Rebecca Malone was never one for football.
There were better ways to spend her time than watching a sport so violent, so grotesque, so cult-like. She never could understand it.
But from her son’s first moment buckling on a helmet and stringing up cleats, it was clear she would have to get used to it.
Her son, who’s drawn comparisons to Reggie Wayne and other NFL greats, made his grand entrance playing with a Chattanooga-based YMCA team at 4 years old.
He was so small then, yet so big.
His wiry frame always cast a shadow on the rest of his teammates. He was taller, more mature physically than the rest. Still, the child’s football pants hung loosely around his dental-floss legs and his jersey swallowed the rest.
Never mind the youth. He’s always been the best on the field, even at 4. All it took was one practice for the comparisons to begin.
“One of his coaches said, ‘You’re going to see that boy playing on Saturdays,” Malone recalled. “Josh is going to be special, they said.”
They were right.
Josh Malone is 17 now, straddling the line between childhood and adulthood. He’s blessed with a once-in-a-generation talent to pluck a football out of the sky and is hell-bent on greatness, greatness that doesn’t stop on Saturdays like the prophecies of his peewee coaches.
Rebecca Malone, a school teacher, somehow pulls off possessing an everyman sensibility while acknowledging her son’s supreme gifts and sharing his lofty goals with a mother-like, matter-of-fact bluntness.
“His goal is to play in the NFL,” she said, the words rolling off her tongue effortlessly.
It’s not farfetched.
But the first step in reaching that goal comes in January. Well, now that the decision is finally over.
Countless hours, prayers, and dollars were spent as the Malone family sorted and sifted through 40-plus scholarship offers and schools, each willing to go to the end of earth to pry Josh away.
It’s over, finally.
“It’s a sense of relief he’s made his choice,” Rebecca Malone said. “Now he can get focused on the next step in his journey. I’m excited for him. I’m happy for him.”
As winter gives way to spring, the Malones are preparing to unleash their son on Knoxville, and upon a world as prepared for him as he is for it.
Knoxville, the town three hours to the east of the Malones’ home in Gallatin, the town starved for a football championship for 15 long years, is already silly, giddy, sloppy, head-over-heels excited for Josh Malone to stride onto the turf at Neyland Stadium as he announced his intention to join Vol Nation Wednesday.
But love is conditional. The spotlight shines bright on the nation’s No. 10 wideout today, but it can be flipped off in an instant – especially with all the expectations he shoulders even before he reaches his dorm room.
“It’s a lot on a 17 year old kid,” Rebecca Malone said. “We’re prepared as we can be. The naysayers, we just ignore them.”
And there will be naysayers.
Josh Malone, one of those preternaturally talented teenagers who appears on your schools commitment list only periodically, is already the talk of town. On message boards and twitter, questions already begin to swirl: Will he make it? Will we remember his name 10 years from now?
It’s impossible to know. But those questions will be answered in time. The more pressing question, however, is much simpler, yet equally as thought-provoking: Why the Vols?
In the words of the NBC Sports anchor who prodded Josh Malone on a live broadcast, “Why? Why Tennessee?”
Ohio State, the man on TV said, hasn’t lost yet under Urban Meyer’s watch and Florida State is still fighting for both a national championship and Heisman trophy.
It all comes back to the goal.
“Number one, he wanted to play early,” Rebecca Malone told InsideTennessee. “College is just one step in the journey he has set for himself. His goal is to play professional football. UT offers that. They have a plan for him so he can pursue his other goals.”
The plan, it’s what set the Vols apart from the national championship contenders and BCS-bowl bound teams.
It was the plan, Butch Jones’ plan, that made saying the difficult “No, thank you” to Jimbo Fisher, Mark Richt and Dabo Swinney all that easier.
“I think (Jones is) doing great things with the program,” Cordell Malone, Josh’s father, said. “I think what sold Josh on him is he had a plan for him. How he was going to use him and how he fit into the program.”
But this plan isn’t some figment of Jones’ wild imagination. If it was, Josh Malone wouldn’t be coming.
The family left no rock unturned, researching, questioning and inspecting all of Josh’s finalists.
Tennessee’s coaching staff passed mom’s inspection, as different as each position coach is.
“Crazy,” Rebecca Malone described linebackers coach and her son’s lead recruiter Tommy Thigpen.
“Quiet and knowledgeable,” she dubbed Zach Azzanni, her son’s future position coach.
The plan, the people, it’s a combination that worked.
Oh, and one other factor.
“Of course being a mom, it’s close to home,” Rebecca Malone said. “If you can get your goals met at home, why go out of state?”
Locking down the state’s boarder was priority No. 1 in Jones’ plan to resurrecting Tennessee football. It’s been a glaring success.
With Josh Malone joining Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. in the Vols’ 2014 recruiting class, it marks the first time in more than a decade the Volunteer State’s top three prospects are all heading to Rocky Top.
“We think special things are happening over there,” Cordell Malone said.
Danny Parker contributed to this report