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LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) looks back to no close pursuit at all, as he hauls in a 78-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Burrow in the first quarter gainst Texas A&M at Tiger Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

The father and son parked in the lot near the highway, where the smell of butter and spice floated from the restaurant to greet them.

It was another Wednesday night dinner for Jimmy and Ja'Marr Chase, a weekly tradition Jimmy keeps in an effort to maintain some normalcy for his son, who is starting to feel the weight of celebrity.

Jimmy reasoned the constant attention that pulls on a star LSU football player could be abated by a hot meal, a cold beverage, a familiar face across the table talking about old times.

So he began the ritual of driving in from New Orleans, picking up Ja'Marr from football practice and attempting to find a getaway dinner and relax.

Instead, they've learned to never go to the same place twice.

They tried once, at a wings bar, but when they sat down the second time, three people immediately approached for autographs and selfies.

On this night, the waitstaff led them all the way to the back of the restaurant, and even there, people gaped and stared from neighboring tables.

"Ja'Marr," Jimmy asked. "You get this all the time?"

"Dad, it's really bad," Ja'Marr said. "It's really bad."

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Chase's face is probably one of the most familiar on LSU's football team. And why not? When LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is shown throwing a touchdown pass on TV, it's usually Chase who's catching it.

No receiver in the nation has scored more often than Chase, whose 17 touchdown receptions this season have already set LSU's single-season record.

And if the 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore catches three more touchdowns by the end of the year, he'll be just the 13th player in NCAA history to record 20 touchdowns in one season.

Chase's last five games — 35 catches, 831 yards and seven touchdowns — are the envy of an entire season, a streak of 100-yard performances that includes wins over then-No. 9 Auburn and then-No. 2 Alabama.

It's part of an impressive résumé that's made Chase one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award for nation's top receiver, an award that has only been won at LSU once before by Josh Reed in 2001.

Reed set the Southeastern Conference record that season for most yards in a season (1,740), another record within reach of Chase (1,457), who leads the nation with 132.5 yards receiving per game.

In a program where receivers are constantly compared to former greats like Reed or Odell Beckham Jr. or Jarvis Landry, Chase is building a foundation where future Tigers receivers will be compared to him.

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And fame follows.

Oh yes, Baton Rouge billboards might flicker images of LSU's Heisman front-runner, Burrow, but there's a wide receiver who's also trying to shake off the crowds like a beaten defensive back.

Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, at least gets to withdraw to his apartment, enjoying the solitude that comes with taking online classes. Chase has to face the gauntlet of a daily campus commute.

Chase is the Louisiana native, the former Rummel High Raider who floods local air time in hometown New Orleans. Jimmy can't go anywhere without people asking for a No. 1 LSU jersey, the number his son wears. All conversation is completely dominated by the buzz of Ja'Marr's success.

"I get so tired of talking about that at my job, you just don't understand," Chase's mother, Toeleah laughed. "I just go to New Orleans and try to stay away from everybody."

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Toeleah is quiet and reserved, qualities that became a large part of Ja'Marr's personality. That's why she was so surprised to see her son dancing in the end zone after touchdowns this season, often celebrating in dance-offs with fellow receiver Justin Jefferson.

Jimmy said they'd never seen Ja'Marr dance before. Not at family functions. Weddings. Nothing. Not even at his own high school graduation party.

"I laugh when I see the videos," Toeleah said. "So, I'm just happy he's happy. You know what I mean? And I always told him, 'Enjoy it while you can, baby.'"

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A strong recipe

Stadium lights are the spotlights that suit Ja'Marr Chase.

Sure, there'll be plenty of attention on Burrow in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday in Atlanta; but to stop LSU's record-breaking quarterback, No. 4 Georgia will have to answer a fundamental question: just who is going to cover the record-breaking receiver?

"You want me to tell you the game plan?" Georgia safety J.R. Reed said. "I can't give you the recipe."

Whatever the recipe is, it'll have to be strong.

Ja'Marr's father, Jimmy, was a defensive back at Alcorn State, and his older brother, Jimmy Jr., was an offensive and defensive lineman at Southern Methodist — a diverse gene pool that helps explains Ja'Marr's extreme strength at his size.

Perhaps you've heard of Chase's explosive leg strength, how he dunked regularly on Rummel High's varsity basketball team, and as a junior, placed first in the state track meet's long jump without having competed in the event before.

Chase's knack for one-handed catches and acrobatic, mid-air catches forced former Rummel head coach Jay Roth to attend a coaching clinic run by Hal Mumme, who invented the Air Raid in the late 1980s. Roth revamped Rummel's run-heavy playbook, and Chase became the school's first 1,000-yard receiver in school history.

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There was uncanny strength through injuries, too. Chase caught three touchdowns in the first round of the 2017 LHSAA playoffs, and on the third, he landed flatfooted on his right leg and suffered a hyperextension that didn't require surgery. It could have, perhaps should have, Roth said, been worse.

