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Undrafted Jets receiver T.J. Luther driven by mom’s tragic death to reach NFL : ‘Honoring her’


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By Ryan Dunleavy - June 24, 2023

Virginia Luther wasn’t just the loudest fan in the stands at football games. She also maintained a scout’s keen eye for her eight sons talent.

Anyone who witnessed Virginia yelling “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Let’s gooooo!” into her signature megaphone during games at Port Charlotte High School in Florida knows that she would’ve been in her element participating in a “J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!” chant this fall at MetLife Stadium.But Virginia died unexpectedly in her sleep in December 2019 — a point at which the middle of her nine children became determined to turn his dreams into a reality.Mission accomplished last month, when T.J. Luther, a wide receiver, signed with the Jets after going undrafted out of FCS school Gardner-Webb.

“She always used to tell me when I was little that I was going to be her NFL player. She spoke it into existence,” T.J. told The Post after a recent practice. “I’m definitely honoring her. She already knew I was going to be the first generation to graduate college, and I told her I was going to make it to the league.”

Some might say that T.J.’s first NFL contract was predetermined at birth. Or months earlier, in utero.

“Even when T.J. was a baby in her stomach, he was kind of shaped like a football,” Virgil Luther, T.J.’s father, said with a laugh. “She always carried with a big belly, and he was pointed out there like the pointed head of a football, so she was like, ‘This is my NFL player.’ Everything rolled out and, as God permitted, it happened.”Not even the prophetic Virginia could have predicted T.J.’s path, however.All 32 NFL teams sent a representative to Boiling Springs, N.C., for Gardner-Webb football practices last fall to scout running back Narii Gathier.But the most diligent attendees started asking questions about the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Luther — an unfamiliar speedy wideout that head coach Tre Lamb had signed as a transfer from Wofford.A scholarship for T.J. opened because Izaiah Gathings transferred to Middle Tennessee State.Two years later, Gathings, now a tight end, is also an undrafted rookie competing for a roster spot with the Jets.

“If Gathier wasn’t on our roster, I don’t think we’re even having this conversation. Or, if Gathings doesn’t transfer, I don’t think we’re having this conversation,” Lamb said. “It’s just kind of unique how it all fell into place for T.J.“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t play in the league for a long time, whether it be for the Jets or someone else. He’s going to have a chance to stick because he runs so well.”

Becoming a rabbitThe Luthers arrived at church, school and practice in a clown car.Or so it seemed.Technically, it was a gray Ford 250 van that was endearingly nicknamed “The Luther Bus.”“Sometimes we’d pick up our neighbors’ children to come play or watch,” Virgil said, “and people used to say, ‘How many people are coming out of that van? Here comes another, here comes another, here comes another.’ ”The 45-minute ride from their home in Arcadia, Fla., to Port Charlotte started because local coaches weren’t giving T.J. a chance to play.

Virgil was the unofficial coach to his wife’s cheerleader act.

“T.J. used to fake out all the boys in practice and I’d say, ‘When are you going to give him a chance in a game?’ ” Virgil said. “I ended up taking all my boys out [of that program] because when you do one of us wrong, you do all of us wrong.”If the size of the family made for a crowded car ride, it created a competitive streak that served the children well athletically.“Football in the backyard, games, who ate more? Anything you can think of that we were all doing collectively as a family was a competition,” T.J. said. “We always had that edge about us and believed iron sharpens iron. We used to chase rabbits — they were fast, I’m not going to lie — but it would build up our wind.”

Years later, T.J. assumed the role of the rabbit that defensive backs couldn’t corral.He averaged 18.5 yards per catch — second-highest to Giants’ third-round pick Jalin Hyatt of Tennessee among all FBS and FCS receivers with at least 63 catches — en route to 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns last season.Luther ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at Gardner-Webb and was timed at 4.45 seconds at his Pro Day. He packaged speed with a 39-inch vertical leap.“He’s a ‘Hollywood’ Brown, top-off-the-coverage kind of true ‘Z’ receiver,” Lamb said, drawing a comparison to Cardinals receiver Marquise Brown. “He has some work to do in route running and catching the ball, but he is extremely tough, a great kick returner and competitive. Run a post route, run a crossing route, run a go route, that’s his cup of tea — a big-play machine waiting to happen.”With every route he runs for the Jets, T.J. wants to renew his little brothers’ faith in big dreams after tragedy.“It’s still tough to think about it, it feels like yesterday,” he said of Virginia’s death. “But I know that everything she sacrificed for us, it paid off.”

A drive that won’t die

The morning after T.J. broke out with a career-high 188 receiving yards in Week 2 of last season at Coastal Carolina, he still beat coaches into the facility to watch film.It reassured Lamb to vouch with scouts that the young receiver’s commitment level was as impressive as his wheels.“When my mom passed, I knew then that I was going to fulfill everything she said I was going to do,” T.J. said. “I had a drive and a fire in me that wasn’t going to die down. I wasn’t looking at the competition, I was going against at the time, because I knew there was better competition out there, so I prepared myself for that. I knew that I had to put a little extra work in than the average.”Coaches typically worry about players leaving the watchful eye of campus during school breaks.

Lamb never thought T.J. would find trouble — no accident when Virginia spent years honing a piercing look to dissuade her boys, and Virgil warned them to walk away whenever a situation might make them “guilty by association.”“We never had a problem with him doing what he’s not supposed to do off the field,” Lamb said. “But when he left for five weeks before summer school, he’d lose 15 pounds. Then he’d come back and gain it all back.”Big dinners was another piece of the Luther life missing without Virginia.

Virgil worked hours and Virginia worked magic with rice in a crockpot or oxtail in an air fryer.“She always turned nothing into something,” T.J. said. “We didn’t have much growing up, but she found a way to put food on the table every day. And it was good every time.”The Chargers, Colts and Patriots reportedly arranged one-on-one pre-draft contacts with the projected late-round pick.He still “felt the love” most from Jets receivers coach Zach Azzanni, even after he injured his back and couldn’t raise his draft stock in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.He wanted to come to New York long before the chance to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers materialized.“I took a chance on coach,” T.J. said of free agency, “and knew everything was going to work out.”

He has reason to believe.

“His mama in heaven is shouting for joy,” Virgil said. “It’s beyond belief. I keep asking the same question: ‘Is this real?’ ”

 >>  https://nypost.com/2023/06/24/jets-t-j-luther-driven-by-moms-tragic-death-to-fulfill-nfl-dream/

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