ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The first time Calvin Ridley met Jerry Jeudy, the future Falcons receiver was preparing to look at colleges.
The University of Alabama and University of Tennessee were among the schools on the itinerary as Ridley joined his high school coach and several of his high school teammates for a road trip from South Florida. Ridley had just completed his sophomore season at Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, a suburb 15 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.
Ridley knew Jerry's older brother, Terry, from playing little-league football, but he didn't know Jerry, who hadn't started high school at the time of the road trip. He joined the older boys for the trip anyway, hurrying home to grab his stuff to be able to go on the trip.
Jeudy remembers having to sit on the floor of the van in order to be able to join, but he didn't care. He had a goal in mind — one that seems quite simple as he reflects on it now.
"I wanted to go to college to play football, too," Jeudy says.
He did that — and more — as he carved a path from South Florida to Alabama to being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Ridley followed that same path, just two years ahead of Jeudy. Ridley also attended Alabama and was slected with the 26th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
At the time of the road trip, though, they were all just young men with dreams of playing at the next level — and they soon became inseparable.
"He clicked with us," Ridley says. "From that day, he was locked in with us. He came wherever we went. He was like a little bro — the youngest out of everyone."
Jeudy and Ridley will be reunited this weekend in Atlanta as the Broncos travel to face the Falcons, and Jeudy may have the chance to face off against the player who he credits for helping him develop his trademarked route-running ability.
The mentorship began years ago, as Ridley saw Jeudy's potential early in his high school career.
"When he got to ninth grade, he started playing JV [junior varsity], and man, I'd go to JV just to watch him," Ridley says. "He'd score two, three touchdowns a game. Then finally, sophomore year, he came up to play with us and that's when he bloomed. He was just exciting. He was exciting to watch. And he loves football. He put in the work. He was willing to put in the work and learn and watch and listen. That's what he did. He was really good."
Ridley says he could tell as early as Jeudy's sophomore year of high school that he was destined for the NFL, in part because of his raw talent and in part because of his study habits.
"His game has obviously gotten better, but it's still kind of the same as when he was in high school," Ridley says "He made a lot of great plays. I've seen him do a lot. And we've played with some ballers. Where I'm from, there's some good players. We've seen a lot. We don't get surprised too much by stuff. I know he can do pretty much anything, so I'm not surprised by what he's doing or what he will do."
Jeudy followed Ridley to Alabama, though his decision was less about replicating Ridley's path as it was to follow a "gut feeling," Jeudy says. Jeudy did appreciate having a familiar face in the Crimson Tide locker room, though, and he eventually surpassed Ridley in several statistical categories, including career receiving touchdowns and single-season receiving yards.
"He saw an opportunity," Ridley says. "He wanted to win. Amari Cooper, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley — he wanted to be one of the great Alabama receivers, which he is now. First-round draft pick, and he won a [championship]. He's doing pretty good for himself."
As Jeudy was busy winning the 2018 Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, Ridley was making waves as an NFL rookie. He caught 10 touchdowns as a first-year player for the Falcons and again set a lofty standard for Jeudy to meet.
"He just showed me that I could do the same thing," Jeudy says of Ridley's rookie year. "When we were in college, he did what he did. Then when I came into college, I followed in his footsteps and did what he did. So seeing him do that his rookie year, I felt like i could do the same thing going in. That had a big influence on me."
The two Alabama products were in close communication ahead of this year's NFL Draft and worked out together on several occasions. Ridley says Jeudy should've been picked higher than No. 15 — the Broncos are certainly glad he wasn't — but admits it's amazing for another player from South Florida to find that level of success.
"I'm very, very proud of him," Ridley says. "He deserves everything that he got."
Jeudy and Ridley text nearly every day and talk on the phone often, which allows Jeudy to ask questions about the league and for Ridley to check in on Jeudy, whom he treats as if he's his own little brother. Ridley has had to remind Jeudy that the NFL is "a little different" than Alabama, where the two receivers were used to winning nearly every game. Ridley says he's told Jeudy to "just keep ballin', and things are going to get better." Jeudy, who also considers Ridley to be like family, certainly did so in Week 8.
Jeudy posted a career high 73 receiving yards and was targeted a team-high 10 times in a win over the Chargers. Jeudy now has 23 catches for 359 yards and a touchdown on the season.
"He doesn't have a choice," Ridley says. "He's from Florida. He has people watching him. There's an expectation. He has to play good. I know he knows that, and that's what he lives by."
Jeudy will aim to post his best game yet in Atlanta as he reunites with both Ridley and former 'Bama standout Julio Jones. Ridley is questionable to play with an ankle injury, but if he plays, it's quite feasible the top three receivers in the game could all be former members of the Crimson Tide.
"I wish them the best," Jeudy says. "I wish they have 300 yards receiving and five touchdowns — but with a loss."
No matter the result, Sunday's game will be the latest step in a lifetime of parallels for Ridley and Jeudy. And it will also be the latest time that Ridley will swell with pride at what Jeudy has accomplished.
"He was a guy that was always with us, always with me," Ridley says. "To see him make it, it feels good. We want all the guys we hang out with to make it. He did it. He didn't just let his time pass and let his opportunity fly by.
"He took advantage of his opportunity."