The homemade signs greeted Eric Decker the moment he stepped on the field.
"D-I?" they read.
The pride of Cold Spring, Minnesota's Rocori High entered enemy territory with a target on his back -- a scholarship to play Division I football. And rival fans made sure Decker knew he didn't deserve it.
"Everyone was just dogging him like, yeah, he's good, but there's no way he's a D-I player," Kirby Hemmesch, Decker's childhood friend and former Rocori teammate, said in a recent phone interview with Newsday. "And you could kind of see the fire in his eyes like, 'Oh, yeah? I'm going to show you.'
"If you doubt him, you're just throwing gas on the fire," Hemmesch said, laughing. "He's going to work his butt off and he's going to try every minute to show you that he belongs and he deserves everything he has."
That intensity was cultivated in Cold Spring, a rural town with three stoplights and about 4,000 people 77 miles northwest of Minneapolis. It's where Decker, 27, learned the value of family and the importance of hard work. That burning desire to succeed followed him all the way to Florham Park, New Jersey, after the former Bronco signed a five-year, $36.25-million deal with the Jets this past offseason.
His competitive spirit drives everything he does -- from snapping at his receivers coach for pulling him out for a play during the Jets' intrasquad scrimmage to being bitter about losing in the final round of a team-only ping pong tournament.
He's not immune to caustic critiques. But the negative comments don't overwhelm him.
They fuel him.
"I've heard all the question marks. There's no way around it because of social media," Decker told Newsday. "I'll take some snapshots of some tweets or some stories that are negative, or even some quotes, and use them as motivation. 'This is what people are saying -- and I'll prove them wrong.' ''
He isn't interested in laying claim to the "No. 1 receiver" role with the Jets ("I'm not looking to be a savior," he said). But don't let that fool you. Decker has high expectations for this team -- and himself.
He's always been that way. Thanks to Cold Spring.
"He was the best at everything growing up," Hemmesch said of Decker, who played Big Ten football for Minnesota before the Broncos drafted him 87th overall in 2010. "And then all of a sudden, he's catching 13 touchdown passes a season from Peyton Manning and he's married to a country music singer -- and it's like, 'Whoa. What happened here?'
"It's pretty tough to wrap your mind around the fact that the little kid from Cold Spring blew up on us."
The simple life
Everything you get, you have to earn.
It's a simple tenet, but it's the basis of who Decker is as a person and player.
Long before he was catching passes from Manning, starring in a reality TV show with his country-pop star wife, Jessie James Decker, and posing for magazine spreads, Decker was just a small-town guy determined to prove doubters wrong.
He was never the flashy type, nor was he someone who sought the spotlight. Before he was ever featured in a Visa commercial with his wife or named the newest brand ambassador for Starter and one of the new faces of the "Buffalo Pro" marketing campaign, he would get so flustered by reporters that he'd mumble his words.
Even now, Decker checks Twitter and texts Hemmesch, who still lives in Cold Spring, for the latest Rocori football and baseball scores.
Decker's surroundings may have changed, but his appreciation for the simple life hasn't.
The memories came flooding back as Jessie James Decker recalled the early stages of their relationship during the 2011 offseason: The "old" 2009 silver Chevy Tahoe Decker used to drive. His refusal to stay anywhere but the Holiday Inn. And his insistence on going "dutch" by paying separately for everything.
"I even offered him gas money at one point because, I didn't know, I thought he didn't have any money,'' she said with a giggle. "And he was really frugal . . . He was not that [celebrity] guy at all.''
And while his surroundings have changed, Decker's appreciation for the simple life hasn't.
"I think it would be really hard to grow up in a place for 18 years of your life and not still care about it and love it," said his wife, who gave birth in March to the couple's first child, Vivianne Rose Decker. "All I've seen with Eric is just pure love and giving back. He's always going to care about and love his hometown and he always will."
She saw her husband's humble beginnings just seven or eight weeks into their relationship during an impromptu trip to Cold Spring. "It was precious," Jessie James Decker said. "I met his sweet grandmother, who was five seconds up the road. I got to see his school. I got to see everything about him, within, you know, 15 minutes of a moped ride.
" . . . That's the smallest town I've ever seen," said the self-described military girl, who moved 14 times and grew up primarily in the South.
And those small-town roots have served her husband well in the big city.
Decker -- who was playfully referred to as "GQ" by his Denver teammates -- appreciates the passion of Jets fans and respects their tell-it-like-it-is honesty.
"I do feel that sense of fitting in here because of that hard-working, you-earn-your-keep mentality," he said.
And Decker is determined to prove he's worth every penny.
"Sometimes someone of that stature thinks they've arrived in every aspect. But he's still willing to get better at everything," Jets receivers coach Sanjay Lal said of Decker. "That's why it's fun coaching him."
Lal witnessed Decker's trademark intensity firsthand this summer after he pulled the receiver for a red-zone play during their Green and White scrimmage. Coaches always try to "save guys' legs" during training camp, Lal said. But Decker wasn't satisfied with the explanation.
"And he comes over with these big, intense eyes and he was like: 'Why did you pull me out? This is red zone. This is my zone.' And that's what you want as a coach," said Lal, who had his eye on Decker since 2010, when he was the Raiders' receivers coach.
Decker couldn't run the 40-yard dash because he was recovering from a foot injury. That "disqualified him" from Oakland's draft board, Lal said, because at the time, the Raiders were interested only in receivers who could run a 4.4 or faster. "But when we evaluated him, we realized this guy is going to be a solid pro."
But Decker doesn't leave that competitive spirit on the field.
He's still ticked off about losing to punter Ryan Quigley in their training camp ping pong tournament. Decker may be quiet, but he's garnered a reputation as one of the Jets' biggest trash-talkers. "He's got a little macho-ness about him,'' Sheldon Richardson said, smiling. "We all crack jokes, and when new guys come in and they say something back, it surprises you. He does talk trash. And it's totally accepted.''
But for Quigley, Decker's loud-mouth ways made victory all the more sweet.
"Everybody in here is really competitive, but Decker, you can tell he takes any kind of competition seriously,'' said Quigley, who received a golden paddle as his tournament prize. "Just the look of defeat on his face . . . Every time I saw him after that, I just kept saying, 'Good game, man. Good game.' And you could tell that was the last thing he wanted to hear.''
The Jets installed a ping pong table at their facility this offseason and, naturally, Decker wanted a rematch. He won this time -- in overtime.
"He thinks he should get the paddle now, but no,'' Quigley said. "You need to do it when the lights are on and people are watching.''