To fully grasp the journey of Jaguars wide receiver Nate Hughes (pictured right), it is imperative to look back to 2002. Hughes was faced with the toughest decision of his short life.
As a standout wide receiver at Starkville High School in Mississippi, the alma mater of NFL great Jerry Rice, Hughes was being recruited to play football and also for his skills as a track athlete. Florida State offered him a track scholarship and Stanford, among other schools, was dangling a full ride as a football player.
The X factor was Alcorn State, a Historically Black College in southwest Mississippi. Alcorn State was the alma mater of his parents and grandparents, where they all starred in sports. His grandfather, Charles Wilson, is in the school's sports Hall of Fame as a baseball, football and track standout. Hughes' father, Nate, played football at Alcorn State and his mother, Gwen, was a track star who earned a trip to the Olympics in 1980. Hughes' sister, Morgandy, is currently a member of the track team at the school.
Hughes had no idea the impact his decision would have on his career seven years later. His father sat him down the day before his announcement and had a "long talk" with his son.
"He told me how everything worked at Alcorn," Hughes said. "I was telling people I was going to Stanford because I really wanted to play football, but I also wanted to run track. I knew that if I played football at Stanford that they would eventually let me run track."
His high school coach was pushing Ole Miss, but Hughes chose his family in the end and decided on Alcorn State. The decision, one he doesn't regret, made his journey into the NFL a little more difficult. Nothing he did on the field hurt his status as he started four seasons for the Braves and scored 19 touchdowns.
In addition to his football prowess, he was a three-time conference outdoor decathlon champion and a two-time champion in both the 400-meter hurdles and 110 hurdles.
Despite his accomplishments, he went undrafted and unsigned following the 2008 draft. It was the small school stigma that has a way of following you.
"That is basically what happened," Hughes said. "A lot of people couldn't figure out why I went to Alcorn. The reason I went is because my parents and grandparents went there. I have no regrets."
His rookie season in the NFL saw him sign with three different teams in seven months. Cleveland offered a tryout for their rookie camp and he earned a contract after three days of work. It didn't last long as the team had drafted a receiver and signed veteran Donte' Stallworth as a free agent, making Hughes expendable.
Hughes went nearly four months without a team despite having tryouts for several clubs including the Jaguars. Kansas City signed him to the practice squad on October 22 and cut him two weeks later.
"I made plays and the coaches liked me," Hughes said. "They ran into a situation where they had to bring in some defensive guys. They told me they were going to release me for one week and then bring me back."
The Jaguars didn't allow that to happen, as they signed Hughes to their practice squad on November 19. Hughes was familiar with the organization as his cousin, Gregory Spann, was a seventh-round pick by the club in 1996.
The Jaguars liked what they saw on the practice field and activated Hughes to the roster for the season-finale at Baltimore. It was a phone call he won't soon forget.
"It was the best news I had heard in a long time," Hughes said.
While being on the active roster was a step in the right direction, the opportunity to be a part of the team in the offseason was an important aspect. Hughes is thankful for the chance, spending extra time in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom.
He spends his days studying film of various NFL slot receivers. He mentions New England's Wes Welker, T.J. Houshmanzadeh of Seattle and 2008 rookie wideouts Eddie Royal of Denver and Philadelphia's Desean Jackson as some of the most-watched.
"We are all similar in stature," Hughes said. "My favorite receiver is Steve Smith and I'm a big Santonio Holmes fan."
The Jaguars are hoping Hughes can continue to develop on the field during training camp. He remains eligible for the practice squad for one more season, but he would like to make the final 53-man roster. The club brought in veteran Torry Holt in the offseason and drafted three receivers, but the moves haven't deterred Hughes.
"My whole feeling is that the small NFL career I have had has been predicated on trying to overcome obstacles," Hughes said. "It just seems like it's another chance to try and outplay and outcompete people, try to prove I belong. That is what fuels me."
Holt and veteran Dennis Northcutt have counseled Hughes on using his speed on the field, instead of over thinking the play.
"Those guys are hard on me on the practice field," Hughes said. "A lot of times I know the plays, but I think my way through it instead of using my speed to my advantage. Sometimes you can tell when I know exactly what I am doing instead of when I'm thinking and trying to feel my way through it."
Mention speed to Hughes and his face lights up. He had the opportunity to run track professionally, but said the track contract was significantly smaller than the NFL minimum. He is a regular at track meets in the Jacksonville area.
"I just like the whole deal of track taking what people think out of the equation," Hughes said. "A lot of people say I don't think he can do this or he can't do that. They hold it over you. In track you can't say that because you will find out."
Hughes doesn't want to look too far ahead, but it's tough to not think about the Jaguars preseason opener on August 17 at Miami. He has never been through a training camp, much less a preseason game.
"My dad has already booked his ticket to Miami for the opener," Hughes said.