Since third grade, Jeff Gladney has punched above his weight class.
The Vikings' first-round rookie cornerback carries the confidence of Pro Bowler, and a doubtless demeanor started before he ever shut down a top receiver. Now listed 5-foot-10 and 191 pounds, Gladney was the smallest tyke on his youth team, recalled his uncle and coach Wayne Jefferson, but he insisted he was a linebacker.
"It was kind of his decision, because I had him at corner," Jefferson said. "He's so small, I mean, he'd have to jump up to hit them in the chest. I always told him, 'Try to tackle them on the legs,' and he always ended up jumping to hit them in the chest."
The fearlessness, paired with desired grit and speed at cornerback, made Gladney the Vikings' top reinforcement this offseason with coach Mike Zimmer needing to replace three corners. Gladney, third-round rookie Cameron Dantzler or a rotation of both is expected to complement starters Mike Hughes and Holton Hill during Sunday's opener against the Packers.
Gladney was getting antsy at a small family draft party in April, when he fell to the Vikings at 31st overall, said his mother, Jacinda Jefferson.
His first words to Zimmer — "I've been waiting for you guys to call" — well represented a New Boston, Texas kid whose parents were Cowboys fans and fostered his love for legend Deion Sanders, whom Zimmer coached in Dallas from 1995-1999.
"I looked up to Deion," Gladney said. "My dad used to call me 'Little Prime.' "
Everybody knows everybody in New Boston, a town of fewer than 5,000 people, so Gladney already has diversified NFL allegiances in the countryside of northeast Texas.
"We got Minnesota Vikings flags flying all over the place," said Jamey Thomas, Gladney's high school coach.
'The fastest one'
Gladney is the youngest of Jacinda Jefferson and John Gladney's four sons, and his competitiveness was sharpened during basketball and kickball games at reunions and cookouts. Get-togethers usually led to races to settle who was the fastest in an extended family that has produced a few college football and women's basketball players.
"I was the fastest one," Gladney said. "Unless it was one of my cousins."
A self-proclaimed "country boy," Gladney grew up fishing, riding horses and four-wheelers, and racing bikes through family acreage on his dad's side. He ran track, played basketball and football, but around seventh grade, he put the focus on football.
As a junior, Gladney led New Boston to its first 2A semifinal appearance after a quarterfinal win against Daingerfield and receiver Denzel Mims, the New York Jets rookie who had just one catch for 10 yards against Gladney.
Two weeks before, Gladney broke a 7-7 tie with a game-winning touchdown catch in the rain against Whitesboro.
"We had 45 seconds left to go," Thomas recalled. "We split Jeff out wide and ran a little slant and up with him, and he caught the ball, broke two tackles and we won. I'll never forget that."
Gladney, a three-star prospect, was recruited as quick as his 40-yard dash during a 2014 camp featuring TCU coaches. Before his senior year at New Boston, he was hand timed-under 4.4 seconds, according to Thomas, and TCU head coach Gary Patterson offered a scholarship that day.
Patterson kept Gladney on scholarship after he suffered a torn ACL and LCL in one of his knees during a first-round playoff game as a senior. He needed to redshirt for TCU and rebuild confidence after practicing with a bulky lineman's brace, which he did not shed until the spring of 2016.
"That was the toughest physical and mental thing I've went through," Gladney said.
Thinking, and playing, bigger
Gladney's confidence grew at TCU, where he capped a four-year starting run last fall as an All-Big 12 selection with a conference-leading 14 pass deflections.
His do-it-all role, moving inside and outside of formations while shadowing top receivers, came while playing through a torn meniscus in his right knee sustained sometime before the season opener.
"We asked him basically this last season to play hurt, and he didn't complain," said TCU cornerbacks coach Jeremy Modkins. "I can only imagine if he was truly 100%."
He postponed surgery until March, running a substandard — for him — 4.48-second 40-yard dash on the injured knee to rank 12th among cornerbacks at the NFL scouting combine. That deceptive time helped him last until the Vikings' second pick in the first round. Zimmer liked Gladney's toughness, and they made him the sixth and final cornerback picked in the first round of the 2020 draft.
Gladney's 6-foot-3 wingspan makes up for his shorter stature. He allowed the lowest passer rating in the red zone among D-I cornerbacks last season, according to Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman. Vikings coaches have used him as both an outside and slot cornerback in practice.
"He might not be as tall, but his length as far as his arms and being able to reach through and play eyes [and] hands and get the ball out on people makes up for a lot," Modkins said. "Just the pure tenacity and dog he plays with."
Gladney, 23, is two months older than the Vikings' most experienced cornerback, Mike Hughes, and Zimmer figures Gladney is already among the team's most confident corners. That can't hurt before his first NFL game against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose game film has been played often at TCO Performance Center in preparation.
"We've showed them a few plays where he's made some unbelievable, incredible throws," Zimmer said. "If you're not tight on this guy, you're looking to make a tackle as opposed to getting the ball out."
Finding the right path
Gladney wants to use his NFL career to set up routes for others from New Boston, where sports were Gladney's way to avoid the 19% poverty rate in Bowie County — higher than Texas' statewide 15%.
He majored in criminal justice at TCU and plans to pick the brain of new teammate Eric Kendricks, the All-Pro linebacker and leader on the Vikings' social justice committee, about ways to focus on juvenile justice.
New Boston is a crossroads of sorts, a short drive from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, and Gladney wants to help kids find the right path.
"Nothing's out there really. Like, nothing at all," Gladney said. "They say nothing but trouble, that's how I looked at it growing up. Lot of people just don't make it from that area. So, me being the one that made it, I got to show kids — chase your dreams, and you can really do it."
Gladney also wants to pay it forward to his own support system: his parents, aunt and uncle who didn't miss a TCU game and plan to attend games at U.S. Bank Stadium when they're allowed.
"I've never missed a one," Jacinda said.
Gladney said he eventually wants to buy his mom a new house, and then try to establish new foundations for others.
"After high school, that's it, people are getting in trouble and getting out in the streets and everything," he said. "I just want to show kids that you can actually do something positive with your life; it doesn't matter where you come from."