How 49ers’ prize free agent Javon Hargrave went from hoops prodigy to NFL stardom
There was a time when Javon Hargrave envisioned himself dominating the paint like Charles Barkley instead of sacking quarterbacks like Charles Haley.
Everything changed when Hargrave, playing on the junior varsity at North Rowan High in Spencer, N.C., in 2007, had an epiphany borne of performance.
“I didn’t really care for football,” Hargrave said Friday morning in a phone interview following a workout. “Basketball was my way. But I had like five or six sacks in my first game and it just came kind of natural to me. I had a few bad games in basketball – sometimes against taller people. In football, in high school, I didn’t have many bad games.”
Given that Hargrave was a conference player of the year in basketball as a junior and helped lead North Rowan to the Division I (small school) state title as a senior, it wasn’t as if bad games came with regularity.
Andrew Mitchell, Hargrave’s high school basketball coach, gave the following scouting report:
“He was hard-nosed, a bruiser, but had a nice, soft touch and great feet,” Mitchell said. “Once he realized when he put his big body on people there was nothing they could do, he became a force. We won a state title because of Javon.”
Mitchell realized Hargrave’s basketball days were numbered the first time he saw him play football.
“He made a tackle, the ball hit the ground, and he picked it up with one hand and ran it all the way into the end zone for a touchdown,” Mitchell said.
Hargrave, 30, is the 49ers’ prize free agent, a defensive tackle whose speed and athleticism have never computed with his build whether it was as a youth, in high school, college or the NFL.
“I was trying to race all the small kids, and most of the time I could beat ‘em,” Hargrave said.
A dominant career at South Carolina State led to Hargrave being a third-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, which begat a three-year, $39 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and finally a four-year deal worth a maximum of $84 million with $40 million guaranteed from the 49ers.
The contract validated what anyone who has tried to block Hargrave already knew – he has few peers as an interior game-wrecker at 6-foot-2, 305 pounds. The burst and athletic ability that were apparent early have been refined every year through diet and training.
It was the latest example of the 49ers going all-in when it comes to big-time talent, something they did when making trades for tackle Trent Williams and running back Christian McCaffrey. Like both men, Hargrave considers himself an ascending player and still a work in progress despite an 11-sack season for the NFC champion Eagles.
“This league is not based on what you did last year,” Hargrave said. “It’s more like ‘what have you done for me lately?’ I challenged myself to make the most out of my career. That’s my big goal – to see if I can get better every year and really make the most of it.”
Jalen “Scoot” Simmons, a former teammate at South Carolina State and one of Hargrave’s closest friends, believes the best is yet to come.
“That’s his personality,” Simmons said. “He thinks he can get better and he’s the most humble person I know. He’s just scratching the surface in my eyes.”
While Hargrave dominated in high school and in his first two seasons at South Carolina State, it wasn’t until a six-sack game against Bethune-Cookman as a junior that he realized he had a real shot.
“That’s when I started hearing the whispers,” Hargrave said. “It dawned on me – I’ve got a chance to do this thing.”
South Carolina State is a historically Black university in Orangeville, S.C., with a football history that includes Hall of Famers such as New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson and Rams defensive end Deacon Jones. Given North Rowan’s status as a low-enrollment Division I high school combined with Hargrave not having a qualifying ACT score, the Bulldogs were the only team to school to offer him a scholarship.
As a freshman, Hargrave entered mid-year after successfully earning his qualifying score and subsequently went into his first spring practice out of shape.
David Blanchard, the defensive line coach at South Carolina State, watched a winded Hargrave fail to make it through his first conditioning drill.
“He ran extremely well, but he couldn’t run for long,” Blanchard said. “He couldn’t finish, but you could see the burst he had. You could see him jump. He was just an unbelievable athlete to be that size.”
South Carolina State defensive coordinator Mike Adams, now an assistant at Mercer College in Macon, Ga., said Hargrave got in shape by doing everything that was asked and then taking on even more.
