PHOENIX – The play – a 46-yard touchdown reception as time expired against USC – was so memorable it earned its own nickname.
The Jael Mary.
But former Arizona State and NFL wide receiver Jaelen Strong hopes to be defined by more than two standout seasons in Tempe and an unforgettable 2014 catch. He wants to make a difference for young athletes in the Valley.
Through his new athletic and academic youth organization, 602Era, Strong is committed to providing opportunities through sports for young athletes. The organization features teams in 7v7 football, basketball, baseball and track and field for students in elementary school through high school. He eventually hopes to create an IMG-like academy in Arizona.
While it’s a business, Strong hopes the lessons learned are far-reaching.
“We are trying to teach kids how to challenge themselves and develop constantly no matter what. The goal is to get kids to college for free through sports,” Strong said. “The foundation of 602Era is creating a network of alumni who will learn through years of being in the program and return to give back to the youth in the community. It’s a ‘reach one, teach one’ type of thing.”
Strong, alongside an elite team of former athletes and trainers, formed the business in January with the goal of becoming Arizona’s most prominent youth athletic organization.
Four months into the process, Strong has attracted youth from all over Maricopa County, including 34 two-sport athletes from eight high schools.
“I’ve always been attached to the youth,” he said. “When I was in Philadelphia, I created SNPGD, a youth training program, which I still have. But when I got here, I just wanted to shift my identity and build up something new.
“So I started 602Era because that is the area code of Phoenix and I wanted people to know that when we leave the area that we are from Arizona. That way it gains that activation of the Valley that coach (Kenny) Dillingham at ASU is trying to incorporate. I want to create that great relationship through 602Era with the community, Arizona State and all other colleges across the country.”
Installing foundational values and shaping the young athletes into better people has been the highlight of the first few months, Strong said.
He believes his model of six pillars, no excuses and two places (school and playing field) will set the standard for what it takes to be successful. He expects every athlete who joins 602 Era to adhere to the expectations of the pillars and demonstrate the same work ethic on the field and in the classroom.
The creation of the six pillars ideology was inspired by former Arizona State coach Todd Graham. Playing under Graham in his two seasons at ASU, Strong credits his former coach with implementing an environment that prioritized growing just as much off the field as on it.
“He was a phenomenal guy when it came to the life aspect. My players live their lives by those lines and what I learned at Arizona State under coach Graham,” Strong said. “Being a leader, a team player, communicating, paying attention to detail, knowing your assignment and executing. All things that will make you successful. Through this model I’m just trying to get them ahead of the curve and up to speed.”
Former Clemson tight end and 602Era assistant coach D.J. Greenlee built a relationship with Strong after his cousin and all-pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins introduced the two when he was his teammate on the Texans. The two have stayed friends since and Greenlee was one of the first people Strong called when recruiting coaches to 602.
Since then, Greenlee has been instrumental in establishing the 7v7 football teams for the various age groups. Just like Strong, Greenlee wants to “instill in these guys what I’ve been instilled from my past coaches and coach Dabo Swinney at Clemson.”
“602 is definitely an organization that is building these young kids to better their lives even if it’s not just in football,” Greenlee said. “That’s what I think is so great about this organization. It doesn’t say anything about sports. It just says ‘area code’ and ‘era.’ You can’t really specify just athletics because there’s so much other stuff also going on.”
Still, the primary goal for Strong, Greenlee and the rest of the 602 team is to provide the best leadership and training possible to help their players achieve their goals of playing at the next level.
He already has organized visits to the ASU and UNLV football programs while setting up camps and introducing his connections in the football world to his players.
Maren Pellant, the mother of 602Era player and Hamilton High School quarterback Beckham Pellant, believes that in the few months her son has worked with Strong, she has seen his skills develop and has watched him become more mature and focused off the field.
“He’s done grade checks and holds them accountable. He just wants the best for them,” she said. “He wants them all to play at the next level. So he’s going to do everything he can to coach them up to that level so that they succeed.”
Beckham values Strong’s experience and knowledge and hopes it will put him in a better position heading into his senior season.
“He’s a great guy to look up to. I mean, he’s obviously done it. He’s been to the league. He’s been in college. He’s done everything that we all hope to do,” Beckham said.
Teammate Ezy Brown, who is a sophomore defensive back and wide receiver at North High School, credits Strong for putting the 602Era players on the map with recruiters. Through providing them the ability to make themselves more noticeable to college football programs, Brown is certain that 602Era has put him in a position to succeed.
“Jaelen has great connections and knows great people,” Brown said. “Great people find great talent and when Jaelen had them come watch us, they liked our game and wanted us to come take a look at their facility. He’s just been opening opportunities for us.”
Strong, who grew up in Philadelphia and played at Los Angeles Pierce College before the they next step to Power 5 football, frequently shares his story of determination and following in his dreams.
“He tells us a lot about his upbringing, how he ended up at JUCO and then ASU,” Beckham said. “He uses his story to motivate us. And even if we do go to JUCO, we know we can still make it big.”
Brown said, “As a team, we all look at him as a coach but deep down I look at him like a big brother. He wants us to be great. He wants us to come in and train. He doesn’t want us to slack. And he doesn’t want us to go through what he went to just to find the opportunity to continue to play football.”
Strong’s motivation is to offer an alternate route to learn and thrive under professionals who have had success in athletics and off the field.
“It means a lot because I’m at the point where my service to the youth will ultimately put them in a position to be a better person than I can ever be,” Strong said. “And that’s all that I can ask. That’s all that we should ask for, that the next generation is always better than the previous.
“You should always be taking a step forward not steps back, so I’m just trying to be the leader and mentor to these young men and women who are making themselves vulnerable.”
His coaching days are just getting started, but he already has big plans for the future.
“I’m going to open a school,” he said. “It’s been in the back of my mind for a while and it is the next step in how I want to impact the youth.”
Strong wants to establish an “elite type of IMG school in Arizona,” Greenlee said, and build a curriculum that better prepares kids for college and a career in professional sports.
“I want to build a trade school that is a sports academy,” Strong said. “The foundation of it is teaching kids life skills by working hands-on in the classroom. Team collaborative projects, financial literacy and a hands-on environment are all the things necessary to prepare athletes for life.”
Whether it is training kids on the field, running an athletic organization or taking the steps to build a school, Strong has committed himself to using his platform for the betterment of future generations.
Although the ASU great will never be forgotten for the affect he had on the field, the legacy he is building off it is what pushes Strong to continue to leave his mark in the Valley.
“The kids know that they make my life so much better,” he said. “They give me a purpose to wake up every day and keep pushing. I love all of them with all my heart. I get emotional because I don’t find purpose in anything else like I do in the youth.
“As long as I’m servicing the kids and I’m reaching one and he reaches another, that’s the only thing that matters to me. “