ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Name any of the undersized running backs to come through the NFL over the years and Jaleel McLaughlin stands out as an overachieving underdog.
A three-sport star who skittered around the track and through defenses on the gridiron and the hardwood in North Carolina, McLaughlin was homeless for part of his teens, spending countless nights sleeping at a cheap motel or, when his mom lost her factory job, crammed in the back seat of his family’s Ford Focus.
“There’s been times where I had a great game and I come home to nothing, I come home to sleeping in a car,” said the 5-foot-7, 183-pound speedster out of Youngstown State who’s trying to crack the Denver Broncos’ 53-man roster.
“That’s why I said I don’t ever get too high, never get too low, because the unexpected can happen.”
Therefore, McLaughlin insists he doesn’t share in the widely held belief that he’s already secured a roster spot behind veterans Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine, even though he has three of Denver’s four touchdowns so far, including one that he set up with a 44-yard kickoff return.
His preseason performances, however, have made trying to slip him through waivers and onto the practice squad too big of a risk for the Broncos, who are implementing coach Sean Payton’s ground-based offense designed to help resuscitate Russell Wilson’s career.
Count Payton and Wilson among those impressed by McLaughlin.
“Jaleel’s got such great burst, such great confidence,’’ Wilson said. “He’s there early, leaves late. He’s dedicated to the game.”
Payton raves about his dedication — whenever he gets to team headquarters at 5 a.m., McLaughlin is already there — and his versatility, even going so far as to mention him in the same breath as Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Alvin Kamara.
With cuts looming next week, McLaughlin isn’t letting up.
“No matter how big or how high or how low you get in life, you’ve never done enough,” said McLaughlin, the NCAA’s all-time leader in rushing yards. ”That’s why I’m taking it day by day. … I’m just going to keep working.”
Just like he did when he was living with his mother and older brother in that four-door sedan in middle school before becoming a three-sport star at Forest Hills High School in Marshville, North Carolina.
Just like he did when he amassed 8,161 yards and 79 touchdowns in college.
A handful of Division II programs showed an interest in McLaughlin coming out of high school but the only one that didn’t want him to switch to safety was Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio, where he became the first running back at any NCAA level to top 2,000 yards rushing as both a freshman and sophomore.
After amassing 4,737 yards and 48 touchdowns in two seasons there, McLaughlin entered the transfer portal. He chose to stay in Ohio and signed with Youngstown State, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision.
He totaled 3,424 rushing yards with 30 touchdowns in 28 games at Youngstown State in becoming the most prolific rusher in NCAA history. He earned first-team FCS All-America honors as a senior and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds at his pro day.
When he went undrafted he had several teams to choose from and picked the Broncos, who gave him a $15,000 bonus and the chance to make $750,000 as a rookie if he makes the team.
McLaughlin said he chose Denver because he was impressed by running backs coach Lou Ayeni in his predraft interview and he wanted to learn from Payton.
“Not only does he teach you about football, but my first three days here I had a page and a half of just life-lesson notes,” McLaughlin said. “That’s how I knew I was in the right place.”
McLaughlin is a dual threat who’s terrific as a receiver out of the backfield — he averaged seven yards per carry and 15.8 yards per catch last season.
“Over the years, we’ve had kind of a joker player in Bush and Sproles, Kamara,” Payton said of the talented tailbacks he coached in New Orleans. “Those guys are running backs, and yet they do some other things in the passing game that gives them that tag. You could call it a change-of-pace-type player.
“Certainly McLaughlin is one of those candidates, where he’s a different style runner.”
Early in camp, Payton praised McLaughlin for his burst, shiftiness, toughness and dedication: “He’s a guy you root for.”
Rookies always relish the first time they don an NFL jersey on game day and McLaughlin was no different — even though the Broncos misspelled his last name “McGlaughlin.”
He didn’t mind the mistake.
“I thought it was pretty smart,” McLaughlin said after the game against Arizona, “because, shoot, that’s how it’s pronounced. So, it helps people out.”