When defensive tackle Johnny Jolly showed up for his second NFL training camp on July 27 unable to complete his conditioning test, which forced him to miss the first few practices, it would have been easy to lump him in with all the other young players who don't quite understand what it takes to make it in professional football.
But immature is no label to affix to Johnny Jolly. Not even close.
While overcoming that early absence in camp to land a Week 1 starting spot at defensive tackle speaks to his growth as an up-and-coming player, the strength and grace with which he's dealt with a personal offseason tragedy, and the responsibility he assumed in the wake of it, more accurately depicts his maturity as a 24-year-old man.
Back on May 19, the Packers were in the middle of their full-squad mini-camp and Jolly was spending that Saturday night with teammates, shooting pool at fellow defensive tackle Corey Williams' house.
Nearing midnight, Jolly got a phone call from his mother in Houston, telling him his 34-year-old god-sister, Keisha Beechum, was dead, but she didn't know any details. Unsure whether Keisha's death was related to the stress or grief over her own father's passing earlier that month, Jolly called his niece, only to learn that Keisha, on a trip to Shreveport, La., with her husband, had been shot by a group of gunmen while being robbed.
"I couldn't believe it," Jolly said. "I was like, 'This can't be happening.' I had just talked to her on the phone maybe a couple days before."
Jolly spoke to her often because he considered Keisha a "blood sister." The daughter of a family friend, Keisha lived with the Jollys for a few years when Johnny was young, and Jolly was extremely close to Keisha's twin seven-year-old boys, whom he calls his nephews.
A devastated Jolly left Green Bay and flew to Houston the next morning. He was asked by family members to break the news to the twins, nicknamed Itty and Turk, who were turning eight that week. He had to explain to them that their mother wouldn't be back for their birthday party, or any more birthday parties.
He could tell his nephews didn't understand, and it was just as difficult for Jolly to watch them try to come to grips with it as it was to cope with it himself. He decided to have the boys stay with him for a while, and other than a trip back to Green Bay in June for a portion of the team's organized team activities (OTAs), Jolly took care of the young boys until he left at the end of July to report for training camp.
"I'd take them to the mall, take them anywhere, just to let them relax and not have it on their mind so much," Jolly said. "As far as training camp, the hard part was they wanted to come and go to school here. But after the season I knew I'd be leaving and going back to Houston, and I didn't want to transfer them back in the middle of the year.
"So I had to let them know I had to come here to take care of business, and I made sure everyone would be all right."
Back to football
The boys have gone back and forth between staying with Jolly's mother and their father, and Jolly certainly took care of business in training camp.
After missing those first few practices, which defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn said "burned him up, ate him up inside," Jolly has been a force on the field and battled with a deep group of defensive tackles to get the opening day starting nod. Nunn said it didn't take Jolly long to get back in shape because he had been so dedicated to his conditioning during the team's offseason program.
Nunn recalled that when Jolly was entering the draft out of Texas A&M, he caught the Packers' eye because when they watched tapes of his college games, he showed up the most against the Big 12 Conference's toughest teams - Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas.
He struggled to show that last year, however, because of a lingering ankle injury that had probably contributed to his draft stock falling to the sixth round. It wasn't until the season wound down that he was fully healthy, and he was making an impact when he got playing time, taking up multiple blockers and wreaking havoc at the point of attack.
That's how he looked in training camp again this year, which was highlighted by a remarkable interception of a screen pass during which the 6-foot-3, 312-pound Jolly showed the athleticism of a linebacker and the hands of a receiver to make the play.
"I think he's gained a lot of confidence," Nunn said. "This guy is a highly competitive kid. He's learned how to handle his toughness. By that I mean sometimes he'd get a little too emotional and it would cost him, not playing good technique, but he's staying more focused with his energy."
Jolly talks to Itty and Turk every day. They've even begun calling him "Daddy."
They want to know everything going on with the football season, an interest that has peaked since Jolly enrolled them in their first football camp this past July. Jolly believes Itty is determined to play his position of defensive tackle, even though he's one of the smallest players on the field.
Next is to get them into a youth football league, but Jolly says he'll wait until next offseason to do that. In the meantime, he looks forward to that daily call.
"They want to know when my latest old-school car is coming out of the paint shop, when the next game is so they can go to my mother's house and watch it," Jolly said.
That conversation is far more enjoyable than when Jolly wakes up in the morning, his sleep disturbed by the reality that the case remains unsolved. There are no definitive answers to Keisha's death, at least not yet.
For now, in order to focus as much as he can on football, he leaves it to his mother to keep up with the police investigation, and she gives him occasional updates.
"I want to know who the killer is myself," he said. "That's something I want to know. I wish I knew, but I don't have a clue right now."
Thankful for support
Jolly won't say the tragedy, and all the family responsibilities that came with it, had anything to do with him cramping up during his running test back on July 27.
He's also not going to correlate his rapid ascension as a player to the raised level of maturity that inevitably develops from dealing with such a difficult loss and its aftermath.
He'd prefer to credit his faith in the Lord, and his teammates, for helping him persevere from May 19 until now. He's quick to mention that Head Coach Mike McCarthy, Nunn, assistant special teams coach Shawn Slocum, defensive linemate Ryan Pickett, and former Packers director of player development George Koonce all came to Keisha's funeral to support him, and he received numerous phone calls from teammates while he was away.
"I consider Green Bay as a family to me too," Jolly said. "When I was going through this, everyone was giving me a family feeling.
"They called my family to let everyone know they were there for us. They kept me in a nice comfort zone because I knew they had my back, and when I came back everything was still rolling, because they were still with me."
The Jolly family also got some wonderful news on July 4, when Jolly's younger sister gave birth to twin girls.
And now, training camp complete, Jolly is ready to run out of the Lambeau Field tunnel as a starting defensive tackle, alongside his buddy Pickett, for the season opener on Sunday against Philadelphia.
May 19 will always be with him. But July 27? Ancient history.
"I knew once I had a chance to get back on the field and show that I had been working out, everything would clear up," Jolly said. "I work hard at playing my position. I want to be the best at my position.
"I know what I'd done in the offseason to get better, and once I came back and got in the pads and got back in the flow, everything kept running like I'd never missed a beat."