On the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2003, Joe Horn was chased across the living room of his suburban New Orleans home by his toddler son who did not want him to leave for work. It was a Sunday, and all the boy wanted to do was play with his dad and older siblings.
“I was on my way out the door with my suit in hand, and I was rushing,” Horn remembers, along with the boy protesting, “I want to go! I want to go!”
“He did a full speed sprint to the front door, jumping over chairs. And he was crying. I told him, ‘You can’t go this time, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll call you. I’m going to call you from the game.’”
What 68,442 fans at the New Orleans Superdome and millions more watching on Sunday Night Football saw was an elaborate second quarter touchdown celebration. What people saw — Horn pulling a cell phone from under a goalpost to make a mock phone call — was a made-for-SportsCenter moment that resulted in a $30,000 fine.
But what the boy, Jaycee Horn, saw was his dad, the Saints receiver, showing him love — showing him the intersection of sports and family.
“When he pulled out the phone, it was like an agreement, we all knew that was him calling us,” Jaycee says 16 years later.
Jaycee now has a similar stage to showcase his football prowess — South Carolina, the SEC and Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecock rising sophomore defensive back has proven his worth as a superstar in the making, if he’s not one already.
As a freshman last season, Jaycee took the fast lane from flipping the narrative of “he’s Joe Horn’s son” to Joe, the four-time Pro Bowler, being “Jaycee’s dad.”
“That’s still to come,” the younger Horn said in a sit-down interview with Spurs & Feathers. “Some people still talk about my dad when they bring me up. That doesn’t really affect me. Guys can bring that up until however far I go with football. It’s still not going to affect me. I’m proud of what my dad did. There’s no envy or jealousy in my heart. It’s a blessing.”
Jaycee’s last name tells just part of his story, a journey that began in Kansas City and Louisiana and on peewee football fields in Atlanta, took a detour on the basketball courts of Mississippi and has stopped, for now, at 1125 George Rogers Blvd.
Wherever it goes — All-SEC or All-American status, possibly the NFL — Horn will do it all proud of the name on the front of his jersey as well as the back.
“I’m talking first pick of the NFL Draft, that’s what I’m talking about, because I know that’s what he’s capable of doing,” Joe Horn told Spurs & Feathers. “He gets a little weary about me even talking about it, and that’s his humbleness, but I’m not that humble. At the end of the day, I believe my son is the best DB in the nation, right now, as we speak. He’s probably going to be [upset] when he sees this article, but I don’t [care]. Because I’ve seen him play, I’ve seen who he’s played against and I’ve seen the stats.
“… At the end of the day you can say what you want to say, but at the end of the day you’ve got to go out and put your cleats in the dirt and play your best and do what you’ve got to do.
“But my opinion, yeah, my son should be, could be, the first pick of the NFL Draft in 2021 or 2022. Whatever he decides to do.”
THE NEXT MIKE VICK … OR TIGER WOODS?
Jaycee does not remember much from Joe’s playing days in the NFL (1996-2007), but does remember playing around with his dad in the family’s home. “I adored it,” he said. “I was small, so he’d get on his knees and we’d just tackle each other in the living room.”
Even at 2 or 3, whenever Jaycee saw his older brother of a few years, Joe Jr., do something, he tried to do it better or faster. Jaycee even tried to out-do his all-world athlete dad. Even if that meant getting knocked down.
“He’d see me hit balls in the garage, and he would get a golf club and just watch me,” Joe recalls. “The first time he swung a club he hit a ball across the street, across the neighbor’s house.
“So I knew he was real competitive. I knew he had quick twitch muscles. I knew he had the hand-eye coordination to be special.”
Jaycee began playing recreational football at age 7, in 2000, when the Horns moved to Atlanta before Joe’s final NFL season. Though Joe ran the league, he was mostly hands-off with Jaycee. He didn’t want to be an overarching helicopter parent.
