Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”
It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.
Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”
A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.
Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.
And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.
“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”
True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.
No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.
Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.
“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”
The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.
“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”
Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”
Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”
But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”
— Blue Dragon Sports (@bluedragonsport) November 12, 2014
Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”
It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.
It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”
“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”
At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”
Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”
Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”
Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?
Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”
Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.
“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy. … He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”
Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.
Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.
“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.
Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”
And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”
He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.
It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.
It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”
After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”
Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.
So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.
“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.
“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”
A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”
Musician Kid Rock, who is both the “KING OF DETROIT LOVE” and the creator of “Sweet Home Alabama,” said he is not racist because “I LOVE BLACK PEOPLE.” Right-wing radio host The White House, whose high-profile occupant believes the human body has “finite amount of energy,” went into lockdown after a yoga mat was thrown over the north fence. Cable morning show Fox & Friends, once compared to a children’s show by The New York Times, compared Sept. 11 memorials to those of the Confederacy. New Orleans Saints running back Adrian Peterson, who averaged just 2.5 yards per carry during the preseason and 1.9 per carry last season, said he wanted to run the ball up the Minnesota Vikings’ “Donkey” after rushing for 18 yards on six carries. An employee of the Chelan County (Washington) Emergency Management Department posted a meme of a stick figure being run over by a vehicle with the headline “ALL LIVES SPLATTER.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was caught “liking” graphic pornography on his official Twitter account; the senator’s communications team said the “offensive tweet” was “posted” to Cruz’s account despite that not being how likes work on the social media platform.
Musician and habitual line-stepper R. Kelly attempted to promote new music by tweeting a message that said, “All it takes is one ‘yes’ to change your life” followed by a graphic of repeating “Noes” with a “Yes” nestled in the middle. A student loan refinancing company reportedly maintained a work environment where the (former) CEO slept with multiple employees who were not his wife; an executive drunkenly crashed his car after sexting a subordinate; and where colleagues had sex in parking lots and public restrooms, where multiple toilet seats had to be replaced. A separate company, once again proving you never eat at the company potluck, had one employee stop breathing and others fall severely ill after they ate a shrimp casserole. Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, definitely not mad online, released a new NBA Finals-themed shoe that includes every critique directed at him over the past year imprinted on the insoles. Former NFL wide receiver Steve Smith,
who had 2,641 yards and 12 touchdowns in his six-year career, was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because voters confused him with five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith Sr. Black conservative radio host Larry Elder, who once tweeted, “The welfare state has done more to destroy the black family than did slavery and Jim Crow,” tweeted, without a hint of irony, that “ ‘Uncle Tom’ is a more destructive pejorative than ‘n—–.’ The latter is an insult. The former stops blacks from independent thinking.”
The White House misspelled African-American Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s name as “Tom.” The Minnesota Vikings, a team that built a new stadium that kills a lot of birds, hired an 18-year-old author and public speaker to serve as its “Gen Z Advisor.” The New York media is upset that professional dancers and part-time athletes Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Westbrook had a dance-off during a live Wyclef Jean performance. A day after Kid Rock told protesters in his hometown they “can protest deez nuts,” the Detroit Lions declined to comment on a season-ticket holder posting a photo of two African-American fans on his Facebook page with the caption “Ignorant n—–s.” A Shelby County (Tennessee) strip club, where in 2016 a man was shot in a restroom and left a paraplegic, turned out to be illegally owned by the county, a new lawsuit revealed; the establishment, formally named Babes of Babylon, was ordered shut down in 2011 after “drugs, assaults, and prostitution got so bad at the club.” Retired boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., outside of the strip club he owns in Las Vegas, told an inanimate Hispanic puppet that he has seven girlfriends because “having one is too close to having none.” Hawaii walk-on quarterback Hunter Hughes had to twerk to the sounds of a trombone at a WWE event to earn a full athletic scholarship.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who employed Michael Vick when the quarterback was released from prison after a dogfighting conviction, Riley Cooper after the receiver was caught on camera saying, “I will fight every n—– here,” and Wendell Smallwood after the running back was arrested for witness tampering related to a murder case, said he wouldn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because “I don’t think anybody who is protesting the national anthem … is very respectful.” Peterson, still not letting it go, said he “didn’t sign up for nine snaps” when he signed with the Saints this season despite the team already having a starting running back and a quarterback who threw for more than 5,200 yards last year. Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, best known for repeatedly stating, “I’m here so I won’t get fined,” was fined $12,000 for “raising the middle finger on both hands” during last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans. Trump once called his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, disloyal and an “idiot” and told him to resign after a special counsel was appointed to lead the Russian investigation earlier this year. Wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, who recently was awarded $31 million for a sex tape he willingly participated in, called those without water and power in Florida because of Hurricane Irma “crybabies.”
