NEW ORLEANS Jerome Long is pretty good at math.
Its why hes scheduled to graduate with a math degree next spring at San Diego State. Its also why he wants to be a math teacher when hes done playing football.
Its just easy for me to understand, said Long, San Diego States senior nose guard.
Thats the appeal: Theres no gray area. The answers to math problems are clear and fair, unlike other things in life.
Consider his upbringing. He grew up without a father, a person he never knew. His mom, Julie, raised him and his older sister, often moving around for work and support. By the time he reached eighth grade, he had lived in Riverside, Valencia, Alaska and Morro Bay.
Long called it hard times. But now its finally having a payoff for him and the team he helped carry to just its fifth bowl appearance since 1969. Long will play his last college game Saturday in the New Orleans Bowl against Louisiana-Lafayette. After that, he is expected to play pro football an opportunity that seemed unlikely even just a few months ago, let alone four years ago as a senior at Morro Bay High.
Back then, he only received one other scholarship offer to play college football from Cal Poly. Now hes 35 pounds bigger (285) and has twice as many tackles as last year (69). In July, hes getting married to a former athlete who pushes him to improve every day.
She loves to compete, Long said.
So does he.
Ive been told his NFL stock has gone up dramatically because of the way hes played this year, San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said. Its sort of the story of his life: His stock keeps going up, in large part because of how he developed.
His roots go back to his birthplace in Riverside, one of many cities he lived in but barely remembers. Moving around a lot in his youth forced him to be more adaptable to change and making friends.
Football seemed easy in comparison. And math seemed so much more uncomplicated.
We didnt have a lot of money, Long said. My mom was incredible. Especially in high school, I ate like a horse. Just that alone is pretty incredible how she managed to raise me and my sister.
Growing up without a father, he instead found father figures to fill the void, including uncles and coaches. He became extremely coachable. He learned to listen a quality that helps explain how he keeps improving in football despite having never played football before high school.
Add some extra playing time this year, and this is the result:
Jerome Long, a soft-spoken former heavyweight wrestler in high school, this year grew a beard, got engaged and peaked with plays such as this:
The game was at Army on Sept. 10. San Diego State had a 23-20 lead, but the Black Knights were threatening to score and win. With less than 90 seconds left, Army faced third down-and-19 from the Aztecs 34-yard line. The Army quarterback took the snap, drifted back and bam, down he went. Jerome Long had burst through the line, sacking him for a loss of six yards to help seal the victory.
No other player at San Diego State has made more solo tackles this year (47). Only senior linebacker Miles Burris has more tackles overall (72 to Longs 69).
On the field, hes definitely got a motor, Burris said. Off the field, hes a really nice guy, fun to be around and very involved in church.
In one sense, Jerome Longs production this year isnt surprising. When a players playing time doubles from last year to this year, so should his number of big plays.
But in another sense, his breakthrough year caught even his coach off guard. In October, Rocky Long said Jerome might not be big enough to play the defensive line in the NFL at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds. Then he kept making so many plays that NFL scouts diverted some of their attention from quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman.
Jerome is likely to get a chance with an NFL team next April, especially if he can add some more weight. After that, hes getting married to former San Diego State rower Kalynn Craig. The two were engaged last February, on Super Bowl Sunday, when Jerome got up in front of the congregation at All Peoples Church. He proposed. She said yes. The crowd cheered.
Now even that is helping him improve.
She pushes him in everything he does, San Diego State senior defensive end Larry Gibbs said.
Rocky Long said Jerome has improved dramatically a fact that perhaps shouldnt be too surprising considering his background and makeup.
After so many previous challenges, its all finally adding up quite nicely.