Socci’s View: Following the hard road to a dream, the Patriots’ Pharms offers inspiration amid a season of frustration
The first paycheck Jeremiah Pharms Jr. earned in football was issued by a team that no longer exists in a league that no longer operates. It paid him $150.
Some welcome to the pros.
Like much about the hard road Pharms followed to wind up where he is today, his humble beginnings in the business of his sport weren’t how any of us would imagine a dream unfolding. But they, along with his before and after, are what makes his unlikely story embraceable for anyone seeking a little shot of inspiration amid a season full of frustration..
Three weeks ago, shortly after his 27th birthday and third elevation in his second year on the Patriots practice squad, Pharms was signed to the team’s 53-man roster.
“The experience has been beautiful,” he said at the time, a smile crossing his face, while standing at his Gillette Stadium locker beneath a back-lit sign bearing his name and number 70. “I’ve been working for this, really, my whole life. It’s a different type of journey that I went through. Just being able to get everything I’ve been working for.”
Pharms’s journey led him from a pair of California JUCOs to Central Kansas and a little-known school with no pipeline whatsoever to pro football. It’s marked by days split between dead lifts and box jumps in a Wichita gym and sprints and hills in 100-degree heat. And by mileposts like a virtual pro day in the midst of a pandemic and repeated trips to a regional combine so scouts could see him in the flesh.
And lest we forget, there’s that pittance paid out in the spring of 2021 by the Wichita Force of the Champions Indoor Football league. Pharms was 24 then, two years out of tiny Friends University, raising two little daughters, Jaylah and Jayda, with his fiancee Baylee Heinrich.
A hundred and fifty bucks couldn’t possibly begin to meet their needs.
“I called my momma and said, ‘I don’t know about this one,’” he recalls. “She told me, ‘Think of this as an internship for the job that you really want.’”
As the oldest of five children Franquell Moppins reared on her own, Pharms took her advice to heart.
“You say it like that, I’ll go out and play for free,” he thought to himself. “And I just made the most of it. I just took it day by day. That’s all I could do.”
The days, then months, then years added up. Almost, if not all of them with the mentor he now calls his “big brother” driving him where he needed to go.
James Tabor had just joined the football staff at his alma mater Friends, an NAIA school of 1,700 undergrads, when a contact in the coaching biz, John Herlihy of Sacramento City College, recommended a potential recruit. Pharms was a linebacker under Herlihy before transferring to San Joaquin Delta College in his hometown of Stockton.
Tabor took a look and loved what he saw on tape: 240 pounds of athleticism and effort. He called Pharms daily for two months straight. Then he got ahold of Franquell.
“Me and his mom had a great conversation,” Tabor said from Wichita into his cell phone.
Tabor won over Franquell, and got the commitment he was looking for from Jeremiah. Friends had its new starting inside linebacker. But after Tabor pulled up to the airport to meet him, he drove away with a future defensive lineman.
“I see this kid who’s about 280-285 pounds,” Tabor laughs. “I was like, ‘No, this isn’t the kid.’”
Lucky for him, he had the right guy.
Though Tabor was thrilled by Pharms “moving around like a deer” in early seven-on-seven drills, the Friends staff determined the young buck was best positioned up front in a four-point stance. As a junior, he played mostly at end and occasionally at nose tackle. Pharms even part-timed at fullback on offense.
Tabor, who was also Friends’ strength coach, and Pharms grew inseparable. In the weight room. In on-field workouts. In Tabor’s car, going back and forth between campus and Pharms’s apartment.
One was trying to fulfill what others saw as a pipe dream. One was intent on keeping a promise. As a recruiter for Friends, Tabor had only a half-scholarship to give. Part of his pitch was a vow to help Pharms play at a higher level.
Lost weight and added strength helped transform Pharms into one the most productive edge rushers in the nation. Honors, like sacks, including a school-record five in one game, piled up. In 2019, he was voted NAIA All-America, named a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award, as one of the best defenders in small-college football, and invited to the scouting-showcase FCS Bowl.
