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Love him or hate him, Jermaine Kearse will always be a local hero

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Jermaine Kearse’s time in Seattle ended on Friday, with the receiver being dealt to the New York Jets as part of a trade for Sheldon Richardson. During his five seasons as a Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, Kearse was as polarizing of a figure as anyone on the team.

The relationship Kearse and the fans had was a complicated one, with two very different sides.

A high school football star less than 50 miles outside of Seattle, Kearse went on to play at the University of Washington, furthering his status inside the state. And after going undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kearse signed with the local Seahawks as a rookie free agent. Earning his way onto the roster from the practice squad as a rookie, he became an established receiver on Seattle’s roster in 2013, and his legend really began.

I remember standing in the Hawks Nest, a nervous wreck that the Seahawks were going for it on fourth-and-six. I remember watching Russell Wilson release the ball and realizing they really were taking a shot at the end zone. And I remember seeing that scrawny wide receiver, with irrational confidence that seemingly found the camera on every episode of the Real Rob Report, go up and fully engulf the football into his body. In a stadium full of fans that were accustomed to defeat but expected victory, the local kid catching an NFC Championship-clinching touchdown felt right. The most notable events of the night were still to come against the San Francisco 49ers, but for all intents and purposes Jermaine Kearse had sent Seattle to Super Bowl XLVIII.

Regardless of what happened against the Denver Broncos in the Meadowlands, Kearse had already stamped his name into Seahawks history. He just happened to add an exclamation point, in the form of Super Bowl XLVIII’s best touchdown:

Following Golden Tate’s departure, a bigger role for Kearse in Seattle’s offense was imagined, but not fulfilled. In 2014, he caught just one touchdown and failed to catch more than five passes in a single game. But then playoffs rolled around, and the local hero with confidence to burn showed up again.

The reemergence began in the divisional round, during a little-too-close for comfort game against the Carolina Panthers. With the game tied 7-7 and a little under 10 minutes left in the first half, Wilson floated a 25 yard pass a foot in front of Kearse, who gladly stuck out his right hand - his left arm being pulled back - and corralled Wilson’s pass, breaking a tackle and taking it 63 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. The Seahawks never looked back, and another NFC Championship game at home awaited.

There’s a special trait in Seattle Seahawks wide receivers, and it’s hard to label. To go from undrafted to a legitimate threat within a season or two is rare. Doug Baldwin and Kearse have both done it. Maybe it’s grit. To see your head coach and general manager consistently bring in high priced options around you, but to still come through as a consistent target. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to admit defeat. To see one ball come your way all game, in the first quarter, but yet be ready to make the play in the last minute of the fourth quarter. It’s definitely determination.

But to have not one, not two, but three interceptions come right off of your hands, in one of the biggest games of your life, and still have the confidence to stay locked in to make a play when it’s time? That’s just special.

I remember sitting a few sections to the right of the 12th Man Flag, partially covered but still damp from the monsoon that came through Seattle just prior to kickoff. I was still in disbelief over the comeback that had happened before my very eyes, but optimistic thanks to a huge third down conversion just a play before. I remember Will Tukuafu motioning out wide and laughing, but sure enough the single-high safety walked down to line up across from him.

The ball hung in the air for what already would’ve felt like forever, but felt even longer because of the four interceptions that had come earlier. I had a good enough view of the play to track the ball’s flight the whole way. Once it was clear the ball was out in front of Kearse, not in any danger of being intercepted, I stood with bated breath.

And then he got up, and fired that ball right into the stands. Jermaine Kearse, NFC Championship-clinching touchdown number two.

What followed in Super Bowl XLIX is a good lead into the other side of Kearse, and why moving on from him feels long overdue. There was the ridiculous, miracle catch that set the Seahawks up on the goalline, yes. But had he made a crucial catch earlier in the game - a perfect throw by Wilson on a third down - Seattle likely isn’t needing to drive down the field for a score. Then there was that play.

Having long had a reputation as a receiver who rarely fought through contact, Kearse was tasked with picking the New England Patriots cornerback on the Seahawks’ final offensive play. Not just any cornerback, but the six-foot, four-inch Brandon Browner. It didn’t work, Malcolm Butler made an incredible play and the rest is history.

Kearse’s lackadaisical body language and apparent refusal to fight through contact caught up to him in 2016, as he was the punching bag more than ever for those watching Seattle on a weekly basis. He delivered a three year low in receiving yards and produced just a single touchdown, while his catch-percentage dipped below 50 for the first time since his rookie season. Additionally, he finished dead last of qualifying receivers (minimum 50 targets) in expected passer rating when targeted, with a rating of 57.5 - 35.9 points below expected.

Most frustrating of all, Kearse consistently would get targeted in the redzone over elite touchdown maker Jimmy Graham and the perpetually open Baldwin. If Graham was bracketed constantly, it would be understandable. But the offense was making a concerted effort to isolate Kearse, and he wasn’t getting his job done. He would end the season with just one catch on 15 redzone targets.

Hindsight being 20/20, Kearse and the Seahawks should have parted ways when he was a free agent in March of 2016. The team had younger, more intriguing options in waiting, and Kearse was simply providing them with a logjam. But after little interest in the open market, Kearse stayed home and Seattle brought back a favorite of Wilson’s, leading to a turbulent final season and a skewed perspective on Kearse’s Seahawks career.

At the end of the day, targets we believe should go elsewhere or plays we think a different receiver could’ve made are trivial. The ‘what if’ game can go on for an eternity in sports. The pass he didn’t fight for or the catch he didn’t make in the redzone won’t define Kearse’s career in Seattle. Two conference-winning touchdowns and an unwillingness to say die however, is what makes Jermaine Kearse a local hero.