Jaden Rashada, the No. 1 rated dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2023, has an accurate arm, swift feet, long legs, high IQ and a heart two sizes too generous. The football recruiting app named AIR (Athletes in Recruitment) that signed him to a four-figure endorsement deal last month could not have picked a more grounded high school junior—unless you don’t like an 18-year-old who spends his Christmas feeding the homeless.
“Honestly, my goal is to be somebody who’s remembered forever,’’ says Rashada. “I want to change people’s lives.’’
The era of the Name, Image and Likeness is upon us, and for those who thought it would corrupt both college and high school athletes, the early returns are: not so fast.
AIR’s founder and CEO, the Australian-born former SMU punter James Sackville, says he dove headfirst into the prep ranks “because, I think, everyone else was a little afraid, to be honest with you, and I think we just don’t care. We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re going to be first movers in everything that we do.’ And it was legal. It wasn’t a matter of legality.’’
To be exact, the only states currently allowing all of their high school athletes to be compensated for NIL are New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Nebraska and Rashada’s home state of California. Knowing practically nothing about Pittsburg—a quaint, blue-collar town 40 miles east of San Francisco—Sackville at least had the wherewithal to scroll down a list of top-rated California quarterbacks, a guaranteed hotbed. In milliseconds, he grew enthralled by Rashada’s video, stats, curls and Twitter feed.
“I was of the opinion that he was really marketable, and the fact that he’s a four-star quarterback really helps,’’ Sackville says. “And then when you actually speak to the kid on the phone…’’
Rashada’s voice is deep, his opinions are nuanced, his journey’s been winding and he asked Sackville all the right questions. He wanted to know about AIR, and Sackville explained it was part LinkedIn, part dating app. In other words, it was a free social media platform where players could post a virtual resumé, with stats and videos, and have it verified or endorsed—LinkedIn style—by their high school coach or personal trainer. College coaches would then be free to comment in real time or swipe right (as in, I like you) or swipe left (as in, I’m not attracted), much like a dating app.
“When I was in college, I was looking at successful people who’d gone to SMU, and I was fascinated by Whitney Herd,’’ Sackville says. “By how she’d gone about building Bumble [a female-centric dating app] and helped develop Tinder before that. I tried to take a lot of inspiration from her. The social psychology of dating and recruiting were, I guess, kind of how we got here.’’
Rashada listened to Sackville’s pitch intently…and swiped right. He liked that the app cost nada, that you never know how poor a football players’ family is, that this was a legitimate way for under-appreciated, under-exposed players to live out their dreams. And it especially hit home because…that used to be him.
His father, Harlen, had once played at Arizona State in the early 1990s with Pat Tillman and Jake Plummer. But, as a dad raising four kids in Pittsburg, he’d had sporadic income. “We live in California, it’s expensive out here,’’ Harlen says. “We don’t come from a lot. There’s no silver spoon in our mouths. I’ve owned a business; I’ve gotten out of my business. When I got out of it, things were tough, we had to grind, man. Things were tight. Everything hasn’t been peachy for Jaden.’’
Jaden’s father, Harlen Rashada, played defensive back at Arizona State in the 1990s, alongside Pat Tillman.
Even when Harlen’s bank account was close to empty, he still drove Jaden to college football camps all through the west —until the day he couldn’t. With no choice but to work longer shifts in the summer of 2019, Harlen had to ask a buddy to haul 9th-grader-to-be Jaden an hour down Interstate-680 to a camp at San Jose State.
“Handed Jaden what I had in cash to pay for it,’’ Harlen says. “With all the problems, the stuff we were going through as a family at that time, I couldn’t make it, but he was still gonna go. Just a kid with his football.’’
Jaden out-shined high school seniors that day — “They had no idea I was an 8th grader,’’ Jaden says —and even elicited a “wow’’ from then-San Jose State QB coach Ryan Gunderson (now at UCLA) when he lasered a 15-yard comeback route from the far hash. Almost right then and there, San Jose State gave him his first D1 offer.
“Indescribable,’’ Jaden says of the offer. “A lot of weight off my shoulders.’’
