Dan O' Regan had a decision to make in 2004. • O' Regan, then the coach at Riverview, recognized the burgeoning talent an undersized freshman named Jahleel Addae brought to the team, but had reservations about starting the ninth grader out on varsity. He mulled it over with his assistant coaches and placed Addae on the junior varsity. Addae was eventually moved up toward the end of the season and all he did was run for 150 yards or so against Tampa Bay Tech — in the second half. • "I remember our defensive coordinator saying 'And you wanted to keep him on JV,"' O' Regan recalled. "But honestly I was worried about him getting hurt." • Addae proved O' Regan wrong then and hasn't stopped since. • "He may have been about 120 pounds back then," O' Regan joked. "But you could tell, he was going to be special." • And now Addae, who went undrafted out of Central Michigan this year, will line up at safety for San Diego when the Chargers face Denver in the AFC Divisional Playoffs today. • "Everything I do is for the Lord and my family," Addae said. "This has all been a blessing and something I'm very grateful for."
The last 12 months took Addae through a dizzying series of highs and lows. While preparing for the East-West Shrine game at Tropicana Field, Addae, a three-time all MAC selection for the Chippewas, heard he might go somewhere near the fifth round in the 2013 NFL Draft. Nfldraftscout.com listed Addae seventh among available safeties.
But 254 names were called and Addae's wasn't one of them.
"It was a little tough," he said. "I watched most of the second day with my family and I heard from some teams but no one pulled the trigger."
Teams immediately began courting Addae, inviting him to camp as an undrafted free agent. Out of the 12 or so teams, Addae felt San Diego offered the best possible fit.
"Just with the scheme they play and their style on defense, I thought San Diego was my best chance," Addae said.
Addae's chances of sticking with the Chargers may have been longer than the trip from Riverview to San Diego. But as he's done his whole football career, Addae again proved people wrong and earned a roster spot.
"He wasn't the biggest guy or the fastest guy," said O' Regan, who still keeps up with Addae through Facebook. "But Jahleel offers so much more. He's intelligent, has tremendous heart and great maturity, even early on here with us."
O' Regan coached Addae all four years before Central Michigan switched the shifty two-time all-state tailback to safety as a freshman. Again, there were doubts about his speed.
"A lot of coaches get caught up in the stopwatch," O' Regan said.
But his former coach wasn't the least bit surprised his former star excelled on the other side of the ball at the collegiate level.
"He was so smart, it was like having another set of your eyes out there on the field," O' Regan said. "He would come back to the sidelines and go over things on the field. I changed plenty of calls because things he saw out there."
But after the disappointment of going undrafted, it seemed Addae had reached the final level of doubters. He had shown plenty in college, earning a spot on the Jim Thorpe Award preseason watch list prior to his senior year and twice winning the Chippewas defensive MVP award, but 32 teams passed.
"I think everything happens for a reason," Addae said. "I think I was meant to be here in San Diego the way I got here."
Again, Addae beat the odds. He earned a spot with the Chargers playing special teams through the first half of the year.
As the season progressed, the Chargers coaches began inserting Addae into the lineup more frequently and the rookie played major minutes the final three games, helping San Diego rally to the postseason. In last week's playoff win at Cincinnati, Addae made several key plays, including a fumble recovery.
"He is instinctive," Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano told ESPN.com. "He has that football awareness to be able to go make those football plays. It's about taking the proper angles. It's about the correct fit and the right leverage. When you see a player do those things and do them at a fast rate, they really show."
Today will be no different than most in Addae's football life. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning will undoubtedly target the rookie safety. There will be more doubt. How will he hold up against arguably the greatest QB of all time? Can he shut down the likes of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and the high-flying Bronco arial attack?
Considering how far Addae has come in the last calendar year, doubt at your own risk.
"I try not to dwell on the past too much because for me, it's all about living in the moment," Addae said. "I never take anything for granted and I'm just happy to be here."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]