“He’s out there at 5:30 in the morning doing these circuits,” Adams said. “He made himself finish those drills. Besides all his skills, my first impression was this kid has actually got something to him in terms of making himself physically better.”
Hargrave has no fond memories of the experience but understands the impact was profound in that he’s remained in shape ever since.
“That was a rough time for me,” Hargrave said. “It was the first time I’d been off so long, six months at home, eating, gaining a lot of weight. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think it just woke me up. Never wanted to feel like that again. Never.”
Hargrave, then and now, is good-natured and low-key. Other than an instance where Mitchell thought his power forward was being too nice in a regional playoff game, Hargrave hasn’t needed a lot in the way of motivation.
Mitchell was a college roommate of Tim Bates, Hargrave’s father. Bates was a North Rowan assistant coach and Hargrave’s brother, T.J. Bates, was the point guard.
North Rowan was being dominated by Monroe, the defending state champ whose star player was Jamison Crowder, now an NFL wide receiver. Crowder had his way in the first half and then Mitchell laid into Hargrave.
“He cussed me out pretty bad and it really made me mad, but I think that helped get me going,” Hargrave said. “I ended up having a big second half and we won.”
Mitchell, now an assistant women’s coach at Winston-Salem State, said teammates liked Hargrave because he didn’t draw attention to himself despite superior physical gifts.
“The guys love him. He’s a gentle giant,” Mitchell said. “He’s humble – but he can be a character – funny in his own little way. He was a true leader.”
Behind closed doors, Hargrave would occasionally display an edge, like the time he failed to make the All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team despite a solid sophomore year.
“He was so mad. That ate him up, and that pushed him to conditioning himself even more and he absolutely destroyed the league from that point on,” Blanchard said.
Adams, who bestowed the name “Gravedigger” on Hargrave based on former Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown as well as his last name, said he saw a big change as a sophomore.
“His first year, he was kind of wildly moving around and he was so athletic at that weight, he could outmaneuver people, but it wasn’t until his second year you started to see his true in-gap power and ability to just wreck the interior of an entire offensive line.
“We knew he was good, but I don’t know if we ever saw this, where he’s widely considered maybe the best interior defensive lineman in the world,” Adams said. “That’s insane.”
Hargrave credits his father, who is a pastor, and his mother for keeping him grounded and focused on improvement even as he has become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.
“It’s never been the easiest road for me, like I was this five-star athlete or big-time guy,” Hargrave said. “Everything I had to get I had to work for, so to keep getting the things I want, I’ve got to work at it. I’m not happy just because I’ve got the money. I actually love football and make the most out of it for me and my family.”
Mitchell joked that Hargrave is so frugal “he’ll probably still have $80 million of the $84 million when he retires.” That prompted a laugh from Hargrave, who said “I spend a little more now, but I’m not about to go crazy.”
In the next breath, Hargrave said he was dreading the tax rate in California as well as apartment prices in San Francisco.
The beginning of those riches became possible after 29 ½ sacks in his last two seasons at South Carolina State and a 4.93 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. Still, Hargrave lasted until the third round, with Pittsburgh taking him at No. 89 overall.
Four solid years in a read-and-react scheme led to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Eagles, who turned him loose more often, and then to the 49ers, where Hargrave will disrupt at will and look to expand his game.
“He’s not ready to pat himself on the back. That’s not him,” Blanchard said. “When I reach him, it’s always, ‘I’ve got to work out. I’ve got to get a massage.’ That’s his deal. He has a home here in the Carolinas but his home is really where his workout facility is.”
Simmons, a college teammate and running back who spent three NFL seasons as a practice squad player with Arizona and the New York Giants, sees no difference in terms of personality from the guy he first met at the South Carolina State dorms.
“He’s loyal, he’s giving, and he always wants the best for people around him, especially his family and friends,” Simmons said. “He’s still the same guy, man, the same ol’ Hargrave to me.”