Still quivering an hour later, Jaden FaceTimed Harlen to tell him, “Daaaaad, San Jose State offered me!’’ At which time Harlen said, “Whaaat?’’ and let out a whoop that might have been heard all the way to the Bay Bridge.
“You’ve have thought we’d won the lottery or something,’’ Harlen says. “We were all like, ‘Yeaaaah.’ I was so proud of him, so happy for him.’’
So the AIR app, with its irreverent content creator mr.go30 and its near 100,000 users in just seven-and-a-half months, became Jaden’s way to help other high school players hit the same kind of lottery. His new NIL job is to promote the AIR app with tweets or re-tweets or answering questions from other high school players about the recruiting process.
“What I liked [about the NIL], it was the opportunity to be the first and also, like, getting the app out there,’’ Jaden says. “Maybe that app can help a kid who really is overlooked connect with the right coach, you know? And, as I said, I liked being the start of something, letting people know [an NIL] is okay, you know? Starting it was a big thing in my eyes, the first to ever do it. That’s something that’ll never leave.’’
When asked by other kids about college recruiting, his answer is: “It’s a business.’’ Asked if his highlight videos are on the Internet, his answer is: “Yeah, if you google me.’’ Asked where he ranks nationally as a Class of ’23 quarterback, his answer is: “I’m a little below Arch Manning…He’s first. I’m like 3 or 4, around there.’’ Asked who has offered him, his answer is Auburn, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida from the SEC, Oklahoma (maybe about to be in the SEC), UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Washington, Penn State and his father’s school Arizona State—not to mention a dozen others.
Asked when he’ll pick a school, his least favorite question, the answer is usually: “Before Senior year.’’ But asked his favorite question—what do you do in your spare time?— the answer is: the job he had the in December of 2020 selling Christmas trees.
“Man, he’d come home, I’m kidding you not, man, he’d have pine needles all up in his hair, [tree] sap all over him,’’ Harlen says. “We’d say, “Dude, what are you doing?’ So, he tells me he’s working for this guy who sold Christmas trees. I’m like, okay. So, he starts working. I’m dropping him off at work, picking him up, and then I’m at the house one day, and there’s a ding-dong at the front door.’’
It was a delivery man with gift baskets, 30 of them. With his Christmas tree money, Jaden’s plan was to fill each basket with a bible, Gatorades, food, snacks, gloves and a blanket. His idea, entirely. Eventually, Jaden, his mother Destiny, his younger sister Heiress and Harlen loaded the baskets into a car. He then drove all over Pittsburg, hand-delivering them to the homeless on Christmas Day.
“I don’t know where his motivation came from,’’ Harlen says, “but, honestly, that Christmas was probably the best one I had because of the way some people responded. We’d just pull up and people would be like, ‘Thank you!’ People were just hungry on the street. I remember a guy sleeping behind a 7-Eleven. We’d go give him a basket, and he’s like, ‘Thanks, man!’
“That giving mentality touched all of us that year, and [Jaden] spearheaded that thing. I have no idea where it came from. But that’s the kind of kid he is. Literally. That’s the kind of heart he has.’’
That was a year before the AIR NIL, and now Jaden—instead of grinding at a Christmas tree lot—is about to earn money with a second NIL, a deal with Safeway Grocery Stores where his earnings will again go to the homeless or the greater Pittsburg community.
Jaden, here with his mother, Destiny Rashada, hand-delivered gift baskets to the homeless on Christmas Day.
“I kind of did this [NIL] so maybe other companies can come for me to give back to my community,’’ Jaden says. “Whether that’s with AIR or anybody. Whoever who wants to help me help my community, I’m open for it.
“I mean, with me, I’m lifting weights, throwing, getting texts from college coaches, trying to get better every day. I don’t have time to work a job or have money in my pocket really. So [NIL] is really like a blessing, and I can handle it…I was always taught to carry myself as if I was 10 years older than I am.’’
Which might explain the high school junior’s new Twitter bio: GOD FIRST, 4-Star 2023 Quarterback, Pittsburg High School, 6-4, 185, UA All-American, Business inquires: @jadenrashada