Jelani Irby is a Washington, D.C. native who has a very unique story in the world of football — a story that starts and continues with a promise he made his grandmother many years ago. This promise was born with the first Monday Night Football commercial he saw as a kid and evolved whenever his grandmother saw the look in Jelani’s eyes when he was surrounded by anything related to football.
Most recently, he turned to coaching, where he made his marks in local history working with wide receivers and was promoted to offensive coordinator.
However, when it comes to playing the sport he coaches, the fire still burns bright for Jelani. Following an offer from an Arena League team, he was contacted by the Seattle Seahawks, and this has continued to fuel his desire to rise above the common statistic. He wants to write a football narrative all his own.
In the following transcribed interview, Jelani tells me more about his background in football and his aspirations in the sport.
Q: When did you first fall in love with the sport of football?
A: I always loved football, however, I fell deeply in love with football when I was 7 years old. A Monday Night Football commercial came on tv back in 1997 while my grandmother was babysitting me. They were promoting the upcoming Skins (the hometown team) vs Cowboys game in October 1997. Something clicked at that moment. No clue what it was. My grandmother saw the look in my eyes when I saw that commercial and made me promise her to always fight, scratch, and claw for my dreams until I, not anyone else, feels that it’s time to move on to the next chapter in my life.
Q: You mentioned to me that you have a pair of former NFL players in your extended family. Growing up, who was your role model inside the sport, and who was your role model outside of it?
A: Growing up I loved Randy Moss. I tried to be him. Only thing I wanted to do was go deep and win those 50/50 jump balls. As time passed and I learned more about the game, I became a route runner. I’ve focused more on football IQ and football savvy as opposed to athleticism only. I still watch Randy Moss film, but given the fact that I’m only 5’11/6’0 and not 6’4, you have to get in where you fit in. My favorite player for some years now has been Larry Fitzgerald (I also love to watch DeAndre Hopkins as well). Larry Fitzgerald, in my opinion, is the perfect example of what it means to be a pro, on and off the field. A well rounded receiver and football player as a whole. Also, the way he carries himself off the field is something we could all learn from. My role model outside of football was and still is my mother, MOST DEFINITELY! The way she has fought for everything she has and overcame every single piece of adversity thrown at her is more than admirable! Raising a young man in Uptown Washington, DC isn’t an easy task. I could’ve went over the edge, ended up on the wrong path, and ended up in jail or far worse. She kept me in line. Regardless of how I felt about not being able to go to a party or not being able to hangout when and wherever I wanted, it was in my best interest. In DC there’s a lot of temptation and things you can get caught up in. All it takes is one slip up in the city. She grew up there and understood the ins and outs of the neighborhood. I’m thankful that she kept me on the right path, because a good amount of my peers weren’t as lucky as I was. I always have and I always will love her. My mom and my grandmother are the two most courageous and beautiful women I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Nothing can or ever will change that!
Q: What is the most inspirational or powerful thing a coach has ever said to you? Alternatively, what is something powerful that you have said to one of the players you have coached?
A: A former coach of mine (I’ll leave it up to the imagination who said it) once looked me directly in the eyes with a cold stare and uttered the words: “Irby, who do you think you are? You ain’t s**t!”On the surface, most may take this the wrong way, as I did originally. My initial thoughts were “Wow. Ok then, coach.” However, I’m a deep thinker and realize things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. After some time passed, I finally figured it out. When you examine society and the things that take place in the world, you realize that life isn’t always fair. You can put forth your best effort, try to live your life right, hope that all the stars align, and life will still place some form of adversity in your path. At that point, you have two choices. Crumble under pressure or continue to fight! My coach saying that to me wasn’t demeaning, it was a life lesson. No matter how big or “important” you think you are, no matter how much you do, society could care less. I once asked my receivers “Are you ok with being where you’re at right now? Or do you actually want to take it up a notch?”In my opinion complacency is one of the biggest obstacles for young men once they achieve something. They need someone to stay on them and keep them going. Not just in football, but life outside the game as well.
Q: What current or former NFL player do you feel you most resemble? Why?
A: Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins, and Tim Brown. All three of these guys have/had a hard working mentality, which is what I love about them the most. If something went wrong on the field, it wasn’t due to lack of effort. Tim Brown showed his versatility as both an outside receiver and a slot, Larry Fitzgerald has played more slot receiver as the years have passed, and DeAndre Hopkins can play anywhere you tell him to. Versatility is the name of the game. One trick ponies with a diva like attitude won’t last too long in this game. Hard work and being a well rounded person, not just a football player, will take you a long way.
Q: As a former and prospective professional football player, in what ways has your time thus far as a coach helped further prepare you for action on the field?
A: Playing and coaching are two completely different things. People often attempt to intertwine the two. As a coach, you’re main focus should be to put your players in the best position possible to succeed, based off of their attributes. Coaching has opened my mind and taken me to places I would’ve never dreamed of, mentally. Schematics and the tedious details of football have become clearer than they’ve ever been in my life, which is essential as an offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. This makes route running and finding various holes or windows in the defense a lot easier. It also helps you understand body control and change of speed within routes. The game, overall, has slowed down for me as both a player and a coach.
Q:If an NFL scout were to walk up to you and give you 10 seconds to sell yourself, what would you say?
A: “Football IQ, Mental & Physical Toughness, Integrity, Hands, Feet, Hips & Heart! I have it! Just give me a shot!”
Q: And finally, what is something about you off the field that makes you a better player on it?
A: My attention to detail and unwavering level of focus.
Locker Room Update wishes the best of luck as Jelani pursues his football dreams as an intriguing and talented NFL prospect.