You had to have felt at least a little sorry for Chris Hughes.
In 2009, he was a blue-chip safety at Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala., and the most highly recruited kid on his team. He was big, fast and part of one of the best defenses in the state. College coaches who came to watch him play left with his name triple underscored. The future was bright.
Then Hughes injured his ankle.
When he came back, his position had been filled by ... well, by some guy who never had played high school football and had a name no one could pronounce.
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Until that year, Jaquiski (Ja-KWAH-ski) Tartt had fancied himself a basketball player. At the time he stood just over 6-foot and played small forward. He was physical, defensive-minded, the type of guy who would skid out of bounds on his belly for a loose ball, upending folding chairs along the way.
Tartt played at Samford, known for top-notch academics but certainly not its football program, and he graduated with a degree in geography.
The football coaches noticed.
“What I remember most was watching him on a fast break,” Davidson defensive coordinator P.J. Wright said. “He came through the lane and dunked the ball. It was, ‘Man, he can jump out of the gym.’ And that’s what we were looking for from a secondary player – someone who could stop a deep ball.”
For three years, Wright and others gently attempted to persuade Tartt to give football a try. Eventually, he concluded there weren’t a lot of 6-1 forwards in the NBA, and before his senior season, he asked Davidson coach Fred Riley if he could participate in spring practices.
“We started him out covering kicks,” Riley said. “He was fearless. The question was whether he’d develop the IQ to play.”
Fate intervened when Hughes hurt his ankle. The injury not only opened a spot on the starting defense, it meant Tartt would be paired with a fellow senior named Jimmie Ward. Whereas Tartt was raw, coltish and new to the sport, Ward was a professor when it came to safety. He always wanted to be a football player and knew every detail of the game.
“Jimmie was the king of football IQ,” Riley said. “We refer to it as ‘Factor 11.’ That’s where you understand football to the point where you know all 11 working parts on the other side of the ball and all 11 working parts on this side of the ball. They’d break the huddle, and Jimmie’d know what play they were about to run.”
Riley always put his best players at safety – “You can always be demoted to offense,” he said – and gave them the most responsibility. They were expected to mirror each other on the field, prompting endless study sessions between Ward and his neophyte teammate. Sometimes coaches arrived at school in the morning to find their starting safeties watching game film.
The cram sessions paid off.
One Friday night in October 2009, Davidson was leading its crosstown rival, Theodore High School, 14-12 late in the game when a Theodore receiver caught a pass in the open field and took off for the end zone. Witnesses said Tartt ran half the length of the field and blasted his opponent out of bounds just short of the goal line. But with 57 seconds remaining, it seemed as if Davidson was doomed.
“It felt like we had no chance of winning,” Wright said. “That was it. They were going to put the ball in. They were going to beat us.”
On the next play, however, Theodore attempted another pass, this time to the back of the end zone. Tartt leaped and picked it off with one hand.
The headline in the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register the next morning: “Sweet, Tartt.”
A few weeks later, Hughes was ready to get back on the field. The bad news for him: Tartt had been such a wrecking ball on run defense and so dependable in pass defense that the coaches dared not remove him from the lineup. They told Hughes to play outside linebacker instead.
“He wanted to know why he wasn’t playing safety anymore,” Wright said. “It was, ‘So which one do you want us to take off the field, Jimmie or Jaquiski?’”
Hughes remained the team’s top recruit. He had offers from seven schools, four from the Southeastern Conference, and chose Mississippi State. He was dismissed from the team in 2013 after an arrest on a domestic violence charge, his third arrest since 2011.
As for Ward, Wright called him the best player he’s ever coached. But big college programs didn’t think he had the size to play safety, and he ended up at Northern Illinois.
Tartt? He played 41/2 hours away at Samford, which is known for tough admissions standards and top-notch academics but certainly not its football program. He graduated with a degree in geography.
Riley said coaches from Auburn and Alabama would have zeroed in on Tartt had he played football sooner. But the kid with the odd name was a no-name until late in his senior season.
“He was an SEC guy more than Jimmie or Chris, physically,” Riley said. “It’s just that the scholarships already had been given out.”
A second-round pick by the 49ers this month, Tartt still is considered raw, still needs refinement, and just like in high school, he’ll probably start out on special teams. But for the second time, he’ll be paired with Ward, whom the 49ers selected in the first round in 2014.
“That’s my best friend – Jimmie Ward,” Tartt said. “We played together in high school, and we talked about this day. It would be crazy if me and him end up on the same (NFL) team. For it to actually happen, it’s crazy.”
Jaquiski Tartt was an unknown quantity in football until late in his senior season at Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala. His coach, Fred Riley, said coaches from Auburn and Alabama would have zeroed in on Tartt had he played football sooner. Tartt played at Samford.