Terry McLaurin sat in the Washington Redskins locker room in early October, reminiscing about the catch that likely changed the course of his entire football career.
It was Oct. 28, 2011, and Cathedral High School in Indianapolis battled city rival Roncalli in the Indiana State Football playoffs. McLaurin, then a sophomore, was making his first-career varsity start. His dazzling JV season prompted the postseason call-up, while subsequent practice performances and injuries thrust him into a starting role.
McLaurin admittedly got off to a rough start -- his first target came on a bubble screen, and the ball whizzed past him for an incompletion -- yet he was back on the field in the final minutes of a tie game. With Cathedral in its own territory, head coach Rick Streiff wanted as much speed on the field as possible. And while McLaurin would eventually develop into a lethal all-around receiver, he always possessed blazing speed.
McLaurin and Streiff can still visualize the sequence: McLaurin flies through the secondary on a post route while the quarterback, former Indiana walk-on Corey Babb, pirouettes to escape the pocket. Babb then sets his feet, cocks his arm back and, as Streiff put it, “chucks one as far as he can throw it.” On the other end of the heave is McLaurin, who catches the ball in stride and waltzes into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown to seal a Cathedral victory.
McLaurin established a mantra that night that he lives by today. It’s still in the bio of his Twitter profile, which he created hours after the thrilling win, and it’s been instrumental in his journey towards becoming one of the NFL’s best rookie receivers. (Through nine games, McLaurin leads all Redskins' pass-catchers in receptions (32), yards (497) and touchdowns (5). Among rookie wideouts, he ranks first, second and tied for first, respectively in those categories.)
"I’m just trying to make the most of my opportunities," McLaurin said. "You don’t know how many you’re going to get and you don’t know when you’re going to get them. But if you seize the opportunities, nine times out of 10 you’re going to get more, and that’s how you really keep momentum going."
Take a look at photos of Redskins wide receiver Terry McLaurin through the years.
It was the summer going into high school, and McLaurin was in disbelief.
He had just been cut from the freshman baseball team, the first time he had been cut from anything in his life. And to make matters worse, he gave up basketball just a few months earlier. He disliked the time commitment of the AAU circuit, and at 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, he was not physically equipped for future success.
“I remember coming home and telling my mom I got cut, and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m down to my last strike considering I just have football left,’” McLaurin said. “But she’s like, ‘Yeah, but it’s your best sport.’ And so I really just took that mentality and put all my eggs in the football basket."
McLaurin had always loved football. His first football memories were watching the hometown Indianapolis Colts with his father, Terry McLaurin Sr., at the RCA Dome. He was so jealous of NFL players’ schedules; they practiced all week, doing what they love, and played for three or four hours each Sunday. Plus, they didn’t have to go to school on Mondays like he did.
“I always thought that was the coolest thing ever,” McLaurin said. “Seeing some of the guys I looked up to playing football, like Marvin Harrison, I wanted to do that, and I never saw myself doing anything different.”
McLaurin began playing organized football at age 7, lining up at running back and quarterback. There was nothing like scoring a touchdown or making a big hit. But he also learned about discipline -- “line up behind the line, you run if you mess up, things like that” -- as well as toughness and teamwork.
These were the same values instilled in him growing up, when his parents told him that anything was possible through faith and hard work. Both of them were three-sport high school athletes and college graduates, with his mother, Grace, attending Purdue and his father playing running back at Chowan University and North Carolina A&T. Upon graduating, his mother went into a career in information technology programming while his father became a car salesman. Together they worked to create the best possible life for McLaurin and his younger sister, Miah.
In his father’s profession, income was largely based off of commission, and Saturdays were the biggest sales days; they were also the days when McLaurin played most of his games. But in all of McLaurin’s years playing football -- from Cathedral to Ohio State and now the Redskins -- his father has only missed one game.
“Even in Columbus, when he moved from a couple dealerships here or there, he said my only rule is Saturday I have to see my son play,” McLaurin said of his dad’s schedule when he played for the Buckeyes. “His bosses were cool with that because he was outselling everybody, so it’s just that workers’ mentality. He’s essentially taken a day off and still outselling people trying to support me, so I’ve always thought that was pretty sweet.”
Once his father recognized his son had the same drive and determination to excel in football, he did whatever he could to guide McLaurin towards his goal. He placed McLaurin in the most competitive youth leagues in the area and took him to a high school football game every Friday night. He even convinced McLaurin to change positions in seventh grade. His father was already looking long-term, and he concluded his son was better suited catching touchdowns than running for them. At receiver, McLaurin could better utilize his speed while limiting the wear and tear on his body.
