Winding road brings UMass tight end Jean Sifrin close to an NFL career

Last modified: Monday, December 01, 2014
AMHERST — Not that long ago, the idea of making a decision regarding the NFL draft would have seemed absurd for Jean Sifrin. But as the tight end’s junior season wraps up at UMass, he’ll soon have to decide whether to return for his senior season or declare for the NFL draft.

Heading into Friday’s 1 p.m. finale against Buffalo at McGuirk Stadium, Sifrin has 40 catches for 621 yards and five touchdowns, and has made some catches that will be on UMass highlight films for a long time. His hands, size (6-foot-7, 250 pounds), athleticism and standout skills at a position NFL teams covet make it a near certainty that a team will select him.

Before UMass the closest Sifrin got to highlight videos were clips shot on a friend’s Android phone. He was a recreation league basketball player in white shorts and no shirt. YouTube is not lacking video of unknown players dunking. Sifrin’s were among them, made mostly for fun.

But in 2006, UMass, college football one-handed catches and a potential NFL career weren’t on Sifrin’s mind.

The Miami native knew he was good enough to play football or basketball somewhere. His height and freakish athleticism could make him somebody’s rebounding power forward or pass-catching tight end.

But personable responsibilities got in the way. He was making good money as a selector at a Miami warehouse that shipped food to Publix grocery stores. As he helped support his son Jabarie, now 7, and his girlfriend, a steady paycheck was hard to walk away from.

“I was not thinking about football. I was making $25 an hour. From high school to making $25 an hour,” said Sifrin pausing at the thought. “I couldn’t think about football at all.”

But when he and his girlfriend broke up, he wanted to give school and sports one more shot. He was hoping to set an example for his son about going to college and hopefully provide for him and his struggling mother if he could reach the professional ranks.

He enrolled and played basketball and football at ASA College in Brooklyn, New York, in 2011, but Sifrin was dismissed after some trouble he disputes.

In 2013, he tried again, this time at El Camino Community College in California.

After seeing his tape and meeting with him, UMass coach Mark Whipple agreed in January to give Sifrin a scholarship if he completed everything he needed to be academically eligible. Sifrin scraped together enough money to take classes over the spring and summer and then waited for the NCAA to clear him.

It didn’t happen until a week into the season. After not participating in training camp, Sifrin was eligible to play against Colorado, but Whipple expressed skepticism about how quickly he could be ready.

As it turned out, Whipple was being a little bit cagey, hoping to surprise the Buffaloes. Sifrin had crammed all week learning the playbook and after waiting years to be a college football player he not only played but shined.

Whipple has always liked pass-catching tight ends and he didn’t really have one this year until Sifrin arrived. But even the good tight ends he had in previous years at UMass couldn’t do what Sifrin did in the second quarter against Colorado.

Sifrin had a defender on his hip and another in front of him just inside the goal line when quarterback Blake Frohnapfel threw the ball in his direction. The throw was high, but Sifrin shot his right arm up and snared it one-handed with both defenders converging. He pulled it down for a touchdown as the crowd roared.

“We all had expectations. He got here, lived up and then exceeded them,” UMass tight ends coach Spencer Whipple said. “The ball was a little high and he did what he did. It was pretty neat to watch.”

UMass lost the game, but afterward all anyone could talk about was Sifrin, who went from unknown to budding legend in a hurry. The play seemed to ignite the Minutemen for the rest of the season.

“That put us ahead in that game and it was the first time we kind of realized we’re going to compete this year with some teams people didn’t expect,” Spencer Whipple said. “He’s made the offense a lot better.”

Since then Sifrin has alternated from being good to unstoppable as most defensive backs are too small and most linebackers too slow to contain him. Against Bowling Green he caught eight balls for 135 yards and against Toledo he had six catches for 185. Statistically he’s among the nation’s leading tight ends.

“We knew he was talented. He used that talent and fought through a lot of adversity since last January to be here,” Mark Whipple said. “He might get held more than any player I’ve ever coached. He’s a guy opponents notice and they game plan for.”

Sifrin said college has been a good experience except for one thing.

“I’ve been treated good. The support from the coaching staff, even with schoolwork, is more than I ever thought it would be,” Sifrin said. “Statwise it’s been a good year, but that’s not as important as the season because we’re not going to a bowl right now. I’d rather have that.”

Sifrin could come back next year and try to help lead the Minutemen to their first bowl as an FBS program. As good as he’s been, Sifrin could improve as a blocker. He could also earn his degree, which means a lot to him and his mother, who brought Sifrin, then 3, to the United States from the Bahamas.

But Sifrin is 27. He prioritized taking care of his family over sports during some of his peak athletic years, leaving him middle-aged by NFL standards, two years older than New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Sifrin is an almost certain draft pick now, especially in a league where pass-catching tight ends are coveted. But where he’ll be taken could be hindered by his age. Waiting another year could push him down even further.

Sifrin said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do, but admitted it’s a dilemma.

“My mom is struggling. I know a college degree will help set me up for life. There are job opportunities for alumni from this school, but making it to the pros will help now,” he said. “That was my goal to reach either a degree or the NFL or both. Age is a factor in my decision. It makes a difference. I have to talk to my mom.”

Regardless of his choice, the good fortune of a former warehouse worker turned NFL prospect isn’t lost on Sifrin.

“Everybody I’ve met on my journey helped me out,” he said. “I feel blessed.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage