Rashada, with his mother, Destiny, is the first high school player to sign an NIL deal.Courtesy of Harlen Rashada
The No. 1 rated dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2023 and the first high school football player to secure an NIL deal is from a place called Pittsburg, minus the “h,” and walks around minus any pretentiousness.
Jaden Rashada is a California kid with an accurate arm, swift feet, long legs 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,” said 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 Alaska, California, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York. Knowing practically nothing about Rashada’s hometown of Pittsburg — a blue-collar city 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, and grew enthralled by Rashada’s 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 said. “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 résumé, 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 or swipe right (as in I like you) or swipe left (as in, I’m not attracted), much like a dating app.
Courtesy of AIR
Rashada listened intently … and swiped right. He liked it because it was a legitimate way for players with limited financial means to get college football opportunities. And it especially hit home because that used to be him.
His father, Harlen, played at Arizona State in the early 1990s with Pat Tillman and Jake Plummer, but now was raising four kids with an up-and-down income. “We don’t come from a lot,” Harlen Rashada said. “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.”
With no choice but to work long shifts in the summer of 2019, Harlen had to ask a family friend to transport ninth-grader-to-be Jaden to a camp at San Jose State. Jaden outperformed high school seniors that day, eliciting a “wow” from San Jose State QB coach Ryan Gunderson when he lasered a 15-yard comeback route from the far hash, and earned his first D-I college offer.
“Indescribable,” Jaden said of the offer. “A lot of weight off my shoulders.”
So the AIR app, with its nearly 100,000 users in just seven months, became Jaden’s way to help other high school players lose the same heavy weight from their shoulders. His NIL job is to promote the AIR app with tweets or retweets and answer questions from other high school players about the recruiting process.
When asked about recruiting, his answer is usually: “It’s a business.” When asked who has offered him, his answer includes Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee from the SEC and you-name-it from the Pac-12. When asked where he’ll end up playing college football, he said, “Don’t know.”
But then when asked what he’s most proud of, he said it’s the job he had in December 2020 selling Christmas trees. “He’d come home, I’m kidding you not, man, with pine needles all up in his hair, sap all over him,” his father said. “We’d say, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’”
With the money Jaden earned from the job, he bought 30 gift baskets and filled each one with a Bible, Gatorades, food, gloves and a blanket. He then packed the baskets in a car and presented them to the Pittsburg homeless on Christmas Day.
“I don’t know where his motivation came from, but, honestly, that Christmas was probably the best one I had because of the way some people responded,” Harlen said. “I remember a guy sleeping behind a 7-Eleven. We’d go give him a basket, and he’s like, ‘Thanks, man!’”
That was a year before the AIR NIL deal, and now Jaden is about to sign his second NIL deal with Safeway, where the money he earns will again go to the homeless or the greater Pittsburg community.
“I was always taught to carry myself as if I was 10 years older than I am,” he said.
Which might explain his new Twitter bio: GOD FIRST, 4-Star 2023 Quarterback, Pittsburg High School, 6-4, 185, UA All-American, Business inquires: @jadenrashada.
Tom Friend is senior editor of SportTechie.