Nebraska assistant coach Carl Pelini was on the phone when he walked up to the field where the Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College football team was practicing that spring day in 2010, coach Jeff Sims remembered.
The Fort Scott coach had invited Pelini to drive down from Lincoln to scope out a wide receiver named Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
The kid had only played one season of high school ball and another at a collegiate prep school after graduating. But he was long, and he could jump unusually high to snatch footballs out of the air, Sims said in a phone call to Pelini, his friend and former co-worker at Minnesota State-Mankato.
Seeing Pelini, Sims marched over to Jean-Baptiste. Sims explained who Pelini was and what he represented: a chance to play for a Division I school.
Jean-Baptiste understood. He ran a go route on the next snap, and the quarterback threw the ball up for grabs. Jean-Baptiste outjumped his defender deep down the field, hauled in the pass and sprinted to a 60-yard score.
Sims glanced at Pelini. Pelini nodded at Sims, climbed back into his car and drove back to Lincoln.
“That’s all he needed to see,” Sims said. “Stanley’s athleticism was undeniable.”
Perhaps it was at that moment when Jean-Baptiste discovered the pathway by which he became the Saints’ second-round pick of the 2014 NFL draft. He soon signed with Nebraska, switched to cornerback and was chosen No. 58 overall Friday.
But as two of his ex-coaches tell it, Jean-Baptiste nearly didn’t give himself the opportunity to seek out that route.
Jean-Baptiste enrolled at Spirit of Christ Child Development Academy in his hometown of Miami and decided to play football as a senior, in part because a neighborhood friend was on the team, said Michael Tunsil, the coach at the time.
Jean-Baptiste averaged 27 yards per catch for 569 yards and seven touchdowns through five games. As a free safety, he picked off six passes and ran back two for scores.
“Stanley was a star,” Tunsil said.
A handful of recruiters noticed, but he didn’t academically qualify.
“I had schools looking at me,” Jean-Baptiste said Friday. “But ... my GPA didn’t match up with my test scores.”
Jean-Baptiste began his post-high school career as a receiver at North Carolina Tech Preparatory Christian Academy, which purports to let college football hopefuls who pay tuition work on their academic qualifications while playing a strange mix of opponents: high school teams, junior colleges, club squads and junior-varsity teams from lower-division NCAA and NAIA programs.
Jean-Baptiste once told a Nebraska newspaper that North Carolina Tech assured him he didn’t have to go to class as long as he played for the institution. But there was only silence on the college scholarship front as he caught 36 passes for 580 yards, and he figured something was off with what he was promised. (North Carolina Tech later was investigated by the NCAA.)
Tunsil then suggested Jean-Baptiste check out Fort Scott, where players such as linebacker Lavonte David (a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2012) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (a first-round selection by the New York Giants in 2010) have excelled.
Jean-Baptiste listened, but he delivered a weak first impression. He exerted the minimum effort in drills and the weight room — and often it was less than that, Sims said.
“We have about 150 guys when we start and, honestly, he was 150th,” Sims said. “He was lazy. He didn’t work hard, and there was not a day that he acted like he wanted to be there.”
Jean-Baptiste redshirted as David led Fort Scott to the junior-college national championship game. Fort Scott lost the title to a Blinn College team spearheaded by a quarterback named Cam Newton (taken No. 1 overall in 2011 by Carolina), and Jean-Baptiste returned home.
He met with Tunsil. Tunsil listened to Jean-Baptiste as he described how he struggled with the colder weather in Kansas as well as the distance from his family, especially his dad — Pierre — and mom, Yanick. The lack of playing time depressed him.
Tunsil explained that Fort Scott redshirting him didn’t mean he was a bad player. Though it was different from Miami, the school was still a place where he could seize the future he wanted, whether that was a degree from a major university or a career as a pro player.
Jean-Baptiste gave Fort Scott another try and attended spring workouts. He suddenly dominated practices with his pass-catching skills and athleticism.
He improved in the weight room and captured the team’s strength and conditioning award. He submerged himself in his studies, achieved the grades necessary to get into a Division I school and essentially shed his indifference.
“In my 20 years of coaching, he made the biggest jump I’ve seen from someone who wouldn’t do stuff to someone who was unbelievable,” Sims said.
Though he was counting on Jean-Baptiste for the upcoming season, Sims urged Pelini to visit Fort Scott. David and Jean-Baptiste were Cornhuskers that fall.
Jean-Baptiste redshirted and played scout-team receiver in 2010 before he moved to cornerback. His career in Lincoln culminated with a 2013 campaign in which he topped the Cornhuskers with 12 pass break-ups and tied for the team lead with four interceptions, earning him second-team All-Big 10 honors.
Jean-Baptiste attributed much of his success with Nebraska and at January’s Senior Bowl to having played receiver. He found he could quickly decipher opposing receivers’ routes and tendencies.
At February’s scouting combine, he measured in at 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds. He had the best vertical jump (41.5 inches) among cornerbacks and ran the 40-yard dash in a speedy 4.45 seconds at his pro day.
It wasn’t merely his standout senior season or his physical attributes that attracted the Saints to Jean-Baptiste, who could help New Orleans’ secondary hang onto its No. 2 ranking against the pass last year.
“His path is much different,” coach Sean Payton said about Jean-Baptiste, who earned a criminal justice degree at Nebraska. “He’s mature.”
That path he searched out took him to a group of cornerbacks that includes tested veterans Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey and a defense that gave up the fourth-fewest yards in its first year under coordinator Rob Ryan. Neither Sims nor Tunsil could imagine a better classroom for him.
“He’s played corner for two years,” Sims said. “If Stanley’s taught, he’ll develop. If ... he absorbs, he’ll be an All-Pro.”