JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Lance Kearse's first football practice in nearly a decade got off to a rough start Tuesday.
Before Kearse even caught a pass, he ran off the field and vomited.
It was understandable if the 6-foot-6 tight end was a little nervous considering he hadn't played football since middle school and was trying out for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But he insisted his queasiness had nothing to do with anxiety.
"I just ate a little bit too much," said Kearse, a former professional basketball player and cousin of retired NFL player Jevon Kearse.
Kearse's stomach settled down, and he ended up opening eyes during the first NFL minicamp.
The 24-year-old Kearse is one of the most interesting stories of the three-day camp. He started his college basketball career at Virginia Commonwealth, transferred to Division II Eckerd College, played a year of professional basketball in Spain, and until Tuesday, hadn't strapped on a football helmet since he was 13.
"It feels foreign, it feels strange," he said. "But I feel like with repetition, it'll be normal again."
His path to the NFL was far from ordinary.
Kearse left VCU after "butting heads" with then-coach Anthony Grant over what appeared to be conditioning issues.
During a workout in his freshman year in 2007, Kearse had to be rushed to a hospital after battling serious fatigue and uncontrollable cramping. He nearly lost his kidneys as a result of severe dehydration.
He struggled to play much more than 10 minutes a game as a freshman and then left school in the middle of his sophomore season.
Kearse landed at Eckerd College, just a couple hours from his home in Fort Myers. Fatigue and cramps followed — until a physical changed everything.
Blood tests revealed Kearse had the sickle cell trait, an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to warp into sickle shapes during intense exercise, block blood vessels and deprive vital organs and muscles of oxygen.
The trait poses less of a threat with proper awareness and education.
"It doesn't affect me too much as long as I stay hydrated and it's monitored," Kearse said. "I know how to monitor it now. Back then, when I was in high school and college, I knew nothing about it. That's why I would cramp up and pass out and have to be rushed to the hospital and all that. But now I'm aware of it and I know how to treat it, so I'm good."
Kearse played three years at Eckerd and led the team in scoring as a senior. He averaged 16.2 points and 6.0 rebounds in 2011-12 — enough to earn a contract to play overseas.
He averaged 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds last season while playing for Lan Mobel ISB in Spain.
But having grown up in a football-crazed state and idolizing NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and his famous cousin, Lance Kearse maintained thoughts of returning to the gridiron.
It became a reality after former NFL player Earnest Graham saw him play football.
"He saw me running and catching and said, 'Wow, you're pretty athletic. I'm going to try to get you a contact.' And he got me hooked up here."
It wasn't quite that simple.
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell heard scuttlebutt around the league that Kearse was looking for a workout, so he asked his scouts to check out the 240-pound tight end. An Internet search led to video evidence of his athleticism. Caldwell also called his older brother, whose sons play basketball for Nike Team Florida in Sarasota, which is near Fort Myers.
All the Team Florida coaches have followed Kearse's career.
"My brother just kind of confirmed it down there," Caldwell said. "He's a heck of an athlete. He catches the ball really well. It was really nothing for us to bring him in for a workout."
He might just stick around, too.
Aside from entrenched starter Marcedes Lewis, the Jaguars have little proven depth at the position. Jacksonville waived tight end Matt Veldman on Tuesday, leaving Lewis and five others vying for three roster spots.
"I'm not trying to say that I'm coming for anyone's spot or anything, but I'm going to come out here and compete just like everybody else is going to come out here and compete," said Kearse, who has no other NFL tryouts scheduled. "Hopefully I'll make the team."
Even with that queasy start, Kearse has no plans of turning back.
"It feels good. It feels perfect. It feels like I belong," he said.