He plays the position of receiver like he's playing basketball, not football. His explosion off the snap is deceptive, like he's crafting a route to the hoop, not showing his highest gear of speed until he's already past you. At 6'3", 225 pounds, he fights for a catch like he's boxing out, establishing position in the post before leaping in the air. And he attacks the open space like it has wronged him, like a rebound is suspended there and he cannot wait for the ball to sail into his palms.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside is, as his quarterback at Stanford, K.J. Costello, calls him, "an outlier."
"The way he runs routes, the way he operates," Costello says, "is just not normal."
Not for football, at least. But for Arcega-Whiteside, playing it any other way would be what defied norms.
The senior who's become a highlight-reel regular and put up video game stats this season (226 yards in one game and eight touchdowns in Stanford's first six games) maneuvers like a basketball player because that's what he's been all his life. Because he comes from a family that discussed offensive rebounds and fade screens and pull-up jump shots over dinner.
He is a former all-state basketball player for Dorman High School in South Carolina. His parents, Joaquin Arcega and Valorie Whiteside, played professional basketball in Spain and Portugal. Valorie was an All-American at Appalachian State. Arcega-Whiteside's uncles, Fernando and Pepe Arcega, played basketball for Spain's Olympic team, Fernando in '84 (winning silver) and '88, and Pepe in '92.
Arcega-Whiteside, though, played the game differently than any of them. He was the guy who would foul out nearly every high school basketball game. Who would dive into the bleachers to save a ball that clearly couldn't be saved. Who would hunt for the rebound and putback long after a referee stopped play. Who hungered to dunk, to dazzle, to defy on every possession.
"Every time I caught the ball, I wanted to make a highlight," Arcega-Whiteside says.
He laughs, realizing not much has changed as a football player. His wiring is the same, regardless of the sport he's playing.
He raises his palms, as if he's about to leap above the table in front of him, in Stanford athletics' conference room, for another staggering catch.
"I get a chance to make a play, I'm going to do something crazy," he says.
"You kind of want to be different. You don't want to be the same receiver everybody else is."
If Arcega-Whiteside's style is unique among receivers, it's no surprise considering his upbringing.
He considers Inman, South Carolina, his home, but he was born in Zaragoza, Spain, and lived in various areas of Portugal (Costa de Caparica, Oliveira de Azemeis, Lisbon) as a child, traveling every few weeks to places like France, Italy and Austria for his parents' European Cup games.
His mom says he knew the capital of every country in the world by age four. His parents would quiz him in the car in a game called "Capitals." "Buenos Aires!" little JJ would scream in delight when asked about Argentina, or "Tokyo!" when asked about Japan. The family moved to the U.S. when he was seven. But even all these years later, he still feels shaped by and connected to that part of his life.
He's fluent in Spanish and can still understand Portuguese, his first language, though he can no longer speak it. He's majoring in international relations and is fascinated by classes like Greek Art History, Virtual Reality and History of South Africa.
He enjoys being around different kinds of people, different kinds of creatives. His freshman roommate just got his app bought by Apple. Two weeks ago he met a student who is a prince. And he is innovative in his own way, too.
He doesn't want to be known as just fast, as just able to jump, as just strong or big. He doesn't want to be reduced to one lane.
On the field, his broad range of skills plays into why few can contain him one-on-one. He catches balls in traffic with ease, as if coverage is a fun obstacle course to navigate through and not a carefully manicured scheme designed to deny his every move. He has super-strong hands, making it especially difficult for defensive backs to strip the ball from him.
Arcega-Whiteside's eight receiving touchdowns rank first in the Pac-12 and third nationally. He has 30 receptions for 541 receiving yards and is averaging 18 yards per catch. The 226 receiving yards he had against San Diego State in the season opener were the third-most in a single game in program history. Stanford has fallen from No. 7 to unranked in the AP rankings after an overtime win over Oregon and consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Utah, but Arcega-Whiteside had 17 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns in those three games.
He has another year of eligibility (Stanford calls him a senior, but his eligibility is that of a redshirt junior), but his play has gotten the notice of the NFL. Draftscout.com ranks him as the No. 12 receiver in the 2020 draft.
"I definitely think he'll have a chance to play at the next level," says Bobby Kennedy, Stanford's wide receivers coach. "I've been doing this a long time, and he's a rare talent. … He understands the game, and at the next level, that'll transfer to being able to play him at a number of different positions because he comprehends things so well."
But Arcega-Whiteside is filling up box scores without one of his biggest supporters. His grandmother, Lonnie Means, was in the hospital just hours before Stanford's game against Oregon in late September. She sent him a video and told him she wanted to see him score two touchdowns, if not three. She ended the video with, "Love you, love you, love you, bye."
He got the two touchdowns, and after the game, he found out that she had died. He was devastated. "She was a sweet lady. The sweetest lady you'll ever meet," Arcega-Whiteside says.
He used to love stopping by her one-story brick ranch home every morning of high school, greeted by a big Southern breakfast plate she'd fix for him: grits, eggs, bacon, fruit. He loved how if he told her his leg was sore, for example, she'd find some Aspercreme and give him a massage right then and there. And when his mom would pick him up at school later that day, she'd notice the glimmer of his leg. "Boy, you shining!" Valorie would say, giggling, knowing it had been Lonnie's work.
Valorie was worried about how her son would cope with the loss, but he is the one who calls her every night to make sure she's OK. "He's my rock," Valorie says.
How Arcega-Whiteside was able to play, let alone score two touchdowns at Oregon, just as his grandmother had asked him to, he doesn't know. Goosebumps trickle up his arm as he tries to figure that out.
"I hate to talk about faith and God in interviews," he says, "but, like, things like that don't just happen, you know?"
Sitting in his blue stroller with white polka dots, four-year-old JJ did not like what he saw one night on the court in Lisbon. Valorie, playing for a team called Santarem, was mixing it up down low against a team from the Azores when her defender elbowed her hard in the chest.
JJ, who had taught himself to unstrap his stroller, bolted onto the court. "YOU HIT MY MOMMY!" he screamed, pointing to the culprit, who is a good friend of Valorie's. Players, coaches, referees and fans laughed and laughed.
Even then, Arcega-Whiteside had a toughness about him. But he was also the sweetheart of the team—the only baby of the group. His mom's teammates adored him and treated him as if he were their own. "My mom says they were all my girlfriends," Arcega-Whiteside says, jokingly.
He was too busy dissecting his parents' games to notice. "He never cried during games," Valorie says. All he wanted was to dribble the ball, though it was much bigger than his body. When he was seven months old, a photo circulated of him in the Belgian newspaper Vers l'Avenir, standing dead center of the huddle, the only "player" whose eyes were fixated on coach Jose Montero.
The family moved to the U.S. so that Arcega-Whiteside could pursue his education and play sports at the same time. Valorie and Joaquin insisted their son didn't have to play basketball if he didn't want to, but he was driven to do so on his own. He liked the idea that he could slash and overpower whenever he wanted to as a guard/wing—much different than Joaquin, a sharpshooting floor general, or Valorie, a bulldozer post player.
They signed JJ up for sports so he would make American friends, but he had bigger plans: to dominate.
He excelled in soccer, angering opposing parents by scoring five goals in the first five minutes of one game. He was a natural in football, too, scoring four touchdowns at running back during his first game. But he didn't like football at all. It was boring. He didn't understand it. Other kids knew to grab the ball, run, score. Arcega-Whiteside grabbed the ball and looked around the field like, What do I do now?
The sport started to grow on him in middle school. It was his "fun" sport, but basketball was his "serious" sport. He aspired to play in college, making varsity as a freshman.
He didn't even play wide receiver until his junior year on the football team, and he couldn't understand why everyone would rave when he'd make a play.
"I didn't know going up and catching the ball over somebody was such a big deal. Basketball, you do that all the time," Arcega-Whiteside says. "I just told my body, 'Go get it.'"
College football coaches came to his basketball practices just to get a glimpse of his explosiveness, his physicality. He competed within each drill as if it were a playoff game, too intense, too physical, for any of the other players on the floor.
"He was just relentless," says Thomas Ryan, Dorman's basketball coach. "A terror on the defensive end."
He received interest from college basketball coaches but not to the magnitude that he received from college football coaches after finishing his career with 3,779 receiving yards, 207 receptions and 38 touchdowns and being named South Carolina's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year.
Once, Dorman trailed by five points with 10 seconds left against Hillcrest High. David Gutshall, Dorman's coach, could only think of one person to throw it to: Arcega-Whiteside.
"What do I do if he's double-covered?" Dorman's quarterback asked Gutshall.