“I would sit in the back,” Joe said. “The coaches knew what I expected and my son, at home, knew what I expected. See, when you take your kids and you do things with them on your own, and you show them how it’s done, you don’t have to yell and curse when coaches are trying to do their job on gameday.
“And that’s what I taught Jaycee. Me and Jaycee used to go on the football field after practice or before practice, and then when he got to the real practice, I didn’t have to say a thing. I’m not one of those dads that’s going to sit in the stands and yell and curse. But I taught him growing up, ‘If me and you work on something for days and days and hours and hours, and you get to the point in the game where you don’t do what we practiced, I’m going to let you hear it.’ But I’m going to let him hear it behind closed doors.”
Instead, Horn left that job to Geoff Terry, who coached Jaycee’s peewee teams.
Instead of his dad’s position, Jaycee played quarterback and linebacker as a youth. He had the physical and mental tools to play anywhere, but at the end of the day all he wanted to do was stick his nose in places and hit people.
“And I was putting the ball in the hands of the kid I trusted the most,” Terry said. “His football IQ was and is phenomenal. He could tell you different coverages. He could tell you different schemes. You could tell you all this at 12 years old. It wasn’t that he was the best athlete on the team, it was just that he was the best at understanding the game.
“And it meant something to him. It meant something to him to win and to lose.”
“I was Mike Vick all day,” Horn said. “Mike Vick and RGIII.”
Vick, yes that Michael Vick, also happened to live in Horn’s neighborhood. (Though Vick lived nearby, Joe Horn said the two never socialized away from the football field. Only sometimes did Jaycee go over to the house of Falcons’ receiver Tony Jones, where Vick occasionally hung out.)
Joe only took Jaycee to the Falcons’ practice facility from “time to time” to hang around, mostly during training camp.
“When you see stars and someone who’s already successful, it’s going to rub off. It’s going to rub off on a young athlete who loves the game,” Joe Horn said. “It’s not going to rub off on an athlete who really doesn’t want to play football. Jaycee loves football. Jaycee loves basketball. The love he had for football made him want to be better than the stars in the NFL.”
Though Jaycee asked his dad back then how he could wake up so early so practice, the younger Horn sees it clearly now.
“Some of the things he told me back then, about nutrition, living right off the field and being in the film room, I didn’t take it too seriously when I was 13, 14 years old,” Jaycee said. “But when I got to college, I saw how important it is.”
But Jaycee took a football sabbatical when the Horns moved to be closer to Joe Jr. at Northeast Mississippi Community College. Jaycee played basketball at Mooreville High School outside Tupelo, where he was part of a state finalist as a freshman. As a 5-10 sophomore, he had some interest from JUCO and D-II colleges.
“Man, you can’t play football,” his basketball teammates told him.
“They thought I was all basketball,” he said.
To be clear, Jaycee never abandoned his dream of playing in the NFL or stop playing football altogether when the Horns moved to Mississippi. He still attended camps and trained with his dad. The plan always was to return to Atlanta for high school ball.
Jaycee continued to play quarterback in youth ball, and with his superior IQ, it seemed like the position he would pursue. Receiver was Joe’s position, as well as Joe Jr.’s.
“I could have easily put Jaycee at receiver and Jaycee could probably be an All-American receiver right now,” Joe said. “I know without a shadow of a doubt that, if he switched to wide receiver, he would probably be an All-American wide receiver. But ... I wanted him to play cornerback because just I didn’t want all my boys playing wide receiver.”
Along the way Joe talked with Jaycee about cornerback, and the younger Horn kept an eye on eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and current Gamecock teammate Jamyest Williams, another Atlanta-area DB.
Then came the ultimatum.
“We stopped on the side of the road one day and we just started working on DB drills,” Joe said. “We were in Mississippi. We were coming from somewhere in Memphis, Tennessee. And we just stopped at some football field, almost near Oxford, and that was the day I said, ‘You know what, you’re going to be a DB. You’re going to play DB. You’re not going to be a wide receiver.’ But we did wide receiver drills and DB drills, so he could have done either or.”
