Joe Horn knew his son, Jaycee, was special when he awkwardly hit a golf ball from his Atlanta garage that traveled more than 15 yards to his neighbor’s roof across the street. Jaycee was 2 years old.
From there, he made a plan for his son.
When Jaycee was 6, he was signed up for football and impressed immediately.
Nineteen years after first holding that golf club, the long game his father put into motion saw its crowning moment when the Panthers drafted Jaycee Horn eighth overall on Thursday night.
He was the first cornerback off the board, surprising many draft analysts who rated him behind Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. But Joe Horn, who was selected in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL draft, wasn’t surprised. He knew what his son was capable of because he’s been the one preparing him his entire life.
Joe Horn grew up in eastern North Carolina, went to high school in Fayetteville and was a successful athlete of his own. He played 12 seasons in the NFL, was a four-time Pro Bowler and is in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. He knows a good cornerback when he sees one. And now that he’s a pro, Jaycee will have to chart his own path.
“Growing up in Atlanta, especially being Joe Horn’s son, you’ve got to have some type of dog because everybody is at your neck,” Jaycee Horn said.
BELIEVES HE’S THE BEST
The first thing Panthers safety J.T. Ibe noticed about Horn, his former teammate at South Carolina, was his mindset.
Horn, 21, exuded confidence. He willingly went up against the best players in practice each day, like Debo Samuels and Shi Smith, and held his own.
“He truly believes he is the best player on the field and he proved it,” Ibe said. “He wasn’t scared as a freshman to take reps against the best receivers.”
Ibe respected that and said even though he was three years older than Horn, he looked up to him.
From the first day he stepped onto campus in Columbia, Horn put in the work. During training camp in 2018, then-South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp was conducting a curfew check for his players, who were supposed to be in their dorms by 11 p.m.
But Horn and teammate Israel Mukuamu, then freshmen, weren’t in their rooms. They’d spent the entire night at the football facility watching film.
“It tells you a lot about him, and his commitment level to being great, and more than anything, understanding what it takes to be great,” Muschamp said. “That’s what uncommon people do.”
Travaris Robinson, who was South Carolina’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at the time, said the same thing.
“Jaycee never missed a class,” Robinson said. “Jaycee never missed a workout. Jaycee was always doing extra. He was a typical football junkie.”
Which made him one of Robinson’s favorite players.
Robinson, who’s now an assistant at Miami, trusted Horn enough that he played him as a freshman. And by the time he was a sophomore, he was asked to matchup against the opposing team’s best receiver. In the SEC, that could mean Florida’s Kyle Pitts one week, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle another week, or Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore, all of whom were drafted in the first two days last week.
Horn never shied away from a challenge. In fact, he asked for it.
In a 2019 game against UNC, Horn didn’t allow a single catch when lined up in man coverage, according to an Observer film analysis. He also had a forced fumble and a sack.
He was targeted 24 times through seven games last season and allowed eight catches, three for touchdowns, but intercepted two passes. He also had six pass deflections. Quarterbacks had a 54.9 passer rating when targeting him.
His best game came in an upset win over Auburn. Auburn quarterback Bo Nix made the mistake of throwing Horn’s way eight times. Horn forced five incompletions and intercepted two passes.
“You can see when the moment gets big, he focuses in, he locks in and he’s able to perform at the big stage because of his technique and his ability to block out all the stuff that don’t matter,” Robinson said.
Robinson said Horn’s biggest fault, as cliche as it may sound, is that he’s training all the time. Robinson attended Horn’s draft day party at his house where he and Joe Horn suggested Jaycee take it easy for his big day. But Jaycee made sure to get one last workout in before hearing the Panthers call his name.
WHERE THE COMPETITIVENESS STARTED
As an NFL player, Joe Horn and his family often moved. But wherever they were living, he made sure to take his children to where the competition was the best.
When Jaycee Horn was a small child, he and his family lived at the Sugarloaf Country Club in Duluth, Ga., a well-off community just north of Metro Atlanta.
But Joe Horn wanted his son to experience more than that. He wanted to teach him toughness, so he signed him up for the Metro Atlanta Youth Football League, where the environment wasn’t nearly as quiet and peachy.
“I’m not going to say it was the hood, but it sprouts out football in ways most kids growing up in a rural area don’t get to see,” Horn said. “That’s hitting, that’s talking trash, that’s referees not really caring about the calls most referees would make in another league.”
He said it was common to see parents arguing in the stands, arguing with referees or even fighting. The football fields were muddy, and the grass was unkempt. There wasn’t a lot of money. It was rough and tough, similar to how Joe Horn grew up.
But the father was purposeful with his method. He had his son playing two age groups up to prepare him for the next level, so when Jaycee was in high school and opponents tried to play mind games, it had no effect on him.
“Please,” Joe Horn says, scoffing at any suggestion that anyone could get into his son’s head.
Jaycee would laugh it off and dish it right back.
Joe Horn said his son has always been competitive, even before football. He said on rainy days, he and his brothers and cousins would make bets on which raindrop would fall down the window sill the fastest.
They’d play one-on-one basketball in the yard. And if Jaycee lost, he’d cry, Joe Horn said. Today, Jaycee laughs about it.
“I don’t like to lose at anything,” Jaycee Horn said. “My mom tells me sometimes I take stuff too serious.”
That competitiveness carried over onto the football field and the basketball court. Jaycee played basketball through his junior year of high school in Alpharetta, Ga., where he was one of the best in the state.
“Jaycee could have went to the NBA draft as well,” Joe Horn said.
But knowing he couldn’t play both sports professionally, Joe suggested he needed to focus solely on football.
THE PLAYER RHULE WANTED
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said what impressed him most about Horn at his pro day was his competitiveness. He said Horn knew what the best time in the 40-yard dash was and the best vertical jump, and he tried to surpass it.
Horn ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, and his vertical jump was 41.5 inches, both faster and higher than Surtain, who was drafted one pick later to Denver.
“I think the great, great athletes, they aren’t always competing with the guys across from them, they are competing with themselves,” Rhule said, “and they never want to come in second to themselves.”
Horn embodies the culture Rhule hoped to bring to Carolina. A blue-collar type of player who is super competitive.
Shortly after Horn was drafted, he received a text from Kyle Pitts, who was drafted fourth overall to the Atlanta Falcons. The two had trained together before their pro days and share the same agent.
The text read: “I hope you’re ready.” The two will face each other twice a year.
Horn responded in the only way he knew how.
“I’m going to lock that up,” he said.
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