his role models are and will forever be his mother, Rosie Hall, and family first and foremost. Then come the players and coaches he has played and grown with, which he also considers part of his extended family. The bracelet, said Hall’s former Blue Springs teammate and friend John Hicks, “also probably reminds him of the tournament, and time spent with older players. Being a part of a brotherhood. A special fraternity.”
On the field, Hall projects as an intriguing prospect. According to NFL.com, his draft grade was 5.43, which pegs him as a backup at first, with the upside to start in the future. His NFL comparison was to Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson. CBSSports.com ranked Hall eighth among all corners, and 205th overall.
Hall said he models his game after former Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman (who now plays with the Carolina Panthers) and Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu. Hall played both positions throughout his college career at the University of Northern Iowa. What in the world do you get when you mix a Peanut with a Honey Badger? Chicago might soon find out in Hall.
On Sunday, Tillman tweeted in defense of Hall after Greg Gabriel of Pro Football Weekly said that Hall “reminds me some of Charles Tillman when he was coming out. … Tillman had awful footwork entering his first camp and Hall’s may be a little better.” Tillman tweeted to Hall from his account, @peanuttillman: “‘Awful footwork’ How’s your footwork @gregabe. Be better than me @Dhall_Island1! Sky is the limit! #BearDown.”
Hall is listed as 6-foot-2, 199 pounds. The legend around Blue Springs High School was always that he could scratch his knee while standing straight up. In NFL prospect terms, his ability to scratch a knee while standing straight up means that Hall’s arm length is 34 and three-eighths inches long, which gives him an incredible ability to disrupt passes.
Hall had been waiting for a call to come since the beginning of the NFL Draft’s second round on Friday evening at his mother’s house with family and friends in Blue Springs. Growing up, he had always thought he would make it in basketball. His mother hooped at the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg, Missouri, where she won a national championship and appeared in three of them, before going on to coach at South Carolina, Indiana and Purdue. His father, Clifton Hall, played basketball at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, and then went on to a semi-professional basketball career.
Basketball had been in his blood, but now football was in his future.
“When I got that phone call,” Hall said, “the heart just started pounding, you know? For me, it’s just being thankful for the opportunity. Happy that they even chose me. The wait was insane. I kind of knew I was going to get drafted. I just didn’t know when.”
Hall’s mother, once upon a time, was set to embark on a professional basketball career before her mother got sick and her priorities changed. Now, her son is in a position she once found herself in, and she couldn’t be prouder. Hall said that he has a very close relationship with both his parents, who split when he was younger, but his mother “put in that extra time over the past 15 or 16 years to provide for me and my brother. To be able to give back to her and get everything right is huge for me.”
It wasn’t until Hall’s junior year in high school that he started committing fully to football. The only scholarship offers Hall received were from teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. He wasn’t sure what to do, or if he’d make it to the next level. Then came the possibility of the Northern Iowa. “For me, it was just Carlos Anderson and Jared Lanpher, who both played at Blue Springs High School. They went to Northern Iowa. Both were playing and had success there.”
Hall admitted that earlier on in high school he messed around when it came to grades, which caught up with him when the opportunity to go to Northern Iowa presented itself. He had to work to get the grades and ACT scores required to fulfill his scholarship. Northern Iowa and football head coach Mark Farley had waited for him.
“They left that money on the table for that full scholarship, and that was probably the biggest thing because I didn’t want to ever make my mom pay for my school,” Hall said. “Credit to Coach Farley for keeping that money and trusting in me.”
At Blue Springs, he had played wide receiver and free safety. He was named to the All-Simone team (given to the top players in the Kansas City area) and was a finalist for the Otis Taylor Award, which is given to the best receiver or tight end in the Kansas City Area. It wasn’t until Hall arrived in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that he became a cornerback. Hall played defensive back all four seasons for Northern Iowa. He led all Northern Iowa cornerbacks with 74 tackles and led the league with five interceptions in 2014. He was named 2015 Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year.
Prior to Saturday, Hall had only had one interaction with the Bears. He interviewed with them at the Senior Bowl but was still shocked when he saw the Illinois area code on his phone on Saturday, describing the Bears as “really random to me, but I’m just blessed to get the call.” He doesn’t quite remember who it was that told him he had been drafted at first—he was well into a state of euphoria by then—but he remembers being congratulated and welcomed by Bears general manager Ryan Pace.
When Hall hung up the phone, he screamed, “I’m a Bear, baby! I’m a Bear! That boy is a Bear! Let’s get it!” There were smiles, tears and many congratulations from family and friends.
“Coming in with no draft grade to having a draft grade to being a high pick to a mid-round pick to a late pick, and then (eventually) back to a mid-pick,” Hall said. “It’s really stressful.”
One of those friends with him at his mother’s house when he got the call was Matt Marble. Marble is a communications teacher and football coach at Blue Springs High School. He used to be Hall’s position coach during Hall’s junior and senior years.“I saw a kid with so much competitive passion to be great,” Marble said of Hall back then. “His junior year he realized he could be good at football. Then his senior year I saw the light bulb click and he realized he could be great.”
In 2011, the summer before Hall’s senior year, he traveled with Marble and other members of the Blue Springs football team to Peru to help build an orphanage. Marble said he saw Hall grow in so many ways during that trip. “I knew there was so much more to that kid than his freakish body and ability to play a sport,” Marble said.
After Hall had completed his senior season at Blue Springs, Marble sat Hall down in his classroom and walked up to the whiteboard where he had diagrammed plays for him in the past. Only this time, he drew out for Hall four different potential future paths that Marble believed Hall could successfully take based on what Marble had seen in him over the previous two years. One option Marble presented was to work hard in school, keep getting college paid for, graduate, get a job he loved and be able to provide for his future wife and kids. Another was more of a cautionary tale: Do not continue to play football or go to school because of your choices. Be just another guy who impacts no one, and isn’t really happy.
“One of those (paths) ended in him becoming an NFL player,” Marble said, “and above that, a great man. Both of those are within his grasp now.
“He’s talked to me recently about going on another service trip, potentially to Haiti, or to be a leader on our high-school football service trip in the future. That, to me, is so much more impressive than how long his arms are, and how well he can cover a receiver. I think the Bears organization got more than just a great, competitive player.”
Hall left Blue Springs for Chicago on the Friday after he was drafted. “There are really no words,” he said. “This is just crazy. It’s not that I’ve made it, you know, because there is definitely more work that has to be done to make it.” At the time of our conversation, Hall didn’t yet know what number he will wear for the Bears. And it doesn’t much matter to him. “You can stamp a 93 on my back as long as I’m on the field and being able to play,” Hall said, “I’m good.”
What was the first thing Hall planned to do when he finally puts on a Bears uniform?
He laughed and answered as if he had answered this question in his mind many times before. “Psh. Take a picture and send it to my mom.”
And will he ever come back home to Blue Springs?
“Oh yeah,” Hall said, “Of course. My mom still stays right down the street from the high school.”
Maybe one day, he’ll bring her a Super Bowl ring.
Image: Jeff Becker/University of Northern Iowa