JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who had a propensity for fouling in high school basketball games. The son of two professional basketball players, JJ had a bright basketball future. He just couldn’t stop drawing the ire of officials. So Valorie, as a part of a larger incentive plan, offered her son $5 for every game in which he didn’t foul out.
At the end of a 20-game season, JJ’s grand profit total was … $20.
“Everything you do in basketball deals with contact, and you can’t be afraid of it,” JJ told 247Sports. “For me, I enjoyed it a bit too much.”
If you’re looking for the root cause of how a Spanish-born, son of European basketball-playing parents ended up at Stanford as a wide receiver, his love for contact might be the place to start. But it’s his background, specifically his wide-ranging exposure to sports and his parents’ bloodlines, that’s the best explanation as to why JJ is an upward-trending name in NFL scouting circles and a college football breakout candidate in 2018.
A 6-foot-3, 222-pound jump ball machine, JJ led the Cardinal last season as a redshirt sophomore with 48 catches for 781 yards and nine touchdowns. PFF College rated JJ as an 86.4 last season, an “elite” distinction in PFF’s 100-point grading system and good for 13th nationally among pass catchers.
Buzz in the football world almost singularly surrounds the 2018 NFL Draft in this moment. Yet, it’s not too hard to glance into the future and imagine JJ’s name coming up in similar conversations a year from now.
Valorie doesn’t like to look too far forward. But she will concede JJ always had an athletic aura about him.
“I thought it’d be basketball,” Valorie said. “But you could tell at an early age he had that “it” factor. He just had it naturally, and he loved to prepare. I knew he would (be in this situation).”
JJ first appeared on a playing surface at around 10 days old. Valorie parked JJ’s stroller next to the bench and during timeouts the team would huddle around him. At two years old, Arcega-Whiteside moved to the bench. One time, Valorie battled in the paint for position and was elbowed in the chest. Then she heard the complaint.
“Hey!” JJ yelled waddling onto the court. “You hit mommy. You hit mommy!”
It’s an ironic statement considering JJ’s future affinity for contact. But it showcases just how inundated in sports he was in literal diapers, which makes sense considering the athletic pedigree of his DNA.
Valorie is the all-time leading story in Southern Conference history from her time at Appalachian State. JJ’s dad, Joaquin, played professional basketball overseas. His uncles, Fernando and Jose, played for Spain during the 1984 Olympics. One of his cousins, Taylor Sowell, played football at Duke. Another, Gaila Procter, played volleyball at Clemson. So yeah, the little kid would eventually be an athlete.
As for what sport, his parents would likely have never guessed.
Until age six, JJ traveled Europe with his parents. He lived in six countries during that period, including Portugal and his dad’s native Spain, where he was born. Those were the languages he learned first – English came last. During that period, JJ played soccer on the playground for an hour-and-a-half during recess and basketball after school. The former was the favorite sport of the countries he traveled and the latter the sport of his family’s domain.
When the family moved to Valorie’s hometown of Inman, South Carolina, Joaquin signed JJ up for football to help him make friends and adjust to the culture. Valorie said her son had “no idea what he was doing that first year.” So she made a slight adjustment to household mandates that discouraged video games.
“I was like, ‘JJ, you want to play Madden!?’ Valorie said. “He began to really understand the rules through the video game. The second year he was just dominating everybody.”
Due to footwork honed on the soccer pitch and a feel for the jump ball learned on the court, JJ quickly ascended as a football player. He made his varsity debut in a playoff game as a ninth grader, catching a 65-yard touchdown pass that day. By the time he left Dorman High School, he held every receiving record in program history.
Football provided a release for JJ that basketball never could.
Basketball games were an exercise in education for JJ with his parents sitting courtside. Car rides home turned into coaching recap sessions. Pickup games in the driveway transformed into instruction and loss after loss– mom retired before JJ ever could beat her at one-on-one, much to JJ’s chagrin. Mom and dad weren’t hard on JJ, but teenagers also hate it when an on-court mistake is followed with, “I told you so.”
Football freed JJ from that pressure. He loved sitting down and watching film with his mom, showing her the nuances of route-running the way she instructed him in post play. Dad learned to embrace the environment of football and slowly absorbed the rules watching JJ play. If mom couldn’t teach JJ about football, she made sure to bring him a plate of pasta a few hours before every game.
“It was that moment where the student became the teacher,” Valorie said.
That combination of football passion, the freedom it provided and the physicality of the sport led to JJ ultimately focusing on football. A McDonald’s All-American nominee on the court and an All-State selection in track, JJ had no shortage of options. But football, a sport literally thousands of miles removed from his initial European roots, took hold.