Two weeks after being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has had only 13 days to learn the playbook and plays a different style from starter Andrew Luck, is expected to start for the 0-1 team. A former St. Louis police officer who reportedly yelled that he was “going to kill this m—–f—–” before fatally shooting an unarmed black man was found not guilty of first-degree murder. In completely unequivocally unrelated news, Kaepernick was named the NFL Players Association’s Community MVP after the first week of the season. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon wears no fewer than three shirts at all times; “Never two. N-e-v-e-r t-w-o,” his spokesperson said. Police officers in a Chicago suburb sold $10 raffle tickets at a Labor Day festival for the chance to win an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle; the town banned assault weapons in 2013.
“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.”
— Hans Christian Andersen
In a month, the National Football League training camps will open, and I will imagine wide-eyed fans crawling onto the laps of storytellers to hear the old tales animated by new names.
This year, as always, players once deemed too slow, too small or too inexperienced will emerge as too determined to be denied. This year, as always, can’t-miss prospects, winners of what a Connecticut barber once called the genetic lotto, will fail to cash in on their talents. And this year, as always, players and fans hope their season will end with their index fingers in the air, proclaiming to the world, “We’re No. 1.”
This year, curses will be lifted. The chosen will lead their teams toward the promised land. Curses will also endure and fans, spurred by the mouse-click mob of social media, will exile players and teams who disappoint them to Palookaville.
This year, as always, to get ready for some football, fans and the sports media must get ready for the ways the crosscurrents of our roiling society flow through the game. Stark questions will be posed anew: How much will the players, largely African-American, be able to freely express themselves in celebration or in protest? Which transgressions will be shrugged off or punished? Who will be banished from the games? And which prodigals will be welcomed back to the playing fields, just so long as they can play at high levels?
NFL football, the nation’s defining pastime, brutal and unforgiving, is a serious game based upon acquiring turf and defending it with blood, sweat and tears.
And no matter how productive, respected and celebrated they have been, the players are expendable and disposable, just like most other American workers. All of them. All the time. Sid Luckman to Peyton Manning.
The NFL, with its long-term contracts not fully guaranteed, is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, a game where few players control their futures. The games grind the players to dust. And too many players throw what’s left of their spent selves to the wind.
It’s as if they sing lines from “Going Down Slow,” a blues song whose lyrics change depending upon who sings it, though the meaning remains the same. It’s a song of rueful dissipation: I have had my fun if I never get well no more/All of my health is failing/Lord, I’m going down slow.
But none of that matters to those who love the game. The magic moments matter, the great catches, the exhilarating runs and the game-saving tackles. The roar of the adoring crowds matter. And, more than anything, the championships matter.
In each era, star players move through space in signature ways: Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, Joe Montana and Barry Sanders, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson. When the players move, the fans ride with them, spiraling through the air as if perched on one of Warren Moon’s pretty passes.
As always, as we look to the opening of training camps, the NFL football world turns on an axis of expectation. Anything can happen.
With a championship to win or defend, players begin each season as potential heroes in a modern fairy tale. But only the Super Bowl winners get to live happily ever after, at least until the next season.
Are you and your index fingers ready?
Clinton Yates is not here today. He’s nursing injuries after receiving a “Stone Cold Stunner” last night.
We’re talking rasslin’ today. Sunday night was the 33rd edition of WWE’s WrestleMania, and it was quite the (SEVEN-HOUR) show. Tinashe performed “America the Beautiful,” New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski trucked a guy, and former ESPYS host John Cena proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Nikki Bella. Also, we saw the last match of 30-year veteran The Undertaker. For the melanin crowd, all-black group The New Day was an excellent host, and Naomi became the first African-American to win a women’s championship at WrestleMania.
The rich get richer. The Patriots won the Super Bowl two months ago and arguably won free agency in March, and quarterback Tom Brady says he can play another six or seven seasons. So how could things get any better? ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports former MVP running back Adrian Peterson is set to visit the Patriots on Monday. Keep in mind, New England had the highest-scoring running back in the league last season (LeGarrette Blount) and could possibly upgrade at the position by bringing in Peterson. The man they call “All Day” may be getting up there in age (he turned 32 two weeks ago), but he’s defied the “old running back” trope before.
Kendrick Lamar and the “male gaze.” Grammy-winning artist Kendrick Lamar released his new single “Humble” late last week to much critical acclaim. Then lyrics to the song were further deconstructed over the weekend, and Lamar’s lines about being “sick and tired of the Photoshop” and preferring women with “somethin’ natural like Afro on Richard Pryor” were put on blast. Look, sometimes social media can overreact to rap lyrics, but this isn’t the case. Everyone’s entitled to their personal preferences, but Lamar and his (predominantly male) defenders need to learn one important lesson: Men should never tell women how they should look. Period.
1. Ghost in the Shell bombed at the box office this weekend. Surprise, surprise.
2. Many casualties and injuries after Russia metro explosion.
3. The University of Missouri is shutting down three residence halls because of “low freshman enrollment.” Will be interesting to see how much the student protests from 2015 had to do with the low numbers.
4. Major League Baseball Opening Day + NCAA men’s national championship = great sports day.