But then came the pandemic, no in-person workouts before evaluators and a draft conducted remotely. Pharms had no takers, despite Tabor’s efforts to get him noticed on-line, and nowhere to go for awhile.
Still, he believed. Still, he labored.
“Trying to figure out if my dream was really a dream or was me being delusional, I had to find that balance,” he says, the hood of a team-issued gray Pat Patriot sweatshirt pulled over his shoulder-length dreadlocks. “But I just never gave up.
“I kept working. People would ask, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ I had no clue what was next. I just knew this is where I was going to end up at, in this league.”
About that time, Tabor left Friends for another coaching job that, he says, fell through. Then he and his fiancee suffered through the loss of a son at birth. His way forward was to pour himself into training local high school and college players. Side work became his full-time pursuit, as Tabor expanded his business, Premier Inspired Athletes. His number-one client was Pharms, who was able to stick to his training thanks to support from Franquell, Bailey, his sisters and grandmothers.
“It was a true village,” he says. “I couldn’t do it on my own.
“They always told me, ‘Focus on school, football and the girls. We can help you out financially.'”
Out of season, Pharms held various jobs. He was a janitor at a laundromat and, as Tabor recounts, pulled sleep-deprived double-duty around which they built two-a-day workouts.
“He’d work overnight at Walmart, get off at 4 o’clock, meet me at the gym by 5 (a.m.),” Tabor says. “And then he’d go substitute teach afterwards.
“After substitute teaching, we may go to the field and run or work on position drills. So he wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. There were a lot of days when I would have understood if he had to take a break. But that just wasn’t in him.”
More workouts and a visit by Pharms and Tabor to Fort Worth for the College Gridiron Showcase in January 2021 occupied their next eight months. Tabor says CFL teams in Toronto and Winnipeg showed interest, while NFL scouts expressed reservations.
Could he play outside linebacker? Did he run well enough? Did he move laterally, quickly and smoothly enough? Would he fit as an end in a 3-4 defense? Was he tall enough? Were his arms long enough?
No one extended an offer, except for the Force. Pharms accepted it, and 10 weeks later, his ‘internship’ of sorts was over. With a little money and a lot of game film, he and Tabor turned to preparing for a second visit to Fort Worth in January 2022 — just in time for the re-launch of the USFL.
He caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Maulers, who selected him in the 26th round of the league’s draft in March. Pharms made the team and, despite a 1-9 season, made enough of an individual impression to finally get the call he longed for.
It was from Foxborough. On July 19, 2022, following a workout, Pharms was signed by the Patriots. A few days later, he was in an NFL training camp.
By then, Jaylynn was born; a third daughter to care for.
In his own childhood, Pharms experienced Franquell’s love through her sacrifices. She worked multiple jobs, day and night. She coached in his youth league. She raised two of Jeremiah’s sisters and a brother, a football player, who’ve gone to college, and a third sister, who is on her way as a high school basketball recruit.
“She’s really the rock of the situation,” he says of his mom.
Pharms’s father had a place in his life, too. He says his dad “opened a lot of doors” to his football future. Every camp, every tryout he attended, people knew the name, Jeremiah Pharms.
It was the name of the 134th pick overall in the 2001 NFL Draft, made in the fifth round by the Cleveland Browns. A star linebacker from the University of Washington. A father of five children. A husband to his high-school sweetheart, Franquell Moppins.
On the verge of a potentially lucrative career, Jeremiah Pharms Sr. was arrested and charged by King County (Wash.) prosecutors with first-degree robbery. The case involved a Seattle drug dealer and a shooting. Pharms Sr. accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.
“It was tough, being the oldest and having to take care of four siblings while my mom was at work,” the son says.
Jeremiah Sr. ended up playing some semi-pro and arena league ball, but never in the NFL.
“That was his experience, this is my experience,” the younger Pharms said on Sunday, sitting in a visitor’s locker room at MetLife Stadium. “I try to live on my own name, even though we’ve got the same name.”
Twenty-one years after Jeremiah Sr. was released by the Browns, Jeremiah Jr. became a Patriot.
The Pats kept him on their practice squad throughout 2022. After the season, he returned to Kansas and re-joined Tabor, who contoured Pharms’s workout regimen to prepare him for his second year in New England’s program. And, specifically, the conditioning hill behind the Pats’ practice fields.
They frequently hit what Tabor guesstimates to be the biggest hill in Wichita, which sits on a flat plain. Except, of course, for the uneven terrain of the city’s Planeview Park.
“We ran hills almost every day,” Tabor says. “Because I know that’s one thing that they do there.”
Tabor describes Pharms in his Patriots gear surrounded in the park by college and high school athletes and even Little Leaguers. He envisions other NFL prospects and players at high-tech performance centers in places like Texas and Arizona, a la Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.
“Pharms, on the other hand, he’s got the Rocky Balboa way,” he says. “Nothing fancy. It’s all grit and grind.”
Of course, that’s what Pharms’s Patriots teammates have seen, too. From their fields to their facilities and meeting rooms.
“From day one he got here, he hit those books and asked questions,” veteran Lawrence Guy said in early November. “You could see it from practicing to any chance he got in the games, from preseason and training camp. He has improved so much and he works his butt off.”
In August, Pharms’s improvement was evidenced by his 11 tackles in three preseason games. Not enough to break camp on the active roster, his play nonetheless made him a top candidate for an early-season call-up.
Three weeks in, on the eve of a game at Dallas, he was tabbed as the next man up. Tabor made it, in a straight shot down I-35, six hours south of Wichita, to AT&T Stadium for Pharms’s debut.
“I ain’t going to lie,” he says. “I almost cried. I’m not really an emotional person. But I know how much it took to get there for him. So many people doubted (him). A lot of people thought he was crazy.”
Moppins couldn’t help but cry. Though it wasn’t her first time.
“When I was playing in the USFL, she cried. When I was playing in the preseason last year she cried,” Pharms smiles. “She’s a big crybaby. She deserves it. She works hard.”
So does the apple of her teary eyes. Emotions overtook him just as well.
“Everything hit me in the Cowboys game, when I walked out and they played the national anthem,” Pharms says. “That’s when I realized everything that I’d done. And I wanted more.”
Dallas was just his beginning. And a far more ostentatious one in ‘Jerry’s World’ than that first game in the modest confines of the CIF.
Each of the next two weeks, Pharms was temporarily brought up to the active roster, before reverting to the practice squad. Each of the last three weeks, he’s played as one of 53 signed to the active roster. Against the Giants, he logged a dozen snaps.
“Earned everything he’s gotten,” head coach Bill Belichick said last Friday. “Shows up every day ready to go. Gives us a great look on the practice, scout squads. Does a good job when he gets an opportunity to play.”
And for the young players Tabor trains back in Wichita, Pharms gives something more.
“He’s just such a great kid and so humble and kind,” Tabor said. “He’s such a role model for my young guys. He’s made it to the NFL and still wants to work out with the college guys, the high school guys. He wants to be around them.
“If they have a question and can’t get to me, they can go right to him and call him on the phone or hit him on FaceTime or get him to text. And Jeremiah’s there to mentor them, whatever they need.”
Since his recent promotion with the Patriots, Pharms’s weekly salary has increased north of $41,000, which is a helluva long way from $150. And though nowhere near what some of his teammates make, it’s a good start to providing his little girls — now numbering four after last December’s birth of Jaylani — the life he wants for them.
“My daughters, I wanted them to grow up different than the way I grew up,” Pharms says. “And the only thing I really knew was how to play football. I could learn other things as I was playing football. But I knew this was what was going to change everything for them.”
Jeremiah and Baylee are planing to be married in April. Tabor is already thinking about offseason workouts to help Pharms achieve more than simply making an NFL roster.
Their journey is just getting started.
Bob Socci is in his 11th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub.