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Contract climaxes Craft's long journey

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The odds were against him. Simply put, Jason Craft was the longest of long-shots to ever sign a million-dollar contract.

Five years ago, Craft was a non-scholarship player at Colorado State chasing a dream to play in the NFL. At the same time, he worked evenings at Sears and UPS, trying to find enough time in the day to attend classes, practice football and earn enough money to pay his tuition and support a family that had just welcomed a new-born son.

Today, Craft has financial security and a starting job as an NFL cornerback. Those facts were cemented over the past seven days, when Craft signed a restricted free agent contract offer from the New Orleans Saints last week, and the Jaguars matched that offer earlier this week.

"I just never gave up. My goals were always to get in college and get an opportunity to play. I always knew I could play in the NFL. I knew I could start. Last year, I showed it," Craft said.

His late-season performance in 2001 earned Craft recognition as an ascending young player. The Saints took note, and the Jaguars were unwilling to part with a player who had become a source of pride for the organization; a product of their draft and development process.

His contract will pay him $3.6 million over three years, including a $1.2 million signing bonus. To find the salary cap room to match the offer and retain Craft, the Jaguars re-structured the contract of Tony Brackens and pushed about $2 million onto future salary caps.

"I still have to prove myself. It's always been like that for me," Craft said. "I know what it's like. It makes you humble."

In the spring of 1999, he was a surprise fifth-round draft choice by the Jaguars. "I never got worked out by the Jaguars. It was a total surprise to me," he said.

Then, the Jaguars were committed to find the cover-cornerback they lacked. They drafted Fernando Bryant in the first round, Craft in the fifth, and another cornerback in the seventh round. The Jaguars were seeking speed for their secondary, and the smallish Craft dangled a 4.4 40-time in front of the Jaguars' eyes.

But his journey had been a lot longer than 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. Craft's path to the NFL had taken him through Antelope Valley Junior College in California and Denver Community College in his hometown, and finally to Colorado State as a walk-on player who spent his junior season with little hope of being anything more than a bench-warmer.

"That was a tough year," he said of 1997. "That was the year that was going to make or break me. Walk-ons have to take a lot of stuff, and I wasn't used to it because in high school I was 'the man.' Now, I'm just a dummy bag," Craft said.

"After the '97 season, it seemed like they weren't going to give me a shot. They weren't saying anything to me. My son was born and that's some more money I have to worry about. I had to make a call," he added.

He thought about giving up. Craft's father told him to stay the course, then reached deep in his pocket for some money to help his son cling to his dream.

"I wanted my son to see me play football. I've only got one year left and I'm going to make the most of it," Craft decided.

He did.

Days before Colorado State's '98 season opener, Craft learned he would be in the starting lineup. He was given a scholarship. All of a sudden, the Colorado skies began to brighten.

In some ways, he followed the same course in Jacksonville, where he spent his first two-and-a-half seasons as a backup with a suspect future. Then, midway through last season, his football career blossomed.

When he signed the Saints' contract offer, Craft called his father to relay the good news. "The first thing he said to me was, 'You better put up,'" Craft said.

He didn't have to be reminded.

"It means a lot," he said of the contract. "I've always worked hard and did what coaches asked me to do. I feel rewarded.

"A lot of people get money before they show what they can do. People like me have to prove it," he added.

Since leaving high school, his life has seemingly been an endless proving ground, but at least he can now quit his night job.

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