AUBURN — Jamel Dean probably couldn’t have wiped the smile off his face if he tried.
He was sitting inside a windowless room somewhere deep inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, fiddling with the brace on his right hand. That’s what most of the reporters standing around him wanted to talk about — the injury.
Six days earlier, there was a brief moment when that injury sent the Internet community of Auburn fans into something of a panic. Rumor had it that Dean was hurt. But you know how rumors are.
Dean answered all the important questions Saturday after the Tigers’ season-opening win over Washington. The ring and pinky fingers on his right hand got caught in a teammate’s jersey during practice. He bandaged the fingers during the week and had his entire hand wrapped in a cast that resembled a white oven mitt for the game against the Huskies. But there was never a doubt in his mind that he was going to play.
And, the Tigers’ second scoring drive started when Dean picked off Huskies quarterback Jake Browning along the left sideline. It was the first interception of the junior’s college career.
That’s part of why Dean couldn’t stop smiling after the game.
Maybe the smile was that much bigger because he almost never got this chance. Despite his size (6-foot-2, 208 pounds) and speed (4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash), Dean’s dream of playing college football was nearly taken away from Dean three times before it finally came true at Auburn last season.
Dean is in his fourth year of college. If he plays through his finger injury again Saturday against Alabama State — head coach Gus Malzahn said no decision had been made as of Wednesday — it will mark the 16th game of his career.
A star at Cocoa (Fla.) High, Dean totaled 975 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior playing wide receiver. On defense, he grew into a four-star cornerback recruit ranked 29th in the 2015 class.
Injuries were the only thing that ever stood in Dean’s way. They nearly derailed his football career more than once. He tore his ACL and meniscus during his junior season, the same year he committed to Ohio State. He returned to full strength for his senior season at Cocoa, then re-tore the meniscus in that same knee before a high school all-star game.
Still, Dean signed with the Buckeyes, graduated high school early and headed north to Columbus to begin his college career. But, he never suited up in scarlet and gray. Ohio State’s medical staff disqualified Dean from playing after his initial physical, deeming his knee injury to be that serious.
Then-Cocoa head coach John Wilkinson, in an interview with the Northeast Ohio Media Group, accused Urban Meyer of pushing Dean off the team because the Buckeyes had 88 scholarship players and needed to trim that to the maximum 85 players. Meyer denied the accusation.
Dean received a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, who stated that if the cornerback continued his rehab, he would be ready to resume full activity sometime that summer. Ohio State, though, wasn’t willing to offer him anything more than a medical hardship to end his playing career but remain on scholarship.
His time in Columbus was over before it even began.
“I think it was terrible for him. He basically gave up his senior year of high school on the promise that he was going to get taken care of, and he didn’t get taken care of,” said Wilkinson, who is now at New Smyrna Beach High. “Thank God that Auburn took a chance on him and believed in Dr. Andrews that he was fine, which, everybody knew he was fine. For him to have to sit out and have to weather that storm, that built his character.”
That wasn’t the most difficult time for Dean. That came about 15 months later. He was back to full strength after using the NCAA-mandated redshirt year to complete his rehab and recovery, and with senior defensive backs Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess gone after graduating following the 2015 season, Dean was in line to start opposite sophomore Carlton Davis in 2016.
But less than a month before the start of what he hoped would be his first college season — a chance to finally live that dream he had since he was a kid — Dean suffered an injury to his other knee that sidelined him for the entire year.
“He was like, ‘Well, maybe this is just not for me, so I’ll just give up. All these injuries happened back to back, and it’s something I really want to do, but I just can’t do it,'” said aunt Tinita Brown, who is the younger sister of Dean’s mother, Yolanda Kimbrough.
“We were like, ‘Jamel, it’s just a setback. Do you really want to play football?’ He was like, ‘Yes, I love it.’ ‘Well, you got to fight for it. It’s not going to come to you easy. You got to fight for it.’ Once he started doing all his physical therapy and was getting stronger and stronger, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can actually do this.’”
It took a year longer than he initially expected, but Dean finally made his collegiate debut Sept. 2, 2017. After serving as Auburn’s third corner against Georgia Southern, Clemson and Mercer to start that season, he moved into the starting lineup for a Week 4 win at Missouri and never left.
Dean finished his debut campaign with 43 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and eight pass breakups. He was the highest-graded player on Auburn’s defense that season, per Pro Football Focus (87.9). He held opposing receivers to a catch rate of just 38.1 percent, which ranked eighth nationally.
"That was probably one of the best feelings ever. I was just feeling like I was not going to be able to play college football,” Dean said. “Then when I finally got the opportunity to play, it touched me emotionally the very first game. Like, I'm actually playing my first college games. That was probably like one of the greatest moments ever."
The only thing Dean didn’t do last season was intercept a pass. He crossed that off his to-do list Saturday.
“It was like, he’s back to the old Jamel now,” said Tyrone Giscombe, then an assistant at Cocoa. “He looked comfortable. That was one of his main focuses this year, to catch more interceptions. So for him to get one in his first game of the season, that means he’s on the right track with things he wants to accomplish.”