“It’s natural,” Jaycee said about playing corner. “Just put me anywhere on the football field and I’ll try to make a play. … I’d rather hit than be hit. Receiver is fun, but I like DB because you can make your own play. At DB, it’s just, the ball is in the air, go get it. I just felt more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball.
“It didn’t have anything to do with my dad being a receiver or anything like that.”
But the younger Horn had doubts. He questioned his height.
“The timing will be right,” his dad told him.
“My dad always instilled in me that, at the end of the day, you’ve got to compete, and that’s one thing I love to do,” Jaycee said. “You can always control how hard you play and the effort you give on the field.”
“I trusted his word,” Jaycee says now. “And it did.”
When Jaycee finished his sophomore year at Mooreville, he was faced with a decision.
“What do you want to do?” Joe asked him.
THE MAKING OF A CORNERBACK
Jaycee Horn could not backpedal.
“He had this drive like no other, but at first he couldn’t even backpedal,” Terry, the youth coach, said. “He had never played defensive back. He was a quarterback and a basketball player, but I knew he had that itch.
“He had this tenacity and want to be great. He didn’t want to be average. That kid wanted to be great.”
So when Joe asked Jaycee what he wanted to do, the younger Horn’s mind was set: He wanted to return to Atlanta and conquer his football dreams.
Terry, a coach who has sent 40-plus players to Division-I schools and now coaches the secondary at Delta State, had taken over as defensive backs coach at Alpharetta High School, and Jaycee enrolled there during the spring of his sophomore year.
It took Jaycee that summer to master the skills he needed to be a successful DB. “He’s going to be a defensive back, and he’s going to be an All-American when he leaves here,” Terry told Joe.
“Those hands are Joe Horn hands,” Terry said. “Jaycee can catch a ball with one hand, behind his head. He had that at 11.”
It felt strange putting on football pads again that fall, because he hadn’t since eighth grade, but Horn felt locked in by the second practice, when he perfectly predicted and blew up a screen pass.
“To be honest, it didn’t really strike me at the time how huge of an addition he was going to be to our program and how great of a player he was,” Alpharetta head coach Jacob Nichols said.
Horn did a little bit of everything for the Raiders. More than anything, he brought an intensity.
He was a natural leader — spiritually, emotionally and physically — and someone Nichols could count on. He wasn’t the fastest player, but he broke on balls and was able to see places on the field he wasn’t responsible for.
Horn reminded Nichols of Jeff Francoeur, the former Major League Baseball player. Nichols played with Francoeur at Parkview High School (Lilburn, Ga.), where the former was a four-star defensive back who committed to Clemson.
Like Francoeur back in the day, offenses quit throwing to Horn’s side of the field, so he moved to safety.
“His instincts, his intuition and knowledge of the game, those were always things that set him apart,” Nichols said. “And his physicality too. He wasn’t the biggest, strongest guy out there, but he was fearless. That’s the way he played and the way he practiced.
“His job was shut his kid down and we’ll play ten on ten. And that typically worked out pretty well.”
Horn’s first high school interception was the product of film study with Terry. “He read it like no other,” the coach said. “And took it back 95 yards.”
In week three of his senior season against area powerhouse Centennial, Horn had two interceptions and held one of the state’s star players, Blane Mason, to only a couple of catches. “The kid didn’t have a catch the entire first half,” Terry said. “Not even targeted.”
“I felt like I had to prove a point,” Horn said.
Playing defensive back, instead of quarterback or receiver, also allowed Horn to fly under the radar and avoid comparisons to his dad.
“He didn’t want anyone to know Joe is his dad,” Terry said. “He didn’t want that shadow. He didn’t want anyone saying, ‘You’re just doing this because of your dad.’
“He made a name for himself.’”
NOT JUST A FOOTBALL PLAYER
A few people around Jaycee, who asked not to be named, say the son of the man who ranks 73rd on the NFL’s all-time receiving list is more like his mom, LaCreshia, who was a cheerleader and played some basketball. “She contributed to the hard work too,” Jaycee said. “I feel like if I’m out there doing something, I’ve got to do it 110 percent.”
LaCreshia was strict on his grades. “If I came home with a ‘C’, it’s no video games, no phone,” Horn said. “… She was really the disciplinarian.”
Pollye Bostick taught Horn’s junior year American Literature class. An Irmo High School graduate and a South Carolina fan, she went to basketball games at the Carolina Coliseum and has photos of Williams-Brice Stadium on her classroom wall.
To her, Horn was a talented athlete, but also a respectful student. He was quiet. Confident. He read a biography on Emmitt Smith. “Where most people show you stress, or excitement, those all look the same on him,” Bostick said. “He never complained. Ever.”
Even if she had to tell him to put his phone away a few times. One time, though, she couldn’t help but laugh at Horn’s response.
“Ms. Bostick, I have to tweet out something I just got from Nick Saban,” he told her.
In Bostick’s class, a state test counts as the final exam. Horn scored an 85, higher than some students who could have taken honors or AP classes.
“I want you to find a place they’re going to appreciate all of you,” Bostick told him. “Not just football player you. You’re more than just a football player. And I think he understand that there were a lot of people that saw him as just a football player.”
Then Horn visited Columbia for a South Carolina-Clemson game.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson kept in touch, and came to Alpharetta as often as allowed.
“I could tell by the conversations they were having that they connected on all the right levels,” Nichols said. “T-Rob didn’t blow smoke and tell Jaycee a bunch of lies. He told him, shared with him, all of his theories, style of play, and I think that’s what really, in the end, what him.”
Gamecock head coach Will Muschamp was honest and loyal, too.
“Their record and their résumés speak for themselves,” Joe Horn said of Robinson and Muschamp. “They have guys they’ve coached in the NFL that are having great careers. But to be honest, it was a loyalty thing with South Carolina.
“It wasn’t necessarily the coach, but Muschamp definitely made it better and with T-Rob, it was a great combination. But the loyalty they showed, by coming to Alpharetta to see my son, I told them, ‘Hey, that’s the cloth I’m from. I’m from the loyalty cloth.’”
Horn impressed his South Carolina teammates and coaches from the jump. “He looks like a young Patrick Peterson,” Steven Montac said days into training camp last season.
“He came to me one day and said, ‘Hey man, if it’s one-on-one with Bryan [Edwards], just throw it up,’” quarterback Jake Bentley said.
Bentley said Horn intercepted him a couple of times during camp, although the quarterback winked and added that Horn might have gotten a lucky. “You just look and say, ‘Wow, that’s a big-time play,’” Bentley said. “He made those all camp.”
“I think he’s going to be a real special player here,” Edwards said then. “He’s long, he’s rangy. He has great ball skills. He’s definitely making a name for himself.”
Muschamp asked Edwards and eventual San Francisco 49er second-round pick Deebo Samuel at one point during camp who impressed them. Their response: “Jaycee is good, coach.”
Horn, a 6-1, 200-pounder, became the seventh true freshman to start for SC in a season-opener (the first since 2009), joining Edwards, Stephon Gilmore, Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore, Bryson Allen-Williams and Al Harris Jr.
Despite South Carolina leading 28-3 at the start the third quarter of its season-opener, Coastal Carolina had momentum and brought the ball to the Gamecocks’ 34-yard line.
But Horn wanted nothing to do with that.
The 6-1, 195-pounder took off on a blitz and sacked Chanticleer quarterback Kilton Anderson. Two plays later Horn and Javon Kinlaw combined for a tackle on third down to force Coastal into a 45-yard field goal attempt.
“Jaycee is one of those guys, you can just tell he has it,” Allen-Williams said. “On the field, he doesn’t get nervous. A lot of the guys, freshmen, they get nervous. They lose their technique and stuff … With Jaycee, when he’s on the field, he’s locked in.
