Last weekend, the Jalen McMillan Experience was on full display.
And his mother was 900 miles away.
This is not a new occurrence. On Sept. 1, 2017, McMillan — now a second-year wide receiver at Washington — was a skinny sophomore on the San Joaquin Memorial varsity football team. At halftime of a home game against Lemoore High School, his parents left to take McMillan’s 5-year-old sister home.
At which point, he announced his arrival.
“So his dad drives us home and tries to make it back for the third quarter,” his mother, Belinda McMillan-Haener, told The Times on Tuesday. “We’re getting texts from friends: ‘Oh, my God, he just caught another one!’ He had six touchdowns that game, and we witnessed one of them.”
Besides the six scores, McMillan’s parents missed a virtuosic performance that included 12 catches for 369 receiving yards — an unexpected eruption.
“We knew he was good. He’d been putting up numbers,” said San Joaquin Memorial coach Anthony Goston. “But when we had our Lemoore game, it was like, ‘Wow. He’s uncoverable. He can’t be guarded.’
“From that point on, he did what he wanted out on the field.”
Specifically, he recorded 78 catches, 1,810 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns in his sophomore season — followed by 162 combined catches, 3,045 receiving yards and 31 more scores over the next two years. A 6-foot-1, 180-pound Fresno product, he was ranked as a four-star recruit, the No. 6 wide receiver and the No. 38 overall prospect in the 2020 class by 247Sports.
Not bad for a kid who didn’t play tackle football until the sixth grade, and was initially stashed on the offensive line; or for a kid whose first love was baseball, and whose mother insists is a better center fielder than a wide receiver.
“We jokingly still call him ‘Air Bud,’ because he’s like a retriever out there,” she said of Jalen, who also starred in track and field at San Joaquin. “Whether it’s a football or a baseball, he can catch it.”
Even so, he caught just one pass in his freshman season in Seattle — a 16-yard reception in a 31-26 loss to Stanford. And in a year where classes were remote and games were canceled, it wasn’t easy to adjust.
“I think he really leaned on his team,” McMillan-Haener said. “Truly, it was a disconnecting experience for us as parents not being able to go to his games. That was hard. Taking online classes in your dorm room, it was an isolating experience for him. We just had to keep reassuring him, ‘Hang in there. This isn’t what normal college is like. This isn’t what any normal experience has been like for anybody. So push through it.’
“I fully believe making those connections with his teammates is what grounded him and kept him sane through the last season.”
But, pandemic aside, there were other obstacles as well. After working with the starters during April and August practices, McMillan sustained a hand injury that forced him to miss the Montana loss. He returned with a limited role in the 31-10 loss to Michigan, but failed to catch a pass.
McMillan-Haener attended both those games, but decided to sit out the non-conference contest against Arkansas State.
At which point, her son — again — announced his arrival.
“We didn’t think the Arkansas State game was going to be the game to be at, obviously,” McMillan-Haener said with a laugh. “We’re also in an area where DirecTV doesn’t have the Pac-12 Network, so we have to get it through Sling TV. It’s an ordeal. So we’re watching it on a feed and there’s a little delay, and we’re getting texts five seconds before things happen. It was awful to be (at home), but it’s very on par for the Jalen experience.”
This time around, the Jalen McMillan Experience included 10 catches, 175 receiving yards and his first career touchdown in a 52-3 win over Arkansas State. It included receptions of 39, 33, 30, 19 and 18 yards.
It included everything Goston had already seen.
“The difference between Jalen and everyone else is that Jalen ran like he was 5-foot-8. But he was 6-foot-1,” he said. “He could sink his hips. He ran a 10.55 100-yard dash. He had little man speed. He had little man quickness. But it was all in a 6-foot-1 body. So his speed and his ability to separate … is what separates him from the other receivers.
“To me, I’m not surprised that he’s doing those things (against Arkansas State). He’s a heck of a receiver. Given the opportunity, he’s going to do some amazing things.”
And hopefully, his mother will be there to see it.
But though Jalen chose another unfortunate moment to announce his arrival, McMillan-Haener was grateful all the same.
“The relief can’t be measured,” said McMillan-Haener, who (for better or worse) plans to attend Saturday’s Pac-12 opener against Cal. “Just knowing that he’s had this moment and can build off of that has been amazing to watch as a mom, because I know how hard he works day in and day out to finally have the game he wants to have and the game he knows he’s capable of. His team and his coaches have also seen that in him throughout practices in the last year.
“It’s relief. It’s vindication. Twitter’s a blessing and a curse, because everyone’s a critic. There’s always a lot of speculation. Why isn’t he playing? What’s his commitment level like? It’s infuriating to read some of that stuff.”
Which is one of many reasons why Saturday was satisfying.
And against a Cal defense that ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in opponent yards per pass attempt (7.6), 11th in passing defense (318 yards per game) and 11th in opponent pass efficiency rating (132.19), there’s an opportunity for another eruption.
“He’s fast. He’s got length. He’s tall and he catches the ball really well,” said UW coach Jimmy Lake. “That’s why we were so excited coming out of spring, coming out of training camp, with the explosiveness that we can have at the wide-receiver position.
“When we had Terrell Bynum back in Game 2 you guys saw the added pop that he gave us. And then all of a sudden, we have Jalen McMillan back and you saw some added pop there. It’s going to be really awesome when we get the other one (Rome Odunze, who’s listed as week-to-week) back eventually. So, I don’t know what else to say. You guys can see it on film.”
Or, on a 5-second delay on Sling TV.
Because, for family especially, the Jalen McMillan Experience can be elusive.