Still, McLaurin was undersized and about to attend a private school football powerhouse where he knew exactly no one. So in eight grade, he did whatever he could to get ahead. He prioritized lifting and tried to run extra. His mom drove him across town a couple days each week -- the trip took about an hour in rush hour traffic -- so that he could lead freshman workouts at Cathedral.
This ambition earned him playing time on the freshman team, which turned into a leading role on the JV squad. Eventually McLaurin received his first varsity opportunity and scored his first-career touchdown against Roncolli at the end of his sophomore year. Then came a few more scores in subsequent playoff victories to help Cathedral win its second of four straight state championships.
“He was one of those ones where, ‘OK, let’s start game planning a little bit better to get him the ball through the rest of the tournament, because when he catches it, he can score,’” Streiff said. “And so we put him in the mix more, and he made some plays and scored some touchdowns, and as you start to go into his junior year, you start thinking, ‘OK, we need to design more offense around this kid.’
“He got better and better his junior year. His state championship game his junior year in front of everybody, he had three or four touchdowns, returned a punt for a touchdown. He was just the most dynamic kid on the field, and at that point, the recruiting process began to explode.”
It was June 9, 2013, and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer sat in his office with cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs and McLaurin, a four-star speedster from Indianapolis. The Buckeyes thought highly of McLaurin, so much so that Coombs visited McLaurin at Cathedral to invite him to one of their football camps.
Coombs told McLaurin that he’d receive one of three gestures from Meyer following his workout: thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs in the middle. Thumbs up meant scholarship, thumbs down meant rejection and thumbs in the middle meant, well, Coombs wasn’t exactly sure. Meyer rarely gave out a thumbs in the middle.
‘We love your speed, we love your work ethic, we think you’re a great kid,” McLaurin remembers Meyer telling him after the workout. “But we don’t quite know enough about you yet, and your hands are not necessarily what we would like them to be at this point in time.” Essentially, McLaurin received a thumbs in the middle.
Meyer also challenged McLaurin: catch 200 balls per day for two weeks and then come back to the next football camp. An offer would be based on his progress.
Initially, McLaurin was dejected. He was Indiana’s Mr. Football, after all, and had interest from at least a dozen other Division I schools. If he wanted to, he could forget about Ohio State and play elsewhere.
But then McLaurin recognized the unique opportunity: if he invested all of his time and effort on improving his hands, he could become a part of one of college football’s premier programs. That frustration turned into motivation. He immediately went to Dick's Sporting Goods -- he didn't even have a football to throw around -- and began working towards his newest goal.
For the next two weeks, McLaurin caught 200 passes per day from whoever would throw them. Mom, dad, sister, neighbor, high school quarterback -- you name it. They threw him overhand lofts, underhand bullets and wobbly passes from every angle imaginable. He caught every one, then demanded they throw him more.
On June 21, McLaurin returned to Ohio State for a private workout in front of Meyer. After 10 minutes, Meyer had seen enough. He offered McLaurin on the spot, adding he had never seen a player improve as much as McLaurin had in two weeks. McLaurin committed to the Buckeyes two days later.
“He went back and did exactly what Urban Meyer asked him to do without any urgence from me because it was something he wanted,” McLaurin Sr. said. “So he put the work in. When you want it, you gotta put the work in to get it.”
It was early in 2018, and McLaurin was considering leaving Ohio State for the NFL.
McLaurin was coming off a redshirt junior season during which he caught 29 passes for 436 yards and found the end zone six times. He also starred on special teams, which he knew would give him a good chance to make an NFL roster, even if his pass-catching skills were not suffice.
“In my mind I’m like, ‘‘How much better can I get in my fifth year?’ Most people top out after four years as a player.”
Only that year would be different for McLaurin. He “took advantage of everything academically” while at Ohio State, which allowed him to graduate in three-and-a-half years with a communications degree and complete internships with a sports law firm in nearby Columbus and at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. As a redshirt senior, his only non-football obligation would be four online classes that went towards a second bachelor's in sociology. (McLaurin said he's currently a semester away from earning the degree.)
Ultimately, McLaurin decided to prolong his college career to work alongside longtime NFL wide receiver Brian Hartline and play with first-year starter and renowned passer Dwanye Haskins. In McLaurin’s mind, this was his “last swing” at turning himself into a professional wide receiver; he was not about to forego that opportunity in favor of a questionable NFL future.
