How DK Metcalf became an internet-breaking NFL wide receiver prospect

The shirtless workout photo of former Ole Miss wide receiver DK Metcalf set social media ablaze. Training alongside former teammate A.J. Brown at EXOS in Phoenix in the lead-up to the combine, Metcalf, shredded and thick as an oak, looked more like a Mr. Olympia contestant than an NFL prospect.

When he showed up in Indianapolis, Metcalf measured in at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds with a body fat percentage of 1.9.

One point nine? Is that even possible? Articles were written stating there must be some kind of mistake. Even more amazing? Metcalf, 21, accomplished all of this four months after breaking his neck.

"There was a lot of people that just counted me out and said I wasn't going to be able to do the things that I did," Metcalf said. "Just to have that feeling, when three months ago, four months ago, I wasn't supposed to be in that situation. I wasn't supposed to be in Indianapolis."

In addition to his eye-popping body-fat number at the combine, Metcalf benched 225 pounds 27 times, tied for tops among receivers. And despite being in the 95th percentile in weight, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, the second-best time in his position group, cementing his status as a high-end 2019 draft pick and bona fide freak of nature.

Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden even joked at the combine that when he saw the shirtless photo of Metcalf, it made him want to head straight to the weight room to work on his own physique.

"We had a guy walk in our room last night, a receiver out of Ole Miss. His name is Metcalf, and he looked like Jim Brown," Gruden said. "I mean, he's the biggest wideout I've ever seen, and you've got to ask yourself, 'Who's tackling this guy?'"

People couldn't help but react. Coaches. Scouts. Players. Fans. Just about anyone with a Twitter account and an interest in football, or the potential of the human body.

When Metcalf finished his 40 run, he grabbed his smartphone, took a seat on a bench and placed a FaceTime call. Cameras were rolling as he broke down and wept while looking at the faces on his phone.

"We did it," he told them.

He had achieved the improbable, as the people looking back at him were sure he would. Those loved ones had the benefit of knowing that all of this had been a long time coming.

"I can't put it into words, but just the feeling that I had after running the 40, and hearing my mom say, 'I'm proud of you,' it was just great," Metcalf said.

Early feats of strength

Metcalf could bench 50 pounds and squat 100 pounds when he was 5 years old. Five.

He still remembers the weight set his father, Terrence, brought home. It was kid-sized with a small barbell and equipped with 10-pound, five-pound and two-and-a-half-pound circular weights. Who knows, maybe young DK could have put up even more if there was more to the set.

"He was able to squat the entire number of weights," Terrence said.

Terrence, a former offensive lineman, was just starting his professional career with the Chicago Bears. He and his wife, Tonya, had two children (DK was the oldest) and one on the way when he left Ole Miss to prepare for the NFL draft. He brought the family to New Orleans to train for the scouting combine, packing the whole crew into a hotel room, and then to Chicago, when the Bears selected him in the third round in 2002. Tonya left her job at a day-care center and began looking after the children full time so Terrence could pursue his dream.

Terrence wove the family into the fabric of the team the best he could, even bringing DK into the locker room as the Bears celebrated their NFC Championship Game win against the New Orleans Saints in January 2007.

But mainly, he and DK bonded by working out together.

"Probably every day, when my dad got home from practice," DK said of how often he would hit the weights. "Me just being young and wanting something to do, and just happy to see my dad after practice. That was just something that we did together. I believe that's what made me want to do it so much."

Terrence told the Bears' strength coach about his workouts with DK and was advised to stop having him use free weights because it could stunt his growth.

"And then he's like, OK, just go buy bands and let's train him a different way. So I started him with band workouts at home," Terrence said.

The training ramped up in earnest when DK was about 10 years old, as the family returned to Oxford, Mississippi, with Terrence's playing days winding down. Father and son would wake up in the morning and head to Ole Miss to run the stadium steps, or to a local gym to go toe-to-toe.

"As it progressed, he just started outrunning me and outworking me," Terrence said. "As much as I pushed him, it got to the point where he was competing against me to prove to me that I was never going to be able to be faster than him again or run longer than him. I just saw that shift and saw just how hard he started working."

DK was not permitted to play football until he was 12. Terrence was concerned if DK started too early that he might get a coach who would turn him off to the sport. Once DK finally got a taste, he knew he wanted to make a career out of it as his dad had.

He made varsity his freshman year of high school and played all four years -- first at safety and then at wide receiver. DK was a three-sport athlete at Oxford High School, running track and playing basketball as well. Bursting with athleticism, he set a school record in the triple jump.

"He never had an offseason, so he would come in before school, sometimes as early as 6 a.m., and train on his own when he was in season to make sure he was doing what he needed to do to be where he needed to be physically," said Oxford head football coach Chris Cutcliffe, who was DK's position coach at the time. "There's not many high school athletes that are willing to work like he worked."

As it happens, Oxford High is a juggernaut in competitive powerlifting, having won one state championship after another during DK's time there, even though he wasn't on the team. The powerlifting coach was also the football team's strength and conditioning coach, Jason Russell. It was almost as if DK was destined to get swole.