The strength helps Chase power through aggressive defensive backs that try and jam him off the snap. He's able to bat his way through handsy corners that try and tie him up while he's running down the field.

It's that separation that allows him to be so wide open.

"I think it's pretty much my strength," Chase said. "I try to slip through people on the (game film). They had me holding the ball in one hand, me trying to get my other arm through. That's me trying to be slimey."

Chase paused and laughed at his word choice.

"Slimey," he said. "What the heck."

Slimey might be the best word.

Chase said that when he played park ball as a kid, his father used to put baby oil on his arms to make him more slippery.

"I don't think it's cheating," he said. "It's lotion. I'm putting lotion on before a game."

There's no such lotion routine at LSU, Chase said. Burrow will be too mad that he got the ball wet.

Chase rubbed Vaseline on his skin at the Ole Miss game for warmth and his quarterback still got irritated.

"It was cold outside," Chase said. "I was trying to close my pores, and I got some of that on the ball and Joe made me wipe my arm off during the game."

Chase has still been plenty slippery in 2019: he leaped over a defender for a 41-yard catch in the 45-38 win at Texas; broke tackles and fought for sideline space in a four-touchdown game against Vanderbilt; swept past a cornerback, mid-air for the first touchdown in a historic, 46-41 victory over Alabama.

Even his run-blocking ends up in highlights. In LSU's 58-37 win at Ole Miss, Chase powered past a linebacker and locked up a defensive back that freed up a 49-yard touchdown run for Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Chase skipped and threw his hands up, following Edwards-Helaire the entire way.

"He's so strong with his hands," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "He's very, very competitive. One-on-one? He loves to win the one-on-one matchup. He's physical. He works hard. He catches everything."

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It's the kind of talent Orgeron couldn't miss out on. He loaded the entire coaching staff into a limousine bus to visit Chase's home less than a week before signing day to keep the former four-star receiver from leaving the state for Auburn.

There were flashes of Chase's talent in 2018, when the receiver made his Tiger Stadium debut by doing a front flip into the end zone against Southeastern Louisiana for his first career touchdown.

But Chase's full potential was unleashed in the revamped spread offense created by offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

Chase's father saw the results in the spring, when his son battled against freshman cornerback Derek Stingley, a friendly nemesis who matched up with Chase in 7-on-7 camps while at The Dunham School.

Stingley, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit according to Rivals, had already gained a reputation as a shutdown corner, and Chase's progression started in the showdowns that happened behind closed doors.

"One would get beat on one play," Jimmy said, "and the other would come back and beat the other on the next play."

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Everyone wanted to see Chase and Stingley face off in a fade route in the end zone, a route that meant both players were going to have to jump and fight for the ball.

The moment finally came during a spring scrimmage.

"Guess who came down with the ball?" Jimmy said. "Well, there's probably going to be an argument..."

Chase and Stingley both clung to the football on the turf.

The officials signaled touchdown.

Jimmy, sitting near Stingley's father, Derek Sr., shouted: "Tie goes to the receiver!"

"There were a lot of coaches that said, 'Well I'm not going to say it was a defensive interception, although I thought it was,'" Derek Sr. said. "So it was a lot of that wink-wink going on."

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Jimmy said Chase took quickly to Brady, the coach responsible for introducing West Coast schemes that allowed Chase, Jefferson and sophomore Terrace Marshall to all be on the field at the same time.

When Jimmy first met Brady, the 30-year-old coach told him he had done his best not to gain any information about the receiving corps he was about to assist. He wanted to see the talent with his own eyes and make his own evaluations.

And when he first met the LSU receivers?

"He just challenged them to be more professional, to be more consistent," Jimmy said. "He's challenged them to be more focused for whatever comes down the pipe."

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'That was a sign'

The father and son sat a table in the summer.

A stack of yellow post-it notes lay on the table, and Ja'Marr picked up a pen.

Jimmy had his son come up with a list of short-term and long-term goals for the 2019 season.

"I told him he needed to have a plan of action," Jimmy said. "Can't just go out there and do things. You have to have a plan, you know? That's why we talk about goals: trying to achieve something."

Ja'Marr stuck each post-it note to the mirror in his dorm bedroom, where he could look at them each morning.

A few Jimmy recalled:

  • Catch 50 passes
  • Gain 1,000 yards
  • Win the Biletnikoff Award

His mother, Toeleah, remembers seeing those notes when she visited Ja'Marr before the season. She read them while he was in the room but said nothing. She smiled to herself.

"I thought that was awesome," she said. "That was a sign."

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Jimmy said Ja'Marr has reached all the personal goals on the mirror, save for some postseason notes that may come after a potential national championship season is complete.

But the overall legacy is already taking form for a true sophomore who still must play another full season before he's eligible for professional football.

On the morning following a recent game, Derek Stingley Sr. stopped Jimmy in the hotel hallway.

"Jimmy, I don't think there's another receiver in college football that's better than Ja'Marr," Derek Sr. said. "I don't think that there's one out there right now."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.