“I really got to a point where I’m like, ‘Look, if my dream is to play in the NFL, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there, and if it doesn’t happen, then it’s not meant to be.’ I’m not going to let it fall into the hands of ‘I didn’t put enough work in. I didn’t take the time out to hone in one things that are really my weaknesses,’” McLaurin said. “And I think when I really started focusing on what my weaknesses are and identifying them and trying to make them strengths, that’s really what fueled my career at Ohio State.”
Hartine, who was promoted from graduate assistant to wide receivers coach after the 2017 season, referred to McLaurin as a wide receiver that “checked all of the boxes.” He was big and strong, fast and ambitious. So why wasn’t he creating the amount of separation his skillset demanded? Route running, Hartline concluded. That would make all of the difference.
So, following the 2017 campaign, McLaurin met with Hartline in his office to go over all of the routes he ran that season. Each Tuesday, McLaurin met with offensive quality control coach Keenan Bailey for more film study, which centered around identifying coverages and what would work against these alignments.
Other days were focused on field work. Following upper-body workouts, McLaurin indulged in the intricacies of route running. After leg days, he became best friends with the JUGS machine. He estimates he caught about 3,000 balls that offseason using a variety of different techniques. In one drill centered around 50-50 balls, McLaurin placed a pop-up dummy about 15-20 yards away from the jugs machine. A teammate or a coach would then shoot the ball over the top of the dummy to simulate jumping over defenders.
What transpired over the next several months was steady, incremental progress that eventually quieted McLaurin’s doubts about playing wide receiver in the NFL. While he finished fourth on the Buckeyes in receptions (35) and third in yards (701), he led the team with 20.0 yards per catch and scored 11 touchdowns. He also led all pass-catchers in the 2019 NFL Draft class with 14.3 yards per target and ranked ninth by catching 71 percent of those tries. Within a deep and talented wide receiver group, McLaurin maximized his production with limited opportunities.
A standout Senior Bowl and an impressive Ohio State Pro Day further bolstered his draft stock. At the NFL Combine in his hometown of Indianapolis, he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash (fifth among wide receivers) and benched 225 pounds 18 times (tied for 10th).
“It was just the small climb, day after day,” Hartline said. “And then by the time of the draft combines and when conversations came about, it was all very, very positive, and typically I’m a pretty tough critic.
For whatever reason -- be it McLaurin’s lack of elite college production or perceived shortcomings as a route runner and pass-catcher -- NFL decision makers were not as impressed with McLaurin.
Teams passed on McLaurin in favor of first-round wide receivers Marquise Brown and N'Keal Harry. Nine more wideouts came off the board in the second round including Campbell, who the Indianapolis Colts took 59th overall. Eventually, with the sixth pick of the third round, the Washington Redskins listened to their first-round selection (Haskins) and drafted his former teammate (McLaurin) to join a talented yet unproven unit in the nation’s capital.
And once McLaurin suited up in the burgundy and gold, they soon realized he was much more than a cerebral speeder and a special teams standout. He could be a safety valve and a deep threat for whomever lined up at quarterback, an overall playmaker defenses needed to prioritize.
“It’s kind of a crapshoot with the draft,” Redskins wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard said. “They have so much talent at Ohio State, and this is only one man’s opinion when you look at yards per catch or the volume of targets, they have an embarrassment of riches. He didn’t run maybe as fast as one guy or maybe he was faster than another guy or maybe he did not have the amount of targets or he wasn’t featured. Who knows?
“What really happened is that [McLaurin] unfortunately lost some money and fell to us when he did. But if he continues on this path he’s going to make it up and then some.”
It was Sept. 8, 2019, and McLaurin was starting at wide receiver for the Redskins’ regular season opener in Philadelphia.
Believe it or not, McLaurin saw himself in this position during the middle of last college football season. That’s not to say he was looking ahead -- the two-year captain wanted more than anything to win his second College Football Playoff National Championship. He was just confident in his abilities, especially after making significant strides in his final collegiate offseason.
“I feel like I was the type of guy where the team is going to get a 2-for-1,” McLaurin said. “A great special teamer, but they didn’t know how great of a receiver I could be.”
The Redskins saw glimpses of McLaurin’s potential during OTAs and mandatory training camp, but it was not until training camp in late July that the 76th-overall pick began separating himself from the host of other young wideouts.