“I thought he was calm. He’s a very mature young man,” Muschamp said after the game. “And what I mean by that is … Young players struggle the most [knowing] when to focus and when the relax. He’s a guy who knows when to focus.
“When we’re in the meeting rooms, he’s dialed in. When we’re in walkthroughs, he’s dialed in. When we’re at practice, he’s understands those things.”
And the performance wasn’t just an outlier against lesser competition. Horn had five tackles against Georgia the following week and then four each in games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
During the third quarter of South Carolina’s dramatic win over Missouri, Tiger running back Damarea Crockett dashed toward the end zone for what would have been a touchdown to give his team a nine-point lead.
But out of nowhere came Horn, who forced Crockett out of bounds at the 11-yard line. Seven plays later the Tigers fumbled a punt and turned the ball over.
The play essentially saved the game.
“I think he hit 22 miles per hour on his Catapult system on that play, so that was pretty impressive,” Muschamp said, referring to the team’s device that tracks players’ change of speed, workload and directional changes.
Horn was named the SEC Freshman of the Week, and it wasn’t just because of the crucial stop. He had four pass breakups — a season-high — and was a key factor in the Gamecocks holding Drew Lock, a second-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, to just 17-of-36 passing for 204 yards.
Horn followed with a season-high seven tackles against Texas A&M. He suffered a lateral sprain of his ankle on the first play of the Gamecocks’ game against Chattanooga and missed the team’s games against Clemson and Akron. He returned to make six tackles and a sack in the team’s Belk Bowl loss to Virginia.
Horn’s final stat line for the season: 45 tackles, two sacks and eight pass breakups.
“I can’t say it surprised me,” Horn said of his success. “Just because of my path and what I went through. I’ll say I had a decent year. I mean, I left some plays out there on the field. I think I can be way better.”
Muschamp also wasn’t surprised.
“Physically, he’s very gifted. He has great length, runs very well and has really good ball skills,” Muschamp said. “He’s also certainly a willing tackler and is very intelligent. He can play multiple spots in the secondary, which he did as a true freshman, which is extremely difficult to do.
“But his best attribute, in my opinion, is his competitive edge.”
During training camp last August, Muschamp checked to see if players made curfew.
“The two guys missing were Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, and it turns out they were back in the film room watching practice,” Muschamp said. “Those are the kind of things I’m talking about when it comes to his intangibles. Because at the end of the day, when it comes to the really good players I’ve been around, are the ones who do it when the coaches aren’t watching.”
FOREVER TO THEE
During Horn’s junior year at Alpharetta, he took a visit to South Carolina. “Ms. Bostick, Deebo Samuel is a beast,” he told his teacher when he returned. “He’s huuuge.”
Two years later, the two teammates were captured in a photo together. “Look who’s the big dude now,” Bostick messaged her former student.
“We expected this, me and Joe,” Terry said. “We knew it when we saw it. We looked at each other and went, ‘Whoa.’ He’s a natural. He’s long. He’s rangy. He’s athletic. And he has the smarts.
“Now his drive is to win a championship. The drive in the meetings rooms. The drive in the weight room. His drive is to bring a championship back to South Carolina.”
Some believe that Horn — who in two years set the Alpharetta records for interceptions and pass breakups — and Mukuamu could eventually become the nation’s best cornerback tandem.
“I believe it,” Nichols said.
“I’m expecting a big year from him. We obviously need for him to continue to perform at a high level, which I thought he did as a freshman,” Muschamp said. “I thought he had an outstanding spring. We’re expecting a big year.”
As a sophomore, Horn expects to excel and lead his team.
“… I feel like we need to start winning games and establishing yourself as one of the best teams in the SEC and get back to that winning culture. I definitely feel like we’re going to do that.”
Horn will be front and center, playing for the name on the back of his jersey and the name on the front. He’ll be out to establish his own legacy.
“A hard-worker. A leader. A guy who gave his all every play, every game. A great guy,” he says.
“And the best DB to ever come through the University of South Carolina.”