"I don't care," Gutshall said. "Throw it."
Sure enough, Arcega-Whiteside rose over three defenders for the miraculous catch. "He wants to be in that situation," Gutshall says. "A lot of kids would get nervous. JJ lives for that situation."
Arcega-Whiteside watched from the sideline as his Stanford teammates blazed onto the field in special "blackout" uniforms: black jerseys and pants along with matte black helmets. It was the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game against USC. "Damn," he thought to himself. "They look so cool."
He didn't look cool. He didn't feel cool. He was wearing the Cardinal's standard travel gear: black sweats, black jacket, a beanie. Redshirt freshmen weren't allowed to dress that game. He stared at the blackout uniforms, wishing he could jump into one and into the air for just one ball. Just one.
But he couldn't. He had to watch and wait and work, as he did the entire season. "I gotta remember this feeling," he told himself as gold confetti rained down on the Cardinal players, who claimed the title with a 41-22 win. "I gotta show the guys I deserve to be here."
Throughout that season, he wasn't thinking he should be out there; he was just upset that he wasn't. He didn't create excuses to feel better, like: Oh, they already have receivers. Oh, they don't see my talent.
"That was the first year I felt like I wasn't good enough," Arcega-Whiteside says. "You come from being the man on campus at your high school, getting all the attention, all the love; now you're really nothing. You're just a guy on the team wearing a scout jersey, helping out other players. And it hurts, once you realize that's what you are."
He pushed to be more. He practically lived in the weight room. He studied the details of running routes: dropping his weight, leaning forward, foot fire, moving hands, learning when to do all of those things or none of those things to help get him open.
He could hear his parents telling him what they always did during his teenage years: Don't do anything half-hearted, because if you do, you're going to get a half-hearted result.
"We tried to teach him that whatever you want in life, you have to work for it," Joaquin says. "You have to sacrifice a lot of things to achieve your goals."
Back then, Arcega-Whiteside would tell his mom that he felt like he had been in a car wreck after every Friday night game. But every Saturday morning, just as his family was waking up, he'd still rush toward the door, cleats slung over his shoulder, to go run routes.
During team practice, if he ran a route that wasn't immaculate, he'd make himself do the drill over again, right there, until he mastered it.
While waiting for a breakthrough at Stanford, he kept telling himself: Be ready when your number is called. Then in 2016, his first season, Stanford found itself trailing to UCLA with 28 seconds left.
Arcega-Whiteside was playing in his first game in over a year, but a strange feeling seized him: He knew he was about to do something big. So big he had to tell Lance Taylor, then Stanford's running backs coach, who is now with the Panthers.
"If you throw me the ball, I'm going to score," he told Taylor, half-joking, half-serious. Smiling.
"All right," Taylor said. "Let's see it."
Arcega-Whiteside entered the game and caught a pass for an eight-yard, game-winning touchdown. Rather than scream or celebrate, the first thing he did was look up to the sky and thank God. His face indicated neither shock nor relief. It was peace.
"This is what I'm supposed to do," he thought. "I'm back."
Arcega-Whiteside continued to impress last season, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors with a team-high 48 receptions, 781 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns. He had a team-high five catches for 61 yards and three touchdowns against TCU in the Alamo Bowl.
But he's more than his numbers. He's funny without trying to be. He likes to pull pranks.
"Off the field, I'm just the goofiest, corniest guy you'll ever meet," Arcega-Whiteside says. "I smile at everything. I laugh at everything. I tell terrible jokes."
He has an ongoing competition with Bryce Love to see who can turn each other's phone off first without the other knowing. When one of them least expects it, the other will find his phone and turn it off. He will be confused and nervous until he realizes his phone isn't broken.
"It's JJ again," Love will realize.
The off-field persona has earned him light-hearted nicknames. There's "Arcegatron," a nod to the movie Transformers. And "Cuervo," because his full name is Jose Joaquin Arcega-Whiteside.
But on the field, his teammates know he's so focused, so intense, that sometimes somebody might say something to him and he might not even hear them because he's lost in his thoughts.
"I'm super serious," Arcega-Whiteside says. "I'm thinking: 'What do I need to do the next play, the next drive, to make sure we're doing what we need to do?'"
That's why he's got one more nickname. "Spider." Because his arms and legs are all over the place, stretching, leaping, clawing, doing anything he can do to make a catch. To make one more highlight.
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.