Under Russell's four-day-a-week, nearly two-hour-a-day program, with Terrence as an adviser in the weight room, DK went from "long and skinny" as a freshman, as Russell described him, to a kid in a shredded man's body. By the summer before his senior season, he could squat 500 pounds, bench 275 and deadlift 585 pounds.

The moment that stayed with Russell was when DK deadlifted 495 pounds five times as his teammates and coaches looked on in awe.

"That one just always stuck out in my head because you're looking at five plates on each side, picking it up five different times in a row, and you've got your linemen and your linebackers doing the same thing and struggling to get it, and here comes the receiver snapping out five reps, no problem," he said. "You don't see too many 6-4 guys being competitive in powerlifting, but he's one of those guys that if he wanted to and wasn't playing basketball, he could have come powerlift with us and have been successful in that, too."

'Fine-tuning a Ferrari engine'

Tonya Metcalf did not know anything was wrong at first, other than that she could not spot her son on the field.

"We didn't see it happen. We just kept wondering like, 'Where is DeKaylin [DK]?' And then my friends started texting me that they saw him walking in the tunnel," she said.

DK exited in the first quarter of Ole Miss' game against Arkansas this past October and did not return. Once Tonya tracked him down, he told her that the belief was he had only suffered a stinger. Tests revealed it was much more serious: He had a C3 fracture in his neck, which required surgery. His college career was over, but the Metcalf family hoped his playing days were not.

"He couldn't do anything for like a month or two. He just literally had to stay in that brace," Tonya said. "It was just following the doctors' orders, letting the bone heal, and just go through the process."

DK had football offers from Cal, UCLA, Nebraska and Auburn, among others, but followed in his father's footsteps and attended Ole Miss, deciding he would rather be a hometown hero than play for a school and region he had no long-standing connection with. He shined bright when on the field, averaging more than 18 yards per catch and scoring 14 touchdowns in 21 career games to solidify himself as a legit NFL prospect by his redshirt sophomore season in 2018.

But a broken foot sidelined him as a freshman, and the neck injury took away the second half of what proved to be his final season as a Rebel. In November, he opted to forgo his remaining two years of college eligibility and declared for the draft. There was no shortage of folks who questioned the move.

The upside to the neck injury is it allowed him to get a head start on his combine prep. Most prospects get eight weeks to train. Healed and cleared to train, he spent 12 weeks at EXOS, where he sculpted himself into an internet sensation.

"He deserves all the press that he's getting because he is such an impressive athlete just naturally, but at the same time, he works harder than maybe anybody I've worked with," said Nic Hill, a performance specialist at EXOS. "You get a strong work ethic, and then you get a genetic monster; you put those two together and you get something special."

Hill likened working with DK to "fine-tuning a Ferrari engine." They made adjustments to his diet -- eliminating his guilty pleasure, strawberry milk, and feeding him "probably more vegetables than he has ever eaten in his life" -- and put him on an intense, high-tech training regimen.

DK's body-fat measurement at the combine didn't surprise Hill. DK arrived at EXOS with about 5 percent body fat, he said, and it was down to about 2 percent when he left Phoenix for Indianapolis, ready to put a lifetime of training to the test.

A combine call to mom

DK finished in the 90-plus percentile in nearly every test at the combine, from his 134-inch broad jump (97th percentile) to his 40 1/2-inch vertical jump (93rd percentile) to his 40-yard dash (95th percentile).

There were two notable exceptions: His three-cone drill (2nd percentile) and 20-yard shuttle (3rd percentile) were on the opposite end of the spectrum, fueling concerns from scouts and analysts who view Metcalf as a straight-line receiver and unpolished route-runner.

Hill said DK's testing in those areas was much better while at EXOS and theorizes he had emptied the tank in the other events and wasn't at full force by the time those two drills came along. DK improved both times at his pro day on March 29. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Metcalf among his top 25 draft prospects.

"A lot of people talk, saying my cone drill, Tom Brady was faster than me, so had to come in here and show I was faster than Tom Brady, I guess," he said afterward with a laugh.

Here's how a senior NFC scout evaluated that portion of DK's workout in Indianapolis: "Due to his build, [he] naturally has some tightness, just like a long cornerback will be a bit more leggy. So minimal impact. Medical more a concern."

The 40 time was the big one. The 4.33 time not only drew responses on social media from the likes of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, but it helped elevate him to the level of a consensus first-round pick.

What DK accomplished was clear, and the emotions spilled out as he walked off the track to FaceTime his mom, who was in the room with Terrence and a host of family members.

"He had called and he was crying," Tonya said. "We told him we're proud of him. That's all I was saying to him on the phone. We weren't surprised by what he had done because we knew how hard he had worked. And to everything he was like, 'Yes, ma'am, yes ma'am.'"

Added DK: "Just going back to how many times I had to call my mom because I left something for practice, or my dad being there, my dad driving four hours from Pearl River just to come to my games on Saturday. It just means a lot and just all that they went through just for these moments, for that moment, just for me to perform at my best. On draft night, it's going to be that much sweeter because of all the hard work that we put in just to get to this moment."