Ramsey's Competitive Streak Drives FSU Defense
By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In less than three years at Florida State, Jalen Ramsey has managed an interception in his first collegiate game, ascended to All-America honors at multiple positions and even pulled a beloved jersey number out of retirement.
All while developing a reputation as one of the meanest, nastiest defensive players to ever suit up in a Seminole uniform.
But Ramsey insists that version of himself – the version that will lower his shoulder into an opposing player, then be sure to let him hear about it once the whistle blows – is limited to the white lines.
“If someone met me on the football field, they probably would not like me at all,” Ramsey said. “But I just think that’s how you have to be to play the game of football. You have to be mean and nasty.”
Thanks to steady guidance from his father, Lamont, as well as a path blazed by older brother Jamal, Jalen was able to harness his aggression and channel it on to the football field.
The results speak for themselves: freshman All-America honors in 2013, first-team All-ACC and All-America accolades as a sophomore, and a chance to go down as one of the all-time great defensive backs at a school that has had more than its share of them.
“The thing about Jalen, he loves to play ball,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher says. “He loves everything about ball.”
‘A competition in literally everything’
Ramsey traces his competitive streak – more like a competitive vein – to pickup football games with Jamal near their home in Tennessee.
Jamal is four years older than Jalen, but that didn’t stop little brother from tagging along to the park where, at six years old, Jalen lined up across from kids older, taller and stronger.
Jamal always picked Jalen to be on his team – “You’ve got to pick your family,” he said – but the older kids didn’t exactly take it easy on him.
“They would bully him around and wouldn’t let him get anything,” Lamont Ramsey said. “But when he got back with kids his own age, he was usually way better than they were.”
With Jamal at quarterback and Jalen playing receiver, the Ramsey’s often ran through their competition.
And when they got home, the competition moved to other arenas.
Jamal and Jalen went toe-to-toe in anything they could think of – basketball, videogames, push-ups – even who could eat dinner the fastest.
And Jalen never took well to losing.
“It was a competition in literally everything,” said Jamal, himself a former college football player at Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee State.
According to Ramsey’s friends on the Florida State football team, not much has changed.
His roommate, sophomore defensive back Trey Marshall, said the two go back-and-forth in videogame football as often as they do in real football.
And, of course, Marshall claimed superiority.
“He can’t beat me in nothing,” Marshall said with a laugh.
But all those hours spent fighting against older kids for whatever he could get helped mold Ramsey into an impressive young football player.
So, too, did a guiding hand from his father.
A 20-year veteran of the Nashville Fire Department, Lamont modeled the work ethic his sons needed to have in order to succeed.
And with a background in athletics – Lamont played at Middle Tennessee State in the late 1980s and now runs a performance-training group for area athletes – he knew how to train them to meet the demands of college football.
“All of it comes from him,” Jalen Ramsey said. “Me and my brother really took after him with work ethic.
“One, from being a firefighter, you have to put so much into it. Sometimes peoples’ lives are on the line, so it’s very serious. You have to be so detailed at it and work hard at it so you can make sure you do everything right.”
And any time Jalen thought he had arrived, whether it was at the pee-wee, middle-school or high-school levels, Lamont was always there to remind him that there was another mountain to climb.
That ideal applied to all walks – other sports and academics included.
“He always pushed us (to) never settle for anything but being the best,” Jamal said. “Once you hear that for so long, you start to live it.”
‘Things that are essential’
Matt Brown, Ramsey’s track coach at Brentwood, laughs and admits that he didn’t have much to do with Ramsey’s athletic development.
“When I had him in the long jump, I pretty much just said, ‘Yep, that’s where your steps are,’” Brown said. “‘You’re good.’”
The classroom, however, was a different story.
Brown pulls double-duty at Brentwood Academy, coaching track and field while also teaching a class called Christian Dynamics.
All Brentwood seniors take the course, which is designed to help students delve into spiritual matters while learning the tenets of the Bible.
Ramsey didn’t expect much at first.
“We were thinking, ‘OK, we’re going to chill in this class,’” Ramsey said. “‘It’s the track coach. We’re going to be good.’”
“My class is a Bible class,” Brown said. “You get a little vulnerable sometimes. You’re talking about your life and what you believe and what you hold dear. He had to do that some.”
Ramsey says the course’s Christian emphasis resonated with him – even as he dominated both on the football field and on the track.
And it came in handy as he experienced the intense limelight of life as a blue-chip football recruit.
“That class actually taught me more than any class,” Ramsey said. “Things that are essential.”
Brown has seen several athletes come through Brentwood, but not many like Ramsey, who at the height of his recruitment had scholarship offers from more than 30 schools.
That group included blue-blooded football programs from coast to coast.
What Brown saw in Ramsey, though, was a sense of perspective not often found in 17- or 18-year-old high school students.
“You can look at a kid like that and say, ‘Well, he’s thinking championships, he’s thinking prestige and this and that and the other,’” Brown said. “And when it came down to it, he was thinking about his family.
“What’s cool about it is that championships came.”
‘The worst official visit’
Ramsey grew up in the football-loving state of Tennessee, a Miami Hurricanes fan in a house full of Florida Gators fans.
He verbally committed to Southern California the summer before his senior year, but also felt drawn to Florida State thanks to lengthy relationships with some of FSU’s coaching staff.
And if Ramsey thought of somewhere else he might like to attend, there wasn’t a coach in America who would have said “no thanks.”
This decision would not come easily.
“I just kept second-guessing myself,” Ramsey said.
An official visit to Tallahassee in January 2013 was designed to help steer Ramsey toward the Seminoles.
But it didn’t quite work out that way.
Not only did Ramsey fall ill during his trip to FSU, so too did his host, cornerback Nick Waisome.
All the fun that goes into official visits – meeting teammates, seeing the city and really diving into life on campus – was more or less off the table.
“I tell people all the time, my Florida State visit was the worst official visit I had,” Ramsey said with a laugh. “It was pretty miserable.”
So that would seem to be a big strike against Jimbo Fisher and Co.
But upon his return to Tennessee, a funny thing happened.
Ramsey said he couldn’t shake the feeling that he belonged at FSU. He even rationalized some excuses for that official visit.
“I was sick, he was sick. It really wasn’t that bad,” Ramsey said. “I was kind of giving myself reasons why I wanted to go to Florida State.”
Finally, feeling torn in several directions, Ramsey asked his dad for guidance.
But having not only played college football – and then later navigating the recruiting process with Jamal – Lamont Ramsey gave his son a piece of advice that top recruits rarely hear: Make your own decision.
“I told him I can’t pick it for you because I’m not getting up at 6 and doing the running,” Lamont said. “I’m not doing the lifting.
“(I said) ‘Just make sure it’s a school you want to go to even if you weren’t playing football.’ That was my only requirement.”
With that in mind, Ramsey backed off from USC on Feb. 5, 2013, just one day before National Signing Day.
That night, he had a phone call to make.
“I called Coach Fisher and told him, ‘I think I might want to come to Florida State,’” Ramsey said. “‘But don’t tell (former defensive coordinator) coach (Jeremy) Pruitt because I don’t know for sure.’”
The next morning, Ramsey knew for sure.
In a ceremony at Brentwood, Ramsey signed his letter of intent to join the Seminoles.
‘A great competitor’
In hindsight, the play might not have mattered all that much.
Florida State might still have gone on to roll through all of its 2013 opponents on the way to a national championship.
But no one knew that midway through the first quarter of FSU’s game against Pittsburgh on Sept. 2, 2013.
Playing their first game under a new defensive coordinator, the Seminoles had already fallen behind, 7-0, and the Panthers had the ball and were driving for more.
That’s when Ramsey, a true freshman making a surprise start in place of an injured veteran, made his first introduction.
On a first-and-10 near midfield, Pitt’s Tom Savage delivered a throw into FSU territory. Ramsey stepped in front of it, picked it off and returned it 31 yards to the Pitt 24-yard line.
Two plays later, quarterback Jameis Winston threw the first touchdown pass of his career and the Seminoles were on their way.
“The younger me … when I got the pick, I didn’t think about how it changed the game, the momentum of the time, any of that,” said Ramsey, the first FSU freshman to start at cornerback since Deion Sanders in 1985. “I was just thinking I got my first college pick in my first game.
“But last year, I started to think about it. … That could’ve been big. That could’ve shaped the season if they went down and scored. You never know what could happen.”
But, thanks to Ramsey, they didn’t. And he hasn’t looked back since.
Bouncing from cornerback to safety, then safety to nickel back and, finally, back to cornerback, Ramsey has started all 33 games of his career while performing at a level that would rival anyone in the country.
He’s got three career interceptions, 14 pass break-ups and even two touchdowns, both of them after fumble recoveries.
Ramsey has also found success as a kick returner, where a roster quirk (Ramsey and fellow returner Kermit Whitfield both wear jersey No. 8) forces him to change into a different jersey.
His choice? No. 17.
One of 10 jerseys retired at FSU, no Seminole had worn that number since Jan. 1, 1994, when Heisman-winner Charlie Ward sealed the program’s first national championship.
Ramsey needed Ward’s permission to bring the number back onto the field. Ward, who had previously met Ramsey at Brentwood, gladly obliged.
“I told him he could wear my number if he liked,” Ward said. “I know he will represent all No. 17 stood for as a student-athlete.”
And not content to just dominate one sport, Ramsey has emerged as one of the nation’s top track and field athletes as well.
He won both the ACC Indoor and Outdoor long jump title in 2015 and ran the leadoff leg of FSU’s ACC champion 4x100 relay team.
For those keeping score at home, that’s 10 total championships across two sports in his first two years in Tallahassee – one national and two ACC championships in football, two ACC outdoor team titles, an ACC indoor team title, two ACC long jump titles and two ACC 4x100 relay titles.
Ramsey isn’t shy about his future aspirations, either.
“The Olympics, that’s something that’s always on my mind,” he said.
“He’s just an incredible, talented guy,” FSU track and field coach Bob Braman said. “He’s a great competitor.”
There’s that word again.