No longer were veteran cornerbacks jumping McLaurin’s routes. He repeatedly asked them about it during OTAs, and they told him he was giving too much away with his body language. By leaning a certain direction, varying his speeds or exposing his chest, McLaurin revealed where he wanted to go.
But at training camp in Richmond, Virginia, McLaurin began consistently winning his 1-on-1 matchups and catching everything that came his way. He beat defenders over the top, across the middle and near the sidelines and routinely hauled in contested balls. He also showed his willingness as a blocker.
McLaurin played sparingly during the preseason, first due to a minor tailbone injury and then for unspecified reasons. But once 53-man rosters were finalized, the decision to keep McLaurin on the sidelines became clearer. That’s when the Redskins parted ways with projected starter and former first-round pick Josh Doctson, who was listed directly ahead of McLaurin on the depth chart. In Doctson’s absence, McLaurin slid into a starting role.
"Baller,” Haskins said when asked about McLaurin ahead of the Eagles’ game. “He's gonna have a good game. … I get excited watching him because that's my guy. He runs every route like it's his last route. He's very consistent. He blocks, catches, everything you want. I love him, the coaches love him, Case [Keenum] loves him. I'm sure he's gonna get a lot of targets on Sunday."
Having been largely hidden from preseason game action, McLaurin felt an even greater need to produce when his number was called in the regular season opener. And on the second play of the third offensive drive, that time came. During a timeout before the play, offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell approached McLaurin on the sidelines. The Redskins received the defensive look they wanted and would try and take a shot downfield to McLaurin. “Be ready,” O’Connell said to his rookie wideout.
Lined up outside the numbers on the left side, McLaurin took four strides, planted his left foot to freeze cornerback Rasul Douglas and then gained inside leverage on a skinny post route. Keenum saw McLaurin gain separation and knew the Eagles did not have a safety helping over the top, so he uncorked his deep ball towards the middle of the field. Using his speed, McLaurin caught the pass in stride and sprinted into the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown.
With one play, McLaurin had emphatically introduced himself to the NFL.
"A lot of hard work, a lot of prayers when into that,” McLaurin said about scoring his first-career touchdown following a 32-27 defeat. “To be honest, sometimes growing up I didn't necessarily think I'd be here. God's been very good in my life and he's blessed me. I just want to come out here and be a good teammate and play as hard as I can for this organization. They put a lot of trust in me and I'm not afraid of the moment. I'm not afraid of starting and having a big role in this offense. I want to continue to keep that confidence in me.
“But, that was a dream come true. When you're six, seven years old, you're throwing the ball up in the air, you're imagining these moments, and now that you're here -- it was a great way to start my career. But, it's kind of half-and-half because we lost."
As McLaurin continued to produce in recent weeks -- he became the first player in NFL history to record at least five receptions and a touchdown in each of his first three games -- his humbleness, maturity and team-first attitude never wavered. He still thanks his coaches and teammates, just as Streiff remembers him doing when he spoke to reporters after high school games.
And above all, McLaurin just wants to win.
"In the box score, it doesn't say, 'Terry has a great game,’” McLaurin said following a 31-15 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 3 -- a game during which he had six receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. “It says, 'the Redskins lost.' I feel like that. The team feels like that."
Redskins coaches and teammates and cannot say enough good things about their leading receiver. Interim head coach Bill Callahan highlighted his character and mindset while acknowledging that this type of success, this soon, is rare among NFL wide receivers. Veteran quarterback Case Keenum has played with several elite receivers during their rookie campaigns, including three-time Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, and said McLaurin fits right into that group.
“He’s very dynamic, explosive, fast,” tight end Vernon Davis added. “He does everything the right way.”
Hilliard said McLaurin will be as good as targets, which he said is all you can really ask for as a wide receiver -- do whatever is necessary to get open and then capitalize when the quarterback throws your way. If you do that consistently, more targets will come. And with increased targets come greater chances at success.
While Hilliard’s response was football specific, it sounded just like a lesson McLaurin is quite familiar with, one he's obsessed over and implemented throughout his journey to the NFL.
For McLaurin to have future success, he'll have to continue making the most of his opportunities.
“I don’t want to put a limit on anyone, but hopefully he takes off and he’ll be the most-productive receiver ever to play in this franchise, who knows,” Hilliard said of McLaurin. “Let’s get that and then some.”