Michael Jasper was prepared to work out, wait for the lockout to end and then get his shot to make the NFL as a free agent. He knew the Bills were the team most interested in him, but he watched as they took a cornerback with their first pick in the seventh round.
Sitting with his mom, brother, grandmother and best friend at their home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, Jasper's phone rang. It was Bills regional scout Matt Hand, whom Jasper considered to be like his older brother. The Bills were on the clock with the 245th pick of the draft.
"Do you want to be a Bill?" Hand asked.
Jasper couldn't believe it. "Are you kidding me?" he asked.
"Are you ready to come to Buffalo?" Hand responded.
Jasper screamed with joy as head coach Chan Gailey picked up the phone to talk to the final and most obscure member of the Bills' draft class. Listed on some draft websites at 440 pounds, most Bills fans and media members had to ask: Who the heck is this guy?
Well, Jasper might be the most unknown player drafted by the Bills, and the nose tackle might be one of the biggest surprises of the entire draft. But he isn't 440 pounds anymore, and how he got to that point is a story of persistence, motivation and a guiding hand from a scout, a Redskins tackle, a Milwaukee Brewer and an inspirational mother.
Jasper was playing baseball one day as a kid when a football coach spotted him and got him on the gridiron.
"I was always the tallest, not always the biggest — that didn't come about until high school," Jasper said. He wrestled in junior high and grew to 5-11, 250 pounds in eighth grade. When high school began, he had played fullback, defensive end and linebacker, but Mt. Juliet High School needed a defensive lineman.
"I packed on weight, and it got a little out of control."
Jasper played both ways in high school at a playing weight of nearly 380 pounds. "He was as big then as some guys who are 25 years old," said Brad Mattingly, his position coach at Mount Juliet.
But it was in high school that coaches, teammates and most notably, opponents, realized that Jasper was no ordinary 380-pound player.
"For his size, he has tremendous feet. He can move like nobody's business," said Mattingly, who recalled one of Jasper's more athletic moments. "I remember this one play when they were throwing a screen pass. The QB drops back, he's already thrown the ball and Michael jumps, tips it and intercepts it. I thought to myself, 'you've got to be kidding me.' "
The moment was not lost on Jasper. "It was senior night and if we won that ball game, we could go to the postseason," he said. "They called it a 'Miami.' They had torched us on the middle screen. I was an end and when he threw it, I tipped it like a rebound and came down with it. That was a huge play for us."
But when high school ended, the struggles began for Jasper. He originally was going to go to Ole Miss, recruited by David Cutcliffe and John Latina, but then those coaches left. Ron Zook, then the head coach at the University of Florida, contacted Jasper. "I was hyped up about that, then Zook was let go," Jasper said. So, he went from the SEC to starting his college career at Tennessee-Martin, an NCAA Division I-AA school.
Jasper played the three-technique at Tennessee-Martin and helped them to a conference championship. He then decided to move up a level and went to Division I Middle Tennessee State, but Jasper found something too big even for him.
"I didn't keep my head in the books like I ought to, coming from a small school to a bigger classroom. There were other opportunities to go out and do certain things and I didn't handle my business," he said.
Dino Kaklis, the head coach of Bethel (Tenn.) University, knew about Jasper in high school and told him to stay in touch, just in case. "You can't help but like the kid and be a fan of his," Kaklis said. When MTSU got overwhelming, Jasper decided to get grounded at a Christian school and called Kaklis.
"He had to redshirt because of credits transferring, but it was a testament to him. He didn't moan or complain, he went out and worked hard every day," Kaklis said.
It was Jasper's third school in four years.
"It was tough bouncing around and getting adjusted to new friends, teachers, coaches, teams and schemes. But I like challenges, I like to step up to the plate," said Jasper, and Bethel provided another challenge for him — food.
When Matt Hand first saw Jasper he was traveling to scout someone else at Bethel, but couldn't help but notice the enormous player on the sideline.
"He was a junior but they didn't have pads that fit him. I talked to him a little and saw that he was a bright, smart guy, but he needed some guidance with his dieting," Hand said of his first impressions of Jasper.
"It took us three weeks to get a helmet to fit him and we had to get 5x shoulder pads," Kaklis recalled. But Jasper wasn't fat, or "jiggly-wiggly" as Kaklis put it. "When you think of a guy that big, you're thinking Fridge Perry or Gilbert Brown. Mike's not like that. His lower body is built like a damn redwood. His legs are as thick as trees."
Hand went down to see him again the summer before Jasper's senior year and learned where Jasper and the other big players on Bethel got accurate weights — the grain and feed store down the road on a big grain scale. Kaklis said a group of about six players went to the grain and feed store, as the school's scale didn't give accurate reads above 300 pounds. Jasper never complained, but when he weighed in with Hand, the scale registered an eye-popping 440 pounds.
"I told him, 'I'll make you a deal. I think you're really athletic for your size. If you can get under 400 pounds, I will come work you out,'" Hand said. The two kept in touch during the fall and Jasper still hadn't dropped the weight. Some teams asked him to drop 100 pounds, and that overwhelmed him. And in West Tennessee, his healthy food options were scarce.
"I tipped the scale at 448 pounds. People had a lot of questions why I didn't get it down. There's no real excuse, but when you come to Bethel, it's not like the big D-1 schools. We're in the south. Everything's fried, everything is carbo-loaded," he said. "Playing football, I can't live off a salad bar."
Hand vouched for Jasper's explanation. "I went to that cafeteria. There was lots of fried food and not a whole lot of options going for the guy," he said.
The Bills' scout would text him on and off with suggestions of dropping the weight. One instance, Jasper told him that he had been baking drumsticks, and Hand reminded him to take the skin off. "I told him to get creative. Don't eat the whole pizza, just eat half. Don't go have late nights. He got good training in Tennessee and cleaned his diet up."
On the field, Jasper had made the move to the offensive line after Kaklis approached him to help a struggling offense at Bethel. "Would you rather play 85-90 plays a game or 35? He didn't have any problem with it," the coach said.
"We averaged 92 plays a game offensively and that guy never missed a snap. Our guards have to pull — we're a big pulling, power screen team. Our guards have to move. He can dunk a basketball flatfooted. You don't see guys (that size) that do those kind of things, no matter what school you're at," he added. But no matter how many plays he was involved in, the weight still wasn't getting to where it needed to be for Jasper to be considered by NFL teams.
Jasper wasn't invited to any big all-star games in January and the hardworking big man got serious.
"Around January he started getting hardcore with it. He would send me some pictures and lo and behold, he was dropping that weight," Hand said.
"That light bulb turned on. It took him some time to realize, hey, I only need one plate not three. But for a guy like that to run a 5.5 or 5.6 (40-yard dash) at 400-plus pounds, that's not normal. Controlling his eating habits was the biggest thing," Kaklis said.
Jasper got the message to go to work and start shedding weight, and he didn't have to look too far to find motivation.
"We grew up kind of rough. We had years without Christmases," Jasper said. He grew up with a single mother, but the two have something in common, the drive to overcome adversity and achieve something great.
"She's the hardest worker I've ever met in my life," Jasper said. "She went back to school when I was young and my grandmother would watch me at nights while my mom took night classes."
Now, Claire Jasper is the principal at Johnson Alternative Center in Nashville, and her son is a Buffalo Bill.
"I've watched her work her butt off to get to the point she is now," Jasper said.
Brewers 3B Casey McGehee had to wait his turn to finally make it to the big leagues. Drafted in 2003, McGehee didn't make his Major League debut until 2008, working his way through the Cubs' farm system before eventually being traded to Milwaukee. McGehee's route to the majors sent him to the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (now known as the Jackson Generals), where he crossed paths with a man twice his size, Michael Jasper.
"I met him two offseasons ago and he was at one of his heaviest weights, but when you look at him, he wasn't fat. It was amazing how muscular and solid he was weighing that much at the time," McGehee said. "Once he got going and working out, it was impressive the amount of dedication and work he was willing to put in to try and give himself a chance. He'd be at the gym two, three times a day."
Jasper credits McGehee with helping him get where he is today.
"Casey has been a huge motivator for me. His story of coming up (through the minors) has matched up with mine a little bit — smaller guys making a name for themselves," Jasper said.
"I was trying to hype him up big in Milwaukee to get the Packers on him. He's going to work harder than anybody," said McGehee, who was voted the Brewers' MVP in 2010, seven years after being drafted.
Jasper also received some help from Redskins OT Artis Hicks, a nine-year NFL veteran, who is Jasper's cousin through marriage. "I finally got to meet him and we connected real quick. He's mentored me," Jasper said.
At Solus Performance Training in Jackson, Tenn., Jasper started dropping his weight by doing repetition and explosive lifts instead of the power lifting he did at Bethel. "My muscle definition totally changed and it helped me get the 70 pounds off," he said.
Jasper continued updating Hand on his status as the weight started coming off. While on a trip to see Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert, Hand showed Buddy Nix an updated video from Jasper and it intrigued the Bills' general manager.
"Mike kept his word and kept losing weight. I saw his individual workout in late April and he knocked it out of the water. He was at 378 pounds and two weeks after that, he texted me that he was at 373 and keeping the weight down," Hand said.
Hand was allowed to make the call to Jasper as the draft wound down to tell him that the Bills, the team who stuck with Jasper the most, would make him an NFL draftee.
"It's like a scout's dream to find somebody like that who has the athletic ability and kind of guide him through and get him to where he needed to be. It's one of the biggest rewards I've had as a Bills scout," Hand said.
With the lockout, Hand suddenly had to cut off communication with Jasper. The 6-foot-5 nose tackle, who now weighed in the 370-pound range, told Hand a week before the draft that the scout was like his older brother. "I talk to you more than some people in my family," Jasper told him.
Hand has to not only wait until the lockout ends to see his potential diamond in the rough, he can't keep tabs on Jasper's progress.
Jasper keeps working out at Solus with his trainer, Nick Stamper, working out twice a day until the lockout ends. He does weights and cardio in the morning and then more cardio, speed training and position drills in the afternoon in the Tennessee heat, always with company to keep him motivated.
"Seeing how those guys continue to work even though they have made it, seeing how they grind and stay on top is motivating to me," he said.
Gailey said that Jasper will be a nose tackle in Buffalo where he will be mentored by a complete opposite body-type for the position, the 6-1, 305-pound Pro Bowler Kyle Williams.
"Kyle Williams, being undersized and holding down the point of attack at nose for the Bills, even getting to a Pro Bowl? I can't wait to receive that knowledge. I'm coming in as an open book," Jasper said with excitement. He also has taken note of his fellow rookie D-lineman, the much more heralded Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick of the draft.
"I'm a Marcell Dareus fan. He's a freak of nature, an animal. I can't wait to be on the line with him and see what kind of havoc we can wreak."
The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999 after being one of the more consistent winning teams through the 1990s. Last season, at 4-12, the Bills ranked dead last in the league in run defense, something Jasper could sure help improve if he makes the team.
"I'm going to be nasty. I love to hit and can handle the point of attack. I love double- and triple-teams. Bring it on," he said, scouting himself. "I'm very mobile for my size and I think that's going to shock some people — my motor.
"I'm not a selfish guy. I know playing the nose in the 3-4, it's not a pretty position to play. It's dirty and grimy and you won't get a lot of stats. I'm going to free up some linebackers to make plays, pressure some quarterbacks and punish some running backs."
But Jasper is nothing if not humble, though, about the opportunity given to him, a reward for all the work he has put in to get to this point.
"I am extremely blessed to have the opportunity to show what I have and to learn more," he said. "My dream now is to get on the roster and contribute to the Bills having a successful season."
In addition to getting a mammoth nose tackle, Buffalo will be receiving a well-spoken young man whose character impresses everyone he is around. He enters the NFL as a 24-year-old who has never wavered when challenges were thrown his way.
"Mike always had a smile on his face. He was the first one to come shake your hand and has been a mentor for his little brother," Mattingly said.
Jasper's younger brother Roland is 12 and "a far better athlete" than his big bro. "It's cool that I can be a role model and father figure in his life. That pushes me to live my life better," Jasper said.
Said Kaklis, "People in Buffalo are really going to embrace him. He's got such a personality and he's a fun-loving guy. We open up our stadium to the fans to come down to the field and little kids flocked to him."
"I don't know a ton about football, but as far as the person goes, the Bills will be more than happy with Mike," McGehee chimed in. "If they tell him to do anything, he's going to do it and not complain. You can't go wrong with a guy like that with his work ethic and dedication. I wouldn't be surprised if, in a couple years, Michael Jasper's name is more well known."
As Jasper continues to work out and wait until football resumes, he is hungry for his opportunity to allow all his progress to culminate in making the Bills, the team with the scout who didn't give up on him. When he speaks of his route to the NFL, you can tell he is grinning from ear to ear.
"The Bills went above and beyond and invested a pick in me," he said. "I don't plan on letting those guys down. I'm going to make the best of the opportunity they've given me."
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