It certainly seems that if this were any other season — where thousands of fans and dozens of reporters would be present for Kansas City Chiefs training camp practices — wide receiver Jody Fortson’s name would be on everyone’s lips. The few reporters allowed to be present for practices this season often tweet about big plays Fortson makes as the Chiefs prepare to defend their 2019 championship — for which Fortson was present as a member of the team’s practice squad.
But that’s the way it’s always been for Fortson — a player who has worked his way from the shadows to the bright lights of the NFL. Now the 24-year-old native of Buffalo, New York, is hoping to grab a spot on the team’s active roster for the 2020 season.
As he walked off the stage at his graduation from Buffalo’s South Park High School in 2013, you might not have thought of Fortson as an NFL prospect; after all, he had caught just one touchdown pass during his senior year. But did Fortson see himself that way?
“Yes I did,” he told The Buffalo News last November. “That’s why I hit that Heisman pose as I walked off the graduation stage.”
One of his teachers had believed in him, too.
“I had Jo in 10th-grade English and we made a connection,” SPHS teacher Madeline Baker told the News. “Jo was often in the halls, in trouble, suspended, written up for his behaviors. In that process of over three years, we had conversations that were deep and meaningful about his life and the direction he wanted to go.”
“I always believed in Jo,” Baker said. “He just has a kindred, deep, soulful spirit. And he’s determined. I always admire that in students.”
His uncle Barrie “Yummy” Woods also believed in Fortson. Every morning, they’d get up early so Woods could throw Fortson some balls — and then they’d run in a local park. But Woods died during Fortson’s freshman year of community college. Fortson was devastated.
“That was my mentor, best friend, brother,” Fortson told NFLDraftDiamonds.com in 2019, “all in one person. I just used that pain as motivation.”
Fortson would face other obstacles, too — including having to transfer to another junior college after his mother broke her hip before his sophomore year. Then he got the chance to transfer to Valdosta State in Georgia. After his junior year, he was declared academically ineligible and had to skip the 2017 season. When he finally returned to play in his senior year, he missed the first five games with a hamstring injury.
So he came into the 2019 NFL draft season after having played just 19 games with the Blazers, in which he had accumulated only 37 receptions for 477 yards and seven touchdowns.
And this highlight reel.
This film (and their own scouting) made the Chiefs see the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Fortson as a tight end — a conversion they attempted after signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2019.
“We got to see Jody on the scout team last year,” recalled Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen after Monday’s practice. “He’s a big body — physical, athletic and can go up and challenge the ball. He gave us really good looks last year on the scout team.”
Even this season — after the Chiefs moved him back to his college position — Fortson’s size still draws attention.
“I notice him because he’s so big,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said on Monday. “I’m always talking to him about playing defensive end — we joke about that all the time. He came up to me the other day and said, ‘I’m ready to play DE’ — and I said, ‘I gotta see you tackle first.’ So I gave him a little razz on that. Then I told him I didn’t want him to take that to heart, because if [the defense] had picked a ball off, I didn’t want him tackling one of our guys in practice. Listen: he’s an impressive, big guy.”
“It’s a great challenge for the guys that match up on him,” said Sorensen, “because he is a big, athletic wide receiver that you have to deal with.”
On Monday’s post-practice Zoom call with reporters, Fortson himself said he understood why the Chief first thought of him as a tight end.
“Sometimes I think I’m a tight end,” he admitted. “I’m pretty big. I feel like I’m an athlete — that there’s not anything I can’t do. I feel like I’m going to be put into a position to win. So I understand people [who] want to put me in this tight end box or try to claim [I’m] a receiver. I’m an athlete. Just put me somewhere. I’m going to make it shake.”
That is, with a little help from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, whom he called “incredible.”
“I feel like he can scheme up plays for anybody,” declared Fortson. “He can make something shake for literally anybody; I feel like he’s that great a coach.”
But Reid isn’t the only member of the Chiefs organization Fortson admires.
“A lot of people don’t really know this, but in high school, I actually worse number seven because of Tyrann Mathieu,” he told reporters. “He’s actually been the best defensive player I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you. He’s a great leader on and off the field. Before practice, I’m trying to get advice on how to be better.”
So it was a big deal for the young receiver when Mathieu mentioned him in a tweet before Monday’s practice.
Me & Jody Went at it yesterday. He caught a one hander on me then looked at me... he know me, he know I’m trying one up him. Proud of that kid! He getting better & Tougher!— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) August 24, 2020
“For him to kind of give me a shout-out on Twitter to the world, it’s... I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Fortson. “It’s extraordinary. I appreciate you, Tyrann — if you’re watching this — but yeah... it’s a blessing.”
Fortson said he’s depended on the guidance of team leaders like Mathieu to make the transition to his second season.
“The only thing I did was take the advice of the great veterans we have on the team: from Sammy Watkins to Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson — even Chris Jones and Tyrann on the defensive side. I just took everything that they gave me throughout the last season and tried to implement into this offseason protocol for myself.”
But Fortson said that he did have one specific goal for the offseason.
“I feel like one thing I wanted to work on — outside of my athletic ability — is just trying to learn everything: everybody’s position, everything. And I’m still learning. I’m still real fresh into the game. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Given that study and his work at tight end last season, Fortson could have a leg up on some other Chiefs receivers in 2020: he could be a versatile player to have on the roster — or even the practice squad again. But he seems to be emotionally prepared for whatever could happen.
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster — I’ll tell you that,” he said. “But it’s definitely been well worth the journey; I wouldn’t trade anything I’ve been through right now to be where I am.”
Will Jody Fortson make the Chiefs’